By Lukas Fiala and Hugo Jones
Over the past week, we’ve been reading the MERICS paper “Beyond Blocs: Global views on China and US-China relations”. Its authors write on the context-specific relations that Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey each hold with the world’s two largest economies and make the important argument that, while China’s economic role is clearly growing, “few countries want to take sides in this competition”.
This reminded us of another recent essay, in which Ching Kwan Lee provides us with a framework for thinking about “Global China.” At the core of this understanding is a reflective view of who exercises power within the Chinese party-state and how this shapes different elements of Chinese foreign policy and economic statecraft. Importantly, this also includes paying attention to the interests of non-Chinese actors and how they may affect and shape Chinese policy.
Papers like these are often viewed by Western policy crowds as “alternative perspectives” or “filling a gap in the literature”. But non-binary understandings of China-Global South Relations must become more than a supposed epistemic “gap” to be plugged. We need to further recognize, build upon, and reinvest in scholarship on global China which does not revolve around simplified understandings of China and Sino-U.S. relations.
The results of the recent 2022 African Youth Survey are a good indicator. China’s diplomatic Twitter accounts have been broadcasting the headline statistic that 76% of African youth across 15 countries think China has a positive influence on their country, compared to 72% who said the same for the United States. However, this is one of the least interesting findings from the report.
More significant are the inward-looking priorities amongst African youth, according to the survey – such as growing concerns around job creation, climate change, infectious diseases, and political instability. How Chinese and American actors respond to these concerns will determine the nature of their influence and the scope of their soft power across the continent in the years to come.
Much of the youth survey’s data requires us to look beyond the headlines. 45% responded that deaths from infectious disease was the most significant event in their country over the past five years. And yet, despite China’s extensive public health diplomacy in Africa, over half of the respondents thought that COVID-19 was intentionally developed in a laboratory and spread by the Chinese government. Investing in public health and distributing vaccines in Africa is clearly more complex than a zero-sum game between China and America.
There are signs that U.S. officials are starting to change their approach. During his recent trip to Africa, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken avoided urging African counterparts to take sides amidst US-China competition, saying instead that “the United States will not dictate Africa’s choices, neither should anyone else.”
Sino-U.S. competition often comprises the core of knowledge around China’s relationship with individual countries in the Global South, whereas papers like “Beyond Blocs” are viewed as the periphery. We need to turn this knowledge ordering on its head. Global China and the Global South cannot be understood exclusively within the framework of a choice that hasn’t really been offered and nobody wants to take.