China Strengthens Ties with Global South to Counter Western Pressure Over Ukraine

Over the past two weeks, China has increased its engagement with countries in the Global South, partially in response to the war in Ukraine. China’s position on the war has been one of feigned neutrality in the form of “rock solid” diplomatic and propaganda support for Russia, censure directed at NATO and the U.S. for provoking the conflict, and calls to de-escalate the conflict by lifting Western sanctions against Russia. Some of these messages have resonated throughout the developing world, and China has sought to capitalize on shared interests to bolster its position.

An unusually large number of recent, high-level diplomatic interactions is one sign of China’s desire to reaffirm common ground. In quick succession, Foreign Minister Wang Yi met on different occasions with his counterparts from Zambia, Algeria, Tanzania, Somalia, Egypt, The Gambia, Niger, Pakistan, India, Afghanistan, Nepal, Russia, and Saudi Arabia, and President Xi Jinping spoke with his counterpart from South Africa. Jun Mai from the South China Morning Post described how these diplomatic interactions garnered words of affirmation for China’s position on Ukraine:

Meeting Wang in southeast China on Sunday, Algerian Foreign Minister Ramtane Lamamra called Beijing’s approach to the crisis “a correct and broad path”.

[…] Those points were repeated in Islamabad on Monday, when Wang met his Pakistani counterpart Shah Mahmood Qureshi. They also raised concern over the “spillover effect of unilateral sanctions”. Islamabad also abstained from voting on the General Assembly resolutions.

Tanzania abstained from the earlier vote [on a UN General Assembly resolution condemning Russia], and in virtual talks on Sunday, Wang and Tanzanian Foreign Minister Liberata Mulamula called for “stronger solidarity” among developing nations on the “turbulent international situation”.

Meeting Wang in Islamabad on Tuesday, Egypt’s top diplomat Sameh Shoukry opposed efforts to “pressure China” over Ukraine, according to the Chinese side.

Zambian Foreign Minister Stanley Kakubo praised China for playing a “leading role” in mediation when he met Wang in Anhui province on Saturday.

And in talks in Islamabad on Wednesday, Saudi Arabian Foreign Minister Faisal bin Farhan al-Saud agreed with Wang that all nations should “withstand external pressure” and make their own judgment on the Ukraine crisis. [Source]

These diplomatic visits follow a UN General Assembly resolution criticizing Russia for the “dire” humanitarian situation in Ukraine, on which China and a significant number of countries from the Global South abstained. Almost half of all African countries refused to vote in favor of the resolution. While there is a diversity of rationales, Hannah Ryder and Etsehiwot Kebret drew a parallel between the motivations of these African countries and those of China, which were based on “neutrality” and a desire for dialogue. Ryder and Kebret noted that all of the abstaining African countries are affiliated with the Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), a group born out of the desire to avoid commitment to either the U.S. or the Soviet Union, and in which China has observer status. The BRICS, another coalition created as a counterweight to the West, and of which China is a member, has also largely shunned the resolution and has achieved greater solidarity amid the crisis

In an analysis for The China-Africa Project, Cobus van Staden outlined several aspects of China’s repositioning in relation to the Ukraine crisis, much of which taps into Western challenges in the Global South:

In the first place, China is trying to use broad statements in support of negotiations as a way to stake out a third position that relieves the pressure to be either pro-Putin or pro-NATO. After his meeting with Ramtane Lamambra, Algeria’s Foreign Minister, Wang Yi said: “We generally agreed that there are more than two options, namely war, and sanctions, for dealing with international and regional hotspot issues, but dialogue and negotiation is the fundamental solution.”

Second, China is trying to reframe the debate from solidarity in the face of aggression towards the economic impact that this solidarity (in the form of massive sanctions and mangled supply chains) will have on the global economy. China of course has its own sanctions-related preoccupations, but it has managed to hook them to the Global South’s worries about paying for a conflict far away with spiking bread prices in their own countries. 

[…] Third, Beijing seems to be wagering that whatever outrage certain Global South constituencies feel about Russian aggression, this will be sufficiently diluted by wider misgivings about Western double standards to at least give its third position some political legs. This is arguably the most potent part of the strategy, and the one Western countries trying to build solidarity on Ukraine will find the most troublesome. 

[…] China’s emerging position seems to shrewdly hone in on twin Global South resentments: of the economic fallout from Western sanctions, and of Western pressure as a whole, no matter the specific merits of the case. This weekend, Xue Bing, China’s new Special Envoy to the Horn of Africa, struck this note too:  “Some western countries come here and tell you what and how to do it. From our discussions, I have a feeling countries are fed up with that.” [Source]

However, not all of the diplomatic meetings between China and countries from the Global South revolved around Ukraine. As Lauren Ashmore argued in The Diplomat, the meetings involved many unique African interests and mostly demonstrated China’s willingness to engage with African countries, even as some Western countries have shunned those who refused to criticize Russia:

[These] meetings did not happen in a vacuum, but rather within the bounds of both African and Chinese foreign policy goals. Yes, Ukraine and Russia featured in the discussions, as they should, but there was a great deal more on the table.

In particular, these seven countries all have differing views on the crisis. Egypt, The Gambia, Niger, Somalia, and Zambia voted in favor of Ukraine at the March 2 U.N. General Assembly session, while Tanzania and Algeria abstained (as did China). While understanding different points of view can be helpful to China in taking its own next steps, what this demonstrates is that the meetings were not conditional on African governments aligning or not aligning with China.

This is in stark contrast to how some other countries have handled recent international engagements – for example the U.K. recently cancelled a delegation’s visit to India due to the latter’s stance on Ukraine. Chinese engagement with the African continent has continued without such strings attached, making China both a consistent and unique development partner for African countries. [Source]

Indeed, China has continued courting developing countries regarding matters unrelated to Ukraine, often to strengthen economic ties and oppose Western influence. Last weekend in Nepal, Wang Yi signed deals for projects connecting Chinese and Nepalese rail and energy sectors and offered to donate another four million doses of COVID vaccines, all of which was seen as a move to compete with a large American grant recently approved by the Nepalese parliament. Last Thursday, Wang made a surprise visit to Afghanistan to discuss the Taliban’s cooperation in the Belt and Road Initiative, to denounce “the political pressure and economic sanctions on Afghanistan imposed by non-regional forces,” and to declare that China “respects the independent choices made by the Afghan people.” Behind the scenes, as Samya Kullab wrote for the Associated Press, Chinese investors have been working with Taliban officials to develop the Mes Aynak copper mine, which lies below a 2,000-year-old Buddhist city along the Silk Road and contains one of the world’s largest deposits of copper:

Ziad Rashidi, the ministry’s director of foreign relations, approached the consortium made up by MCC, China Metallurgical Group Corporation and Jiangxi Copper Ltd. Dilawar has had two virtual meetings with MCC in the last six months, according to company and ministry officials. He urged them to return to the mine, terms unchanged from the 2008 contract.

A technical committee from MCC is due in Kabul in the coming weeks to address the remaining obstacles. Relocating the artifacts is key. But MCC is also seeking to renegotiate terms, particularly to reduce taxes and slash the 19.5% royalty rate by nearly half, the percentage owed to the government per ton of copper sold.

“Chinese companies see the current situation as ideal for them. There is a lack of international competitors and a lot of support from the government side,” Rashidi said.

[…] Rashidi has also reached out to China’s CNPCI [China National Petroleum Corporation International] to revamp an oil contract to explore blocks in Amu Darya near the Turkmenistan border, terminated in 2018.

Dozens of small-scale contracts have been handed out to local investors, many of whom have joint ventures with international companies, mainly Chinese and Iranian. [Source]



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