Attitudes in Global South Tilt Towards China at Expense of U.S.

Recent public opinion polls from countries in the Global South point to a slight shift in attitudes vis-a-vis China and the U.S. By small but significant margins, a growing number of people in many of these countries appear to favor China over the U.S. This appears due at least as much to perceptions that the U.S. government has been hypocritical over Israel’s war in Gaza and lacks a compelling global vision for the future as to China’s increasingly active diplomatic engagement around the world. To some, the surveys merely show a snapshot in time; for others, they reflect a deeper trend of global disillusionment with the “U.S.-led international order.” China is happy to exploit this advantage either way.

On Monday, Samuel Wendel from Washington-based news site Al-Monitor released a poll showing that among Middle Eastern countries, support for China has increased while support for the U.S. has decreased across numerous metrics amid Israel’s war in Gaza:

The Global Politics Survey, which polled 2,670 respondents across Egypt, Iraq, Tunisia and Turkey, was conducted by Al-Monitor in partnership with data and analytics firm Premise between March 4 and March 22, 2024. When asked which world leader respondents view most favorably between Putin, Biden and Chinese President Xi Jinping, a plurality of 44.4% chose Russia’s leader, compared to 21.7% for America’s commander in chief [and 33.8% for China’s Xi Jinping]. For context, an October 2023 poll by the Arab American Institute found Biden’s support among Arab American voters had fallen from 59% in 2020 to just 17%.

[…] Respondents were divided on which country they believe will be the most influential in the Middle East 10 years from now: the United States (29%) is in a dead heat with China (28.9%) and ahead of Russia (23.3%).

[…] When asked which nation or nations they’d like to see their government forge closer ties with, China led at 43.2%, followed by Russia at 39.7% and 29.7% for the United States. [Source]

Gaza is having a similar effect in other parts of the Global South, as well. Last week, the ASEAN Studies Centre at ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute published its annual State of Southeast Asia 2024 Survey, based on responses from almost 2,000 Southeast Asians from a variety of professional backgrounds. The survey showed a notable drop in U.S. influence and an increase in favorable opinions of China, in correlation with widespread criticism of Israel’s war in Gaza:

Israel-Hamas conflict (46.5%) and aggressive behaviour in the South China Sea (39.9%) are the region’s top geopolitical concerns followed by the Russia-Ukraine war (39.4%), and global scam operations (39.4%) tied at third place. Implications arising from the January 2024 Taiwan elections is ranked last (7.6%). 

A large [plurality, 41.8%,] of Southeast Asia respondents are concerned that Israel’s attack on Gaza has gone too far. Rise in extremist activities (29.7%), diminished trust in international law and rules-based order (27.5%), and erosion of domestic social cohesion (17.5%) are the most serious impacts of the Israel-Hamas conflict on Southeast Asia.

[…] China continues to be seen as the most influential economic (59.5%) and political-strategic (43.9%) power in the region, outpacing the US by significant margins in both domains. Among ASEAN’s eleven Dialogue Partners, China (mean score of 8.98 out of 11.0) tops the charts in terms of strategic relevance to ASEAN, followed by the US (8.79), and Japan (7.48). The partners of least strategic relevance are: India (5.04), Canada (3.81) and New Zealand (3.70).

[…] China has edged past the US to become the prevailing choice (50.5%) if the region were forced to align itself in the on-going US-China rivalry. The US as a choice dropped from 61.1% in the previous year to 49.5%. Close to half of the respondents (46.8%) believe that ASEAN should enhance its resilience and unity to fend off pressures from the two major powers. [Source]

In an article touting the survey results, Chinese state-media news outlet CGTN  quoted Danny Quah, dean of the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy at the National University of Singapore, who said that U.S. actions in recent years have shaken Southeast Asians’ perceptions of American values and U.S. rule of law. Also quoted was Wu Xinbo, dean of the School of International Studies at Fudan University, who said, “To some extent, damage to America’s international reputation caused by the Gaza conflict is no less than the Iraq war.”

Sebastian Strangio, Southeast Asia editor for The Diplomat, concurred somewhat. He wrote that the survey “speaks to the extent that the Israel-Palestine conflict is politically salient in Southeast Asia’s Muslim-majority nations, the depth of the global outrage at Israel’s relentless attack on Gaza’s civilian population, and the way that this has infected perceptions of the U.S. and undermined Washington’s claim that it is defending a free and open ‘rules-based international order.’”

That said, Strangio, Quah, and others noted the limitations of the ASEAN survey. Quah told Nikkei Asia that the underlying data may be “more like a seesaw pattern than a trend.” Sharon Seah, the lead author of the report, wrote: “Perhaps the tide of sentiment has shifted toward China as the more consequential relationship for the region, but it remains to be seen whether the recent trend of diminishing regard for the U.S.’s strategic partnership will mark a sea change in regional geopolitics.”

In fact, Seah underlined that a key takeaway “is that as the geopolitical environment becomes more volatile, the [ASEAN] region is looking to enhance its internal resilience” in order to “fend off pressure from the two major powers.” Elaborating on this idea of agency, the U.S. Institute of Peace has published a series of essays on how ASEAN countries are responding to the U.S.-China great-power rivalry, highlighting the fact that many ASEAN countries hedge between both superpowers. Two recent pieces in this series focus on Myanmar and Singapore.

On Monday, The Economist published a piece arguing that it is not clear whether China or any country has a real mandate to lead the Global South. However, the article presented an index of states’ “formal bilateral influence capacity” over the G77 (or, as its explanatory graph is titled, “how to win friends”), which shows that China is forecast to eclipse the U.S. over the next two decades, based on their current trajectories:

China wields the most influence in 31 countries. Its clout is greatest in Pakistan, Bangladesh, Russia and several states in South-East Asia. By contrast the next-most powerful member of the global south, India, is top dog with only six G77 members. According to an earlier analysis by [the index creator, the Pardee Centre for International Futures], from 1992 to 2020 the number of countries over which China had more influence than America almost doubled, from 33 to 61. The United States remains pre-eminent in the Americas. But China has extended its influence in Africa and Asia. [Source]

At the moment, “China is winning the diplomacy race,” as Ryan Neelam wrote last month in an op-ed at The Financial Times. He noted that as of late 2023, China had more diplomatic posts (274) than the U.S. (271), and a larger diplomatic footprint than the U.S. in Africa (60:56 diplomatic posts), north-east and south-east Asia (44:27), the Pacific Islands (9:8), and central Asia (7:6). Neelam argued that China’s diplomatic advantage is particularly influential given that Global South countries generally prefer neutrality and distrust the existing Western-led order:

But while [the “liberal international rules-based order”] still holds sway in the west, it isn’t a central guiding force in much of the developing world. Many of these countries take a more pragmatic approach to balancing their interests. Most seek to avoid overtly choosing between the superpowers.

Diplomatic networks matter most in these countries. For them, a foreign post symbolises commitment and investment. Without an on-the-ground presence, it is harder for an external power to cultivate deep relationships with decision makers. In this light, the relative regional weight of the US and China’s diplomatic networks is revealing.

[…] Ultimately, diplomacy is a long game: it is an investment in relationships with a view to exerting influence when it counts. In regions that have become used to being courted by great powers, consistency matters.

Here, China has an inherent advantage. It has been able to steadily direct diplomatic resources into regions of strategic importance over time, without the ebb and flow of attention that has sometimes hampered the influence of liberal democracies, which are more susceptible to shifts in political priorities. [Source]

For a number of analysts, China’s edge in public perception in the Global South must be seen in contrast to the problems with the Western-led order. Steve Tsang made this point on Monday’s episode of the China-MENA podcast with Jonathan Fulton, when discussing how countries will react to China’s foreign policy and its vision for the future: 

The Chinese approach has a lot of problems there, but the problems that the Chinese system projects need to be contextualized against the problems that the Western-led world order also have. We also have a lot of problems ourselves. The moral superiority of the democratic countries that was widely assumed earlier on in the original Cold War has largely disappeared. That’s partly because we have seen democratic regressions in some leading Western countries. […] It’s also because the expectations in countries in the so-called Global South have changed. Previously, people were much more willing and prepared to accept that the standards being set by the Western democracies were the gold standard, and often we [now] have countries in the Global South which don’t do that [anymore].

[…That China represents a better future for the world is] the message Xi Jinping is putting through to the Global South, and he is getting much greater buy-in than we generally are willing to acknowledge. [Source]

Cobus van Staden made a similar point on a podcast episode of the China-Global South Project last month, in which he argued that China’s strategic advantage in the Global South lies partly in its future-oriented vision that the U.S. political establishment lacks:

[O]n both sides of the U.S. [2024 presidential] election, both on the MAGA side and on the side of the Democratic Party, the visions are essentially nostalgic. Essentially, they’re looking backwards. On the MAGA side to a made-up version of the 1950s and on the Democratic side to the New Deal, and trying to reclaim some of these advantages that have been lost over time due to neo-liberalization in the U.S. I think that is a moment we’re in, in the Global North in general.

There isn’t much optimistic engagement with the future. There’s a lot of gloom about the future. And as part of that, a lot of popular, hearkening back to different kinds of emergent pasts. China doesn’t have any fun past to look back on. China’s own past was rough. And so, in many ways it is more future-oriented for that reason. And I think in lots of ways, it’s on the same page as the Global South, too, because the Global South, in general, has such young populations. So, just the absence of any kind of articulated future vision, even if [China’s] is, as you say, completely vaporware, just simply the fact that there is none of it, or very little of it coming out of the U.S.—beyond enclaves within high corporate environments like futuristic AI or like CRISPR-style gene editing, that kind of stuff. There’s a futurity there, but it’s very much behind the high walls of Google, for example, right? It’s not shared. It’s not a shared future.—I think that it plays out domestically within Europe and the U.S. and it also then spreads to the rest of the world. [Source]

Even in public opinion polls within the U.S., China has gained ground while the U.S. has slipped. A Gallup poll published last month found that “China’s 20% favorable rating this year is up from 15% in 2023,” and that “[t]he 5% naming the United States as the nation’s [own] greatest enemy is the highest Gallup has recorded since first asking this question in 2001.”

As far back as early November, Michael Birnbaum from The Washington Post warned that countries in the Global South would deem the U.S. “complicit” in Israel’s abuses in Gaza and thereby see China more favorably:

The anger toward Washington has given Russia and China an opening to portray themselves as defenders of Palestinians, boosting their image in the developing world and using their propaganda outlets to amplify the connection between the United States and Israeli actions in Gaza.

[…] “There’s something happening in terms of the reaction to this crisis that is unlike anything I can remember in recent years, maybe even dating back to the Gulf War and other episodes of U.S. policy in the Middle East,” said Suzanne Maloney, director of the foreign policy program at the Brookings Institution.

“There’s a sense” in the developing world that there is a “double standard in terms of victims,” she said …. [Source]


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