We welcome a guest post today from Gregg A. Brazinsky, author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War. In the book, Brazinsky examines afresh the intense and enduring rivalry between the United State and China during the Cold War. He shows how both nations fought vigorously to establish their influence in newly independent African and Asian countries. By playing a leadership role in Asia and Africa, China hoped to regain its status in world affairs, but Americans feared that China’s history as a nonwhite, anticolonial nation would make it an even more dangerous threat in the postcolonial world than the Soviet Union. Drawing on a broad array of new archival materials from China and the United States, Brazinsky demonstrates that disrupting China’s efforts to elevate its stature became an important motive behind Washington’s use of both hard and soft power in the “Global South.”
In the following post, Brazinsky addresses this week’s international summit in Beijing to discuss Xi Jinping’s “Belt and Road” initiative.
Is China’s New World Order Really New?This week 28 heads of state are gathering in Beijing for a momentous two-day summit. The focus of the summit will be Xi Jinping’s ambitious “Belt and Road” initiative. Under the auspices of this massive program, China will invest as much as $1.4 trillion in infrastructural development projects spread across parts of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and North Africa.
Western news media covering this initiative have characterized it as a bold attempt on the part of Beijing to challenge American influence and carve out a more central role for itself in world affairs. According to NBC, some analysts have suggested that “the project could shift the center of the global economy and challenge the U.S.-led world order.” Similarly, CNN.com has published a lengthy article on “China’s New World Order” and called the summit “the latest step in China’s evolution as a global power.”
During the 1950s and 1960s, China launched a campaign to unite newly independent nations of Asia and Africa under the aegis of anti-imperialism. This meant expanding its diplomatic, cultural, and economic contacts with “Third World” countries in the face of strong American opposition.
China’s campaign to gain influence in the Third World started during the Korean War when it had normal diplomatic relations with only a few countries outside of the communist bloc. Through impressive performances at the Geneva and Bandung Conferences in 1954-1955, China was able to slowly gain the trust of India, Egypt, and some of the neutral countries of Southeast Asia, such as Cambodia and Laos.
Chinese ambitions reached their apex during the early 1960s. At the time, revolutionary insurgencies were on the rise and other countries including Indonesia and Pakistan had come to share with China an antipathy toward a world order dominated by the United States and the Soviet Union. China used these developments to strengthen its own global influence. It supported revolutionaries around the world while organizing conferences, sporting events, and associations that could provide an alternative to the U.N. and other institutions dominated by the West.
Although China’s quest to lead the Third World during the Cold War failed, some of the ideas and ambitions that drove it have persisted despite the country’s rapid economic transformation during the last forty years. The One Belt One Road initiative mirrors the objectives of Chinese Cold War diplomacy as much if not more than any desire to reconstruct the old Silk Road.
Potentially, One Belt One Road can also raise Beijing’s international profile at the expense of Washington’s. Especially with the Trump administration intent on putting “America First,” the PRC has an opportunity to promote itself as a champion of free trade and assert its global leadership. The PRC is challenging the United States more subtly than during the 1950s and 1960s but it nonetheless aims to create a new balance of economic power in which China and other non-Western countries will play a more important role.
China is likely to encounter some of the same obstacles to its ambitions that it did during the Cold War. It will continue to be challenged by the shifting politics of Southeast Asia and the Muslim world. And it is likely that the United States will eventually contest Chinese influence more vigorously. The world will have to wait and see if Beijing’s bold new effort to restructure the international order is more successful than its previous one.
Gregg A. Brazinsky is associate professor of history and international affairs at George Washington University. He is author of Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War (2017) and Nation Building in South Korea: Koreans, Americans, and the Making of a Democracy (2007). Follow him on Twitter @gbrazinsky.