When China announced plans to launch an Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2015, the United States chose a response reminiscent of its Cold War playbook. It cast doubt on China’s intentions and leaned on other nations not to get involved. The result was no different from the Cold War era too—nations, including close allies of the United States, signed on to the initiative—awarding China a significant symbolic victory before any tangible work had even been accomplished.
A new book places China at the center of an underexplored aspect of the Cold War: the competition for influence in the “third world” between China and United States. Written by Gregg Brazinsky at George Washington University, Winning the Third World relies on previously unpublished archive materials from both countries. Far from last century’s history, the book illuminates the remarkable continuities in both countries’ foreign policies.
Structurally, the book sets a hard challenge for itself, having to balance the two principal nations, the domestic politics that affect and are affected by foreign developments, the third countries involved, and the competing pressures for chronological order and thematic sweep. Surprisingly little time is spent articulating a clear definition of what influence is, how it is acquired, and how it is used. The result is several hundred pages of activity and few of context. While there were undoubtedly strong ideological motivations, the CCP’s pursuit of influence during the Cold War cannot avoid the reality that it was also a quest for external recognition and the domestic legitimacy it would bring. After all, it would not be until 1971 that the Beijing would replace Taipei as occupant of China’s seat at the United Nations.
A chief lesson of this history is that American denial and fear of China’s ascendance is not a strategy. Long before the CCP controlled the mainland, Mao saw his revolution in global terms. American diplomats were less sure. In 1930, the ambassador at the time, Nelson Johnson, suggested the communist label was,
intended—ludicrously enough—chiefly as a badge of respectability in the hope of being classed as something above the category of common brigands.
By the 1944, American diplomats in China no longer doubted the CCP’s staying power and were meeting with Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and others. Washington however disagreed, continuing to support the Nationalists.
Brazinsky portrays United States policy towards China up until Nixon and Kissinger as unduly reactive. This was borne out of its refusal to recognize the communists as China’s legitimate rulers. Unable to accept the subsequent Communist victory, the United States sought to deny China at every turn. At the 1954 Geneva conference meant to bring peace to Korea, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles fought for China to be excluded. His failure helped mark China’s symbolic return among the great powers. In the years that followed, American embassies would report back with dismay at each new transfer of recognition, bilateral visit, or cultural exchange between China and the rest of the world. Dulles would even demand that his diplomats attempt to prevent a troupe of Chinese acrobats from visiting Liberia. Instead of setting standards by which the world could hold China accountable, America’s short-sightedness magnified China’s incremental successes.
As regards China itself, the chief lesson comes in how that country’s domestic politics undermine its inherent advantages in attracting international support. Brazinsky’s book follows Jeremy Friedman’s 2015 Shadow Cold War, which explores Chinese and Soviet competition for influence as part of a sprawling Cold War series published by University of North Carolina Press. In many ways, the competition between the two Communist powers was more bitter than either had with America. China succeeded in many countries by portraying the Soviet Union, as a nation of white people, as incapable of truly understanding the Global South. “You are still white, but they are yellow, closer to us,” Friedman reports a delegation of Africans telling the Soviets. Ultimately, the Soviet Union had to co-opt China’s agenda to maintain its relevance.
But this ideological victory did not secure China’s status in global opinion. After reinventing itself from an exporter of revolution to a supposed defender of world peace, China’s rise in global opinion would be compromised by a combination of domestic chaos and hubris in dealings with neighbors. For all its pretensions to global leadership, Mao was willing to subvert it to serve domestic political needs. International tension “is good for us,” he remarked. “It keeps our country united.” China’s disastrous domestic Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution had just as much effect on its standing, power, and attention to the rest of the world as any of its foreign policy initiatives.
China’s international engagement has evolved the most from the Cold War era. But this is less a question of scope or intensity than it is one of sophistication. For instance, despite breathless coverage of current Chinese engagement in Africa, Brazinsky and Friedman show China was deeply involved in the region and often more successful than its more powerful rivals. China gave considerable sums of its food and treasure—as much as 7% of GDP in foreign aid in the early 1970s—even as its own people suffered. The Cold War years lack the richness of present global attitudes surveys. According to Pew, citizens of African nations have confidence in Xi Jinping that is almost twice as high as any other region. But there are also consequences for host countries, then and now. Brazinsky writes,
Although neither the United States nor China can clearly be said to have won, the competition clearly often had horrific consequences for postcolonial countries.
Despite what both countries could have constructively offered to the world, Cold War competition,
reinforced or exacerbated tensions among groups that were struggling for power, leading to political turmoil and, in some instances, violent conflict.
Today, the domestic politics and regional rivalries of countries on every continent are being upended by a resurgent Sino-American rivalry. But in contrast to the Cold War, when America’s tendency to exaggerate external threats was balanced by its self-confidence, the country today is constrained by self-doubt. The era of American inclusiveness towards China in return for it assuming the responsibilities that come with power seems to be over. With more people than ever living in democracies, Chinese foreign policy is more vulnerable than before to perceptions of undue influence and criticism of its domestic illiberalism.
One wonders if and how China’s leaders imagined the country would exercise its power once it became as strong as it is today. Brazinsky does not question the possibility that China’s pursuit of international leadership was disingenuous. Howard French, writing recently in Everything Under the Heavens, sees in China’s present behavior a country that never gave up its conception of a world made up of tributaries. If Brazinsky’s history is any guide, Chinese overconfidence will lead to eventual renewed isolation.