China Looking to the South: Necessity, Strategy, or Both?

This article was published by the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences on March 6, 2024. Read the Chinese version here!

By: Professor Li Xing (Distinguished professor at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies at Guangdong University of Foreign Studies and a professor in the Department of Politics and Society at Aalborg University, Denmark) and Hussein Askary (Vice-President of the Belt and Road Institute in Sweden, Distinguished Research Fellow at the Guangdong Institute for International Strategies)

Henry Kissinger once told the Foreign Affairs Minister of Chile, Gabriel Valdes: “Nothing important can come from the South. History has never been produced in the South. The axis of history starts in Moscow, goes to Bonn, crosses over to Washington, and then goes to Tokyo. What happens in the South is of no importance.” (Seymour Hersh “The Price of Power: Kissinger in the Nixon White House”, 1983)

Last year Kissinger died at the age of 100 years. It was the same year that the Global South got a new meaning with the announcement of the expansion of the group of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) to BRICS Plus. The new members added were Iran, Saudi Arabia, Egypt, the United Arab Emirates, and Ethiopia. This development has many economic, financial, and strategic implications. BRICS Plus will include two of the largest importers of oil and gas (China and India) and the largest exporters (Saudi Arabia, Russia, and Iran). The latter three have almost a third of the global reserves of oil and gas. The price of oil, which for decades have been decided by speculators in commodity markets will now be subject the economic interactions between the BRICS Plus countries through long term contracts between exporters and importers. Another element, the Petrodollar, which has reigned since the 1970s could be replaced by local countries of the member states. Strategically, the new member states are located at important choke points of global trade such as the Straits of Hormuz and Bab El-Mandab, and the Suez Canal. Financially, Saudi Arabia and the UAE boast of two of the ten largest sovereign wealth funds in the world with reserves reaching more than 2 trillion US$. Traditionally, oil revenues from the Gulf countries have been invested in Western financial, banking, and real estate assets. Now, a portion is being redirected towards productive investments in infrastructure and industry at home and in Asia and Africa.

Another important event in 2023 that highlighted the role of the Global South in the next decade was the Beijing Third Belt and Road Forum celebrating 10 years of achievements with the number of nations joining it reaching 152 and is paving the way for joint cooperation and development in the next ten years.

The Rise of the Global South

While the U.S. and the EU are still important trade partners of China, ASEAN has already overtaken their position as China largest export market. The Arab countries are well positioned to surpass the EU in trade volume with China. Africa, with 1.3 billion people, mostly under the age of 20, and projected to almost double by 2050, is rising gradually, but with the injection of industrial technologies from China, after decades of being denied to them by industrialized nations, African nations will be leapfrogging in economic development and growth.

When considering China-U.S. relations and China’s relationship to the EU, we note the observation that there is increasing frustration in China about the way the West is dealing with China and other nations in the Global South. There is an increasing debate about China reorienting towards the Global South rather than remaining committed to a relationship with the West which is becoming increasingly problematic.

One of the authors of this article, Professor Li Xing, argued in an article published recently in South China Morning Post that “China’s reformist foreign policy has predominantly focused on establishing ‘major power’ relationships with the West. Today, China should reorient its foreign policy towards the Global South.” He further emphasized that “Beijing’s proposal for ‘a community of common destiny’ must aim to bring back the Global South as its foreign policy priority. China’s continuous rise in the Global South is the most reliable stepping stone to an alternative world order.”

Why is China Looking South?

In defining the motivation for such a suggestion, we have to say that “West” as an entity has been the dominant power and rule-maker of the existing world order under which all nations are subject to both of its hard power (political, economic, military, and technological) and soft power (idea, identity, thinking, reasoning, norms, and values). The US-led Western order has been depicted as the “end of history” after the Cold War.

Surprisingly China’s rise has fundamentally challenged and changed everything that has been taken for granted in the West. For the past decade, we have watched the spreading of “the China syndrome” which is a reference to a set of symptoms characterized by psychological anxiety, emotional hysteria, and expressive demonization.

The West can at best accept China’s economic advance becoming a global manufacturer and market, which is good for the West. But the West cannot accept China becoming a rule-maker and an order-shaper. This is why during the past years China has been viewed as a revisionist systemic rival, and the rivalry between the US-led West and China is intensifying.

Theory of the Three Worlds

To be able to understand the historical background from a Chinese perspective, the two theories of the world, must be explained. First, Mao’s three-worlds theory was a geopolitical concept based on his analysis of the world situation during the Cold War era. It was articulated by Mao as part of China’s foreign policy guidelines. The theory divided the world into three spheres of power relations: 1) the first world includes the two hegemons with advanced industrialization and imperialism, i.e. The United States and The Soviet Union – China’s enemies; 2) The Second World comprises Japan, Canada, Europe and the other countries of the global North. They were U.S. allies but they also struggled to pursue their independent role in international relations, especially in their relations with China; 3) The Third World comprises China, India, the countries of Africa, Latin America, and continental Asia – the vast majority of developing countries – China was the leader of the third world and China must support the third world countries in their struggle for independence and development. The success of the theory was tremendous – The People’s Republic of China replaced the so-called ”Republic China” to be one of permanent U.N. security member in 1971. Deng Xiaoping led the first Chinese official delegation to address to the UN and he presented Mao’s three-worlds theory.

Second, after the economic reform, China was willing to be integrated into the world economy which has also three stratifications characterized by the Critical Marxist World System Theory with different wordings and groups. They were: 1) first world/core countries such as the U.S. and western European countries, who imported cheap raw materials and exported value-added goods; 2) second world/semi-peripheral countries, which are the large developing countries who were in between the two other worlds; 3) peripheral countries; poor and under-developed countries who were exporters of raw materials and importers of value-added goods. The focus of the three worlds in their interrelationships was on economic relations. The theory explains the historical and fundamental profit-logic of capitalism in terms of capital relocation, manufacturing outsourcing, trade, investment. This theory guided China to take advantage of capital mobility and division of labour to enlarge its room for manoeuvre and move upward in global supply chain.

Now the West is shocked to see that China is occupying more and more the core space of the world economy in terms of value chain, high-tech industries, and the rise of its middle-class population.

Politics in Command V. Economics in Command

This leads us to other concept, because as the economic reforms of the late 1970s took off, China’s foreign policy started to shift from ‘politics in command’ to ‘economics in command’. This transition reflected the government’s dedication to economic development and the well- being of Chinese people while also elevating the relationship with the US-led West as China’s foreign policy priority.

The concept “politics in command” was related to Mao’s three-worlds theory in the 1960s and 1970s. Given that China was totally isolated from the world economy, Mao’s theory aimed to generate power from promoting Beijing’s constructive political relationships with the developing world (today’s “Global South”), such as supporting Africa and Latin America’s independence movements and their struggle against Western imperialism and interventionism. “Economics in command” was related to the Deng Xiaoping’s reformist policy since the late 1970s. Facing a different international situation and improved China-US relations, Beijing began to change its development policy as well as foreign policy and positioned “economic development” as China’s paramount priority of its national objective. Accordingly, China actively participated in the world economy in terms of division of labour, trade, investment, finance. As a result, China’s international relations with the developing countries also transformed from rigid political logic and revolutionary calculation to economic rationality and pragmatism.

Some experts and politicians in the West argue that China “stooped to conquer”, i.e. played weak until it became economically powerful, and now when it has become all too powerful, it showed its real aggressive nature? Such a view is basically ahistorical. There is a consensus among global historians that given China was one of the dominant powers in history, unlike the colonial history of the West, China had never been an expansionist country. The famous “Zheng He” seven overseas expeditions during the Ming Dynasty, which reached as far as Eastern Africa, did not bring any colonies back to China. China is generally viewed as a historically inward-looking country. The western logic of gaining might to conquer argues that a strong nation is bound to seek hegemony. But this is not applicable to China. Looking at the current global events, such as the Ukraine War, the Gaza War, the various conflicts in the Middle East, we find a major difference in the approaches of the West and that of China. Beijing’s contributions are remarkable in international peacekeeping and in the way it brokered the normalization of diplomatic relations between Iran and Saudi Arabia last year. Peaceful diplomacy is central to China’s foreign policy doctrine. Even in the South China Sea disputes, despite China’s overwhelming superiority in military might, Beijing has not applied military power as the solution to any problem.

Keeping the Door Open to the West

However, views and statements made by President Xi Jinping, for example in the recent San Fransisco visit, and by Minister of Foreign Affairs Wang Yi might sound to be in contradiction to looking south. In his speech in the celebration of the 45th anniversary of the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and the U.S., Wang Yi said: “Today, transformation not seen in a century is unfolding across the world. China-U.S. relationship is the most important and intricate bilateral relationship in the world… Under the current circumstances, the necessity of cooperation between China and the United States is increasing not decreasing. For the two countries and the world, China-U.S. cooperation is not something dispensable or optional. It is a compulsory question that must be addressed in real earnest.”

China is not contradicting itself. It has a multi-track approach to its foreign relations. For a long period, Chinese foreign policy priority has been following such a formular “大国是关键,周边是首要,发展中国家是基础,多边是重要” — Big countries are the key, neighbouring countries are primary, developing countries are foundational and multilateralism is the playground/stage. Such a formula was absolutely correct during the past decades, which can be seen as fundamentally good strategy for China’s development and international relations. However, the current situation is totally different, China is seen as a revisionist systemic rival by the US-led West that must be contained. Xi’s global initiatives – The Belt and Road Initiative, Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, and the Global Civilization Initiative are regarded as an attempt to change the world order. But what China is doing is to but order back into a chaotic world. The West will do whatever it can to block China from achieving its goals. Whereas, the Global South countries largely resonate with these Chinese initiatives, and they benefit from the Chinese Belt and Road projects. Therefore, China should synergies its goals and aspirations with those nations that respect and participate in these initiatives. So far, the Global South has been the one most positively reacting to these, and it’s all the more natural that China orients towards the Global South.

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