Big power rivalry: Who is winning the popularity wars?

John Kampfner argues the era of rivalry has tarnished both the American and Chinese brands as many countries around the world grow increasingly wary of choosing allegiances.

Feature Published 12 January 2022 Updated 13 January 2022 8 minute READ

John Kampfner

Former Executive Director, UK in the World Initiative

Everyone, it seems, in these dark troubled times has been seeking solace where they can find it. In China, a stream of movie blockbusters has sought to shore up national pride, such as The Battle at Lake Changjin which depicts valiant men from the People’s Volunteer Army fighting in freezing wastes during the Korean War and became the country’s biggest grossing movie within days of its release on National Day.

‘How many Americans do I have to kill to be a hero?’ asks one of its protagonists. The film was so successful – even exceeding the Wolf Warrior franchise, a Chinese version of James Bond with special agents – that a sequel was immediately agreed.

A nationalist narrative is all-pervasive – particularly among the young – fuelled by growing self-confidence and by a reaction to what is seen as American bellicosity. Chatham House’s China expert Yu Jie has seen the shift personally. ‘Whenever I go back to teach classes at Peking University, I’m struck by students saying things like “why do Westerners hate us so much?”’ she says.

In the US, China is the one significant policy area on which Joe Biden has largely followed Donald Trump – albeit with more politeness. The withdrawal from Afghanistan may have been chaotic but it has removed one ‘never-ending war’ and allowed Washington to focus more of its energy on confronting China – so far with rare consensus between Democrats and Republicans.

Engagement may have been the worst strategic blunder any country has made in recent history: there is no comparable example of a great power actively fostering the rise of a peer competitor. And it is now too late to do much about it.

John Mearsheimer, Political Scientist

John Mearsheimer traces the malaise back to the ‘liberal triumphalism’ which marked the demise of Communism in the early 1990s. Back then he was almost a lone voice in warning of the dangers of a powerful China – recently he concluded an essay by predicting a ‘dangerous security competition is all but unavoidable’. He may still be a hawk but his views are now less likely to be dismissed outright.

US-China rivalry forms the backdrop for 2022, as Biden marks a difficult first anniversary as US president and as Xi Jinping prepares for his party’s congress later in the year in which he may be preparing to consolidate his power, potentially for life.

Both leaders made a first tentative foray back into diplomacy with their much-analysed video summit last autumn. But their long discussion – more an exchange of speeches – demonstrated the depth of the gulf between them. As the two big powers turn against each other and turn more inwards, how does this affect their ability to corral countries into their orbit, and the choices those countries have to make?

US Secretary of State John Kerry speaks with China's Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua and delegates at the COP21 Climate Conference in France.

China versus the US on the climate emergency

In 2021, the US and China stumbled through COVID-19 and the climate emergency. At COP26, the US climate envoy John Kerry and his Chinese counterpart Xie Zhenhua cobbled together a declaration of cooperation. Welcome though this was, it did little more than paper over the cracks – notably the inability of wealthy countries to meet a $100 billion annual target to assist developing countries, and a watering down of the final communique at the insistence of China and India. 

Meanwhile, multilateral efforts to produce a more equitable spread of vaccines to developing countries to combat the pandemic have made painfully slow progress and, at the G7 summit in Cornwall, leaders of the Group of Seven democracies sought to seize the initiative around the US proposal for a Build Back Better World (B3W) programme. 

They trumpeted it as a ‘values-driven, high-standard, and transparent infrastructure partnership’ that will ‘collectively catalyse hundreds of billions of dollars of infrastructure investment for low-and middle-income countries in the coming years.’US Secretary of State John Kerry (C) speaks with China’s Special Representative on Climate Change Xie Zhenhua (R) and delegates at the COP21 Climate Conference in Le Bourget, north of Paris, on December 12, 2015. AFP photo / Miguel Medina / AFP / via Getty Images)

The role of China’s Belt and Road Initiative

Map showing China highlighted.

Figure 1: Map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative development. Source: Asia Green

There is another way to see it – a last-minute response to the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in which China has invested, lent, or spent billions to improve countries’ infrastructure while bringing them into Beijing’s economic and political fold.

Map showing China highlighted and the overland route of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Figure 1: Map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative development. Source: Asia Green

First proposed by Xi in 2013, the idea has become his signature foreign policy endeavour with approximately 300 Chinese government institutions and state-owned enterprises so far financing 13,000-plus projects in 140 countries.

Map showing China highlighted, the overland and maritime routes of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Figure 1: Map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative development. Source: Asia Green

Examples include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor – consisting of bridges, railways, energy installations, and a redeveloped highway – an expansion of the port of Gwadar, a major gas pipeline in Nigeria, a high-speed rail link connecting Nairobi and Mombasa in Kenya, the purchase of the Greek port of Piraeus – Europe’s seventh largest – the building of bridges in Serbia, and the port development of Hambantota in Sri Lanka.

Map showing China highlighted, the overland and maritime routes, and the planned routes of the Belt and Road Initiative.

Figure 1: Map of China’s Belt and Road Initiative development. Source: Asia Green

But the overall record is mixed. Despite proclaiming health, digital, and green ‘silk roads’, the overwhelming focus is on traditional projects such as ports, roads, railways, and power plants. China typically provides development finance in the form of loans at either subsidized or market rates, but invariably with little transparency.

The role of China’s Belt and Road Initiative contd.

Contracts generally stipulate the recipient country must work with Chinese firms, purchase Chinese equipment, or guarantee commodity sales to China as a repayment. Mike Pompeo, Donald Trump’s Secretary of State, called the practices ‘predatory economic activity’.

Whatever the flaws in the Chinese offer, the US was stung into action. B3W, still in its inception phase, is making a different pitch as much by necessity as by design. The biggest difference is an emphasis on ‘good governance’. Stricter standards will result in greater scrutiny, higher up-front costs, and longer timelines, making it less competitive if judged on price alone.

Unlike the BRI’s focus on industry – often carbon-polluting heavy industry – B3W focuses on softer outcomes such as improvements in climate, health security, digital technology, and equality. Today’s contest is between two systems and, with a global infrastructure gap estimated at up to $40 trillion, there are rich pickings for both.

China versus the US in Latin America

The Americans insist this is not a zero-sum game. When visiting Colombia, Panama, and Ecuador, Deputy US National Security Adviser Daleep Singh insisted Washington was not asking the region to choose before adding: ‘We’re there to compete because we do think we have a better product’.

The BRI has been central to Beijing’s charm offensive on all continents. In Latin America, it counts Brazil and Chile among nations with which it is the leading trade partner, and it is close to achieving the same with Argentina.

Chris Sabatini, senior fellow for Latin America at Chatham House, puts some of China’s progress down to American complacency. ‘The US has been coasting since the 1990s,’ he says. When the Inter-American Development Bank and World Bank were slow to stump up cash, the Chinese stepped in. Sabatini cites several motives for China’s increasing involvement in the region. ‘They need raw materials and Latin America provides them cheaply. They want at least neutral enablers. They want help in turning multilateral institutions more in their favour.’

The Chinese play a long game. They just sit it out and wait, working from the assumption that if an existing government is more resistant, the next could be more beholden.

Dr Christopher Sabatini Senior Research Fellow for Latin America, US and the Americas Programme

Changes in government can be a problem. When Cristina Kirchner was president of Argentina, China built a space centre, railways, and oil fields but in 2015 her successor Mauricio Macri put several projects on hold.

Unlike Russia, with its long-standing links to regimes in Cuba and Venezuela, the Chinese do not want to be seen to be agitating. ‘No-one cites China as a revolutionary model,’ Sabatini says. ‘They want to be seen as the quiet alternative.’

Chart showing elaborated correlation using LAPOP questions with weighted responses. Combined responses for very trustworthy and trustworthy, very positive and positive influence, and parallel negative responses.

Source: Survey by Latin American Research Review showing elaborated correlation between attitudes towards US and China influence in Latin America with weighted responses. Combined responses for very trustworthy and trustworthy, very positive and positive influence, and parallel negative responses.

Case study: Peru

China is extremely active in Peru due largely to its mineral resources. Deals have been struck to extract copper, gold, silver, and oil, but the Peruvians have become more adept at managing contracts, emphasizing labour rights, and environmental protection. 

A sizable community of Chinese descent helped to sell the notion of China as a benign player in the region. But Peru also has close trade, military, and political ties with the US, and the Americans have been adept at allying themselves with civil society groups and against drugs cartels. For the moment, Peru appears to be managing both relationships carefully.

China versus the US in the Middle East

China has also been making significant inroads in the Middle East, exploiting disenchantment among many citizens, and offering opportunities to governments. It has signed five ‘comprehensive strategic partnerships’, with Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, Algeria, and Egypt.

China doesn’t get involved in the weeds. That’s very attractive for these regimes. They are not interested in human rights, and that is then reciprocated.

Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Turkey and Qatar, Vakil says, are the only governments to have expressed even mild misgivings about the treatment of the Uighurs, fellow Muslims, in Xinjiang. Otherwise there has been scant coverage or silence.

Hopes among younger generations were raised by then US president Barack Obama’s ‘new beginnings’ speech at Cairo University in 2009 in which he presented a softer side to US foreign policy while calling for deep-seated reforms in the Middle East.

He gave tacit backing to the ‘Arab street’ during the uprisings that followed, only for America to later side with authoritarians such as Egypt’s Abdel Fattah Al-Sisi. Obama drew ‘red lines’ in Syria but then stood by as Bashar al-Assad, backed by the Russians, deployed chemical weapons on his own people.

The US is no longer seen by many in the region as a country you can rely on.

Sanam Vakil, Deputy Director, Middle East and North Africa Programme

Despite this, few states would look favourably at a withdrawal of the US from the region. China is seen not as a replacement, but as a country which can be used as a hedge, giving governments added leverage. There is little indication that China wants to be deeply embroiled in security issues in the Middle East or to choose sides in any of the deep-rooted conflicts.

China’s influence has even grown in America’s closest regional ally Israel with Chinese state companies investing in the country’s burgeoning tech sector. Perhaps the single most important project is the development of Haifa Port by Shanghai’s International Port Group which won the tender in 2015 and began work in 2018.

Haifa is Israel’s busiest port and the base of its main naval fleet, allegedly including nuclear-armed submarines. Israel’s former prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu ignored protestations by his otherwise close ally Donald Trump to abandon the China deal.

Yet the economic and strategic progress China has made must be offset by an important but unquantifiable American asset – soft power. In the Middle East, where up to two-thirds of populations are under 35 years old, American culture remains a great pull.

Case study: UAE

The UAE provides an important bridgehead. Dubai and Abu Dhabi see themselves as the region’s Singapore, commercially agile city-states which are tightly run and attract strong international investment. But how to balance the needs of their closest strategic partner (the US) with their biggest customer (China)? 

The leadership sees clear attractions in China’s development model and its vow of ‘non-interference’ in domestic affairs. At the same time, it worries about China’s increasing links with Iran and fears long-term US security disengagement from the Middle East. The Emiratis were forced to backtrack on plans to allow the Chinese to build a military facility in a new port project after coming under strong US pressure.

China versus the US in Asia

In Asia, perhaps more than any other region due its geographical location, leaders constantly triangulate, reluctant to choose one allegiance over the other. ‘America is still the country that people want to live in,’ suggests Gareth Price, senior research fellow at Chatham House’s Asia-Pacific programme ‘but if you chose America only, you’d be left alone against China.’

Much of Chinese financing is close to home, with Asia constituting over half of the total BRI investment. Countries are attracted to the Chinese market and are unwilling to throw their lot with the US – even if psychologically they would like to – because of its foreign policy inconsistencies. Price says: ‘Nobody believes the Americans anymore when they say there are in it for the long-term. No matter what Biden might say now, Trump has shown you can end up with a more insular and less reliable partner.’

A decade ago, conferences would debate a future role for India as counterweight to China, but now that question is posed much less. In 2014, the Modi government announced its ‘act east’, more assertive Asia policy, yet there is so far little evidence India has made much headway in either ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ power.

India also has a poor record on infrastructure. Its Friendship Highway with Myanmar and Thailand – once seen as a symbol of its increasing role in the region – is expected to be partially completed in 2023, two decades after it was announced. In contrast, from Vietnam to Pakistan, China is seen as the country that gets things done.

Case study: Thailand

Thailand, the only country in Southeast Asia to have resisted colonisation, has for decades had close relations with the US. It was America’s forward station in the Vietnam War and in the war on terror. Recent events, however, have led to a recalibration. 

The Thais resented the failure of the US to come to its aid during the Asian financial crisis and, more recently, it has been the Chinese who provided vaccines and other help during COVID-19. The business community has invested heavily in China and, with neighbouring Cambodia and Laos now firmly in the Chinese camp, Thailand’s future allegiances will be pivotal.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken fist bumps Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall as he leaves their joint news conference in Dakar.

China versus the US in Africa

Perhaps it was no coincidence that US Secretary of State Antony Blinken made his first tour of Africa – to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal – on the eve of a major gathering of African and Chinese politicians and officials in the Senegalese capital Dakar. As a sign of the importance of the relationship, more African leaders attended the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation than the UN General Assembly.

Chinese foreign direct investment (FDI) in the continent has risen sharply over the past two decades, and the BRI is well-established there. Yet Alex Vines, Director of Chatham House’s Africa Programme, argues ‘Africa is pulling in all different sets of ways’ amid a determination stronger than ever for self-reliance, one reinforced by the pandemic and the inability of the wider world to rise to the vaccine challenge.US Secretary of State Antony Blinken (L) fist bumps Senegalese Foreign Minister Aissata Tall Sall (R) as he leaves their joint news conference at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Dakar on November 20, 2021, as part of Blinken’s five day trip to Kenya, Nigeria, and Senegal. (Photo by Andrew Harnik / POOL / AFP via Getty Images)

China and the US in Africa contd.

Case study: Angola

At the end of its civil war two decades ago, Angola tightly embraced China. Some 44 per cent of the country’s overall debt is to that one nation as Angola used its vast oil reserves as security for loans for infrastructure development. Recently both have been edging away from each other. China buys more oil on the spot market, such as from Brazil and Iran, while Angola has made sure not to be over-reliant politically, military or economically on any big power. 

Next year it will launch a new communications satellite with its erstwhile closest ally Russia. Current president João Lourenço has been mounting a charm offensive with the US and Europe, seeking to persuade Western governments that Angola is determined to diversify its investment partners. He is receiving a good hearing, suggesting Western rewards still count.

The future of US-China relations

It has long been self-evident to argue three reinforcing trends are at work – China’s rise, US disengagement, and global democratic decline. The facts may not have changed, as Freedom House annual surveys have attested to for more than a decade, but it may be the twin crises of the past two years are altering the context. 

Pandemic control is closely entangled with the political legitimacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Comparisons of death tolls – 750,000 in the US versus less than 5,000 officially in China – play easily into the propaganda narrative of a chaotic West. And the almost complete shutting down of international links is having an effect in China.

Chart showing favourable (43%) versus unfavourable (35%) opinions of China in the US in 2005.

Figure 2: Survey of US adults conducted 3-29 March 2020 Q5b “US views of China increasingly negative amid Coronavirus outbreak”. Source: PEW Research

Polls show young people are becoming increasingly hawkish and more willing to join the CCP.

Chart showing favourable (51%) versus unfavourable (36%) opinions of China in the US in 2011.

Figure 2: Survey of US adults conducted 3-29 March 2020 Q5b “US views of China increasingly negative amid Coronavirus outbreak”. Source: PEW Research

As Yu notes, from the financial crash onwards, ‘they’ve hardly witnessed the best of Western liberal democracy,’ 

Chart showing favourable (35%) versus unfavourable (55%) opinions of China in the US in 2014.

Figure 2: Survey of US adults conducted 3-29 March 2020 Q5b “US views of China increasingly negative amid Coronavirus outbreak”. Source: PEW Research

In the US, the same may be taking place, but in reverse. A poll conducted by the Pew Research Centre in early 2020 at the start of the lockdown suggested 66 per cent of Americans had an unfavourable view of China. 

Chart showing favourable (44%) versus unfavourable (47%) opinions of China in the US in 2017.

Figure 2: Survey of US adults conducted 3-29 March 2020 Q5b “US views of China increasingly negative amid Coronavirus outbreak”. Source: PEW Research

This has been fuelled by the long-standing Wuhan lab claim as the source of the virus. These ratings were the most negative since the survey began in 2005.

Chart showing favourable (26%) versus unfavourable (66%) opinions of China in the US in 2020.

Figure 2: Survey of US adults conducted 3-29 March 2020 Q5b “US views of China increasingly negative amid Coronavirus outbreak”. Source: PEW Research

For the moment, external image appears to count for less in China and most of Xi’s focus for 2022 will be on consolidating power, with all efforts focused on preventing a spread of the pandemic and any further destabilization of an economy already facing energy shortages.

The future of US-China relations contd.

But with Xi failing to attend both the G20 and COP26 summits and having last held a face-to-face meeting with a world leader in March 2020, many analysts point to potential longer-term isolationist tendencies. Biden tried to make capital from Xi’s absence in Glasgow, saying he had ‘walked away’ and undermined his own efforts to ‘assert a new role as a world leader’. 

The mantra at the heart of the next phase of Xi’s leadership is ‘Common Prosperity’, his economic programme designed to bring greater cohesion – and control – to domestic economic policy. The internal agenda will be at the forefront, and investment in Belt and Road has fallen sharply since 2019 with existing projects still being completed, but Beijing appearing to have little appetite for the moment in re-engaging with the vigour of before. 

The latest CCP five-year-plan has only a half-sentence reference to the BRI, considerably shorter than the previous one. Does that denote job done? Or a focus on other priorities such as ‘Common Prosperity’? Might it be the case that one of the key benefits has already been secured with a rise in the number of states within the UN system lining up behind China, or at least not voting against it?

US President Joe Biden meets with China's President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit in 2021.

With his repeated references to a generational struggle between autocracy and democracy, Biden has rekindled echoes of the Cold War. So far, says veteran US diplomat and foreign policy expert Richard Haas, these ‘well-warranted expressions of outrage have not led to significant changes in behaviour’ by others. 

With a narrow hold on both of houses of Congress in a highly polarized country, Biden’s power was fragile from the outset and is set to wane further after the mid-terms in November. Other governments could be forgiven for factoring in the likelihood they will be dealing with Trump – or someone like him – from the start of 2025. 

Biden is at least trying to convince. In December 2021, he hosted a Summit for Democracy, a virtual gathering of governments, civil society, and the private sector notable for the countries he chose to invite and to not invite, and for his determination to prove his doubters wrong.US President Joe Biden meets with China’s President Xi Jinping during a virtual summit from the Roosevelt Room of the White House in Washington, DC, November 15, 2021. (Photo by MANDEL NGAN / AFP) (Photo by MANDEL NGAN/AFP via Getty Images)

The future of US-China relations contd.

Leaders were invited to present ‘action plans’ in one year’s time to show progress on the three main themes – defending against authoritarianism, addressing and fighting corruption, and promoting respect for human rights. With more than a glance to his domestic audience and in a bid to show some American humility, Biden declared in his invitation: ‘No democracy is perfect, and no democracy is ever final.’

The US pledged funding to support independent media in places where they are under threat, alongside a series of projects to protect civil society groups and whistle-blowers. Pointing to what he described as 15 consecutive years of democratic decline, Biden told his audience of world leaders: ‘This is an urgent matter on all our parts, in my view, because the data we’re seeing is largely pointing in the wrong direction.’

The future of US-China relations contd.

Biden did not need to make explicit the two implicit goals of the initiative – to show that ‘Trumpism’ is not inevitable in America, and that for other countries there is still idealism, as well as self-interest, in forming a common front as democracies. But with the carrot comes the stick. Where it can, the US has stepped up the pressure on countries moving closer into China’s orbit – particularly its allies – whether that be curbing trade in sensitive technology or closing Confucius Institutes.

In some respects, European and other US partners have already become more wary, having seen the chilling effect that Chinese funding was having on their own academics and the potential strategic damage from Chinese takeovers of their own companies.

In security terms, the single most significant multilateral development is the revival of the Indo-Pacific Quad, aligning Australia, India, and Japan with the US. And Australia’s nuclear submarine deal with the US and UK as part of the AUKUS tripartite security pact has entrenched that position.

But it is only the latest in a series of hawkish announcements – in 2018 Australia was the first country to ban Huawei from its 5G system, a remarkable turnaround for a country which for many years provided China with natural resources and sympathetic diplomacy.

China’s response was to penalize Australia by blocking access to its markets for key Australian exports and restricting access to key imports from the People’s Republic – a move which has backfired and only strengthened the hand of those advocating closer security ties with the US.

But for a majority of countries, particularly less affluent ones, decisions on allegiance are largely pragmatic and based less on the relative attractiveness of either country or system. Which big power is helping me more? The rest, says Price, ‘are sitting on the fence. It’s all about issues rather than values.’

The problem is how do you recognise sovereignty, difference, and diversity while still articulating values?

Leslie Vinjamuri, Director, US and Americas Programme

The challenge for the US is that, although its annual international development budget currently stands at $35 billion, this sum constitutes only 0.17 per cent of Gross National Income, leaving it 24th of 29 OECD countries in proportion of budget spending. Figures for Chinese overseas assistance are not strictly comparable but have been rising.

B3W remains still little more than an idea. The EU announced its own fledgling project, called Global Gateway, and the UK has its own scheme, British International Investment, aimed in part at countering Chinese influence. Ultimately, it is about performance rather than promises.

The future of US-China relations contd.

The COVAX multilateral vaccine-sharing project has woefully disappointed and the West has so far failed to stump up the money to help poorer nations cope with the climate emergency. These past two years have shown the big powers competing rather than cooperating in tackling the twin crises of COVID-19 and climate – pressuring rather than persuading allies to fall into line. 

For countries which do not fall clearly into either camp, there is less emphasis on hearts and minds and more on transactional arrangements as they are left to make pragmatic choices, to pick winners. ‘This is the Great Game, 2022,’ Vinjamuri says. ‘It used to be the case that you could take separate views about America and China. Now they are seen as two sides of the same coin.’

This is the last in a series of three reports on cooperation in an era of rivalry, drawing on expert analysis and recommendations from Chatham House. The first report examined COVID-19 and vaccine nationalism; the second looked at the climate emergency.