Global Views
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The global struggle to respond to an emerging two-bloc world

Global ViewsYou are reading the introduction of the MERICS  Paper on China "Beyond blocs: global views on China and US-China relations". Click here to go to the table of contents.

Key takeaways

  • China’s ambitions and international behavior are increasingly felt as challenges to European interests and security and have attracted growing skepticism in European countries. For many EU capitals, systemic rivalry is becoming the dominant framework through which decision-makers look at relations with China.
  • This view is not fully shared even within the EU, and it is certainly not universal at the global level. Attitudes towards China’s rise are as numerous and varied as the UN’s member countries, many of whom take a more critical view of the United States and the West than of China.
  • Beijing seeks to exploit this skepticism to deepen ties with the Global South, aware that its ambition to return to global power status by 2049 will hinge on how these countries respond to US-China rivalry.
  • Few countries want to take sides in this competition, but they may find themselves pushed to do so at some point. It is therefore imperative for European capitals to understand how the rest of the world perceives a rising China and Beijing’s rivalry with Washington.
  • Contributors to this study reported on perceptions in Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. All said their countries’ ties with China have strengthened over the last decade.
  • On US-China rivalry, contributors noted a general tendency to lean towards the United States as a security partner and China as an economic partner. All the countries examined here opposed taking sides; their governments hope to continue seeking out opportunities that arise from US-China rivalry.
  • China’s economic engagement with each of the eight countries considered here has expanded – through trade, FDI, infrastructure financing and project facilitation – but the trend is overwhelmingly lopsided. China’s exports, investment and financing have risen, while flows in the other direction have failed to keep pace in almost every case.
  • Security ties with China remain limited for most of the eight, but the trend is towards expansion, both in military-to-military cooperation and in arms imports. Some welcome China as a security partner to lessen reliance on the United States as a security provider.
  • China is working to expand its network of friends and partners by leveraging its position across multiple regions as an important economic partner and as a geopolitical alternative – or counterbalance – to the United States and Europe.
  • European governments and the European Union should not lose sight of these developments. Growing global bipolarity is certain to have substantial impacts on European interests and security in many countries and regions, often of key strategic importance to the EU.

Introduction: The global struggle to respond to an emerging two-bloc world

"It’s not a question of one country or the other per se; it’s really a question of the best deal that we can strike." Nigerian Foreign Minister Geoffrey Onyeama, November 19, 2021

Even prior to the pandemic and invasion of Ukraine, Europe was struggling to find the best approach to the emerging international dynamics of a post-unipolar world. As the underlying fabric of the rules-based global system gets stretched – between the United States and its partners, China and its growing list of friends, and everyone else in the middle – the sense that a two-bloc world is gradually re-emerging is greater than at any time since the Cold War. It was accelerated by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine only a few weeks after China and Russia reaffirmed their “no limits” partnership and committed to solidify their own bloc. European leaders now face some stark realities as the rules-based international order they are used to risks being undermined by this new dynamic.

However, countries all over the world are attempting to respond to shifting global dynamics and a rising China, not just close allies of Beijing or Washington. And Beijing sees what is at stake very clearly: the success or failure of its ambition to regain global power status by 2049 and play a central role in reforming the present international order hangs on how countries outside the traditional “West” respond to its growing strategic footprint and rivalry with the United States.

It is of major importance to European leaders to understand how actors outside the usual grouping of rich, liberal market economies view this changing ecosystem, and how they think about Europe in a complex world of actors who all have agency. To that end, we commissioned eight contributors to describe their countries’ views of China and US-China rivalry. Their analyses cover Bangladesh, Chile, Indonesia, Kazakhstan, Kenya, Nigeria, Saudi Arabia, and Turkey. The eight countries were chosen for their geographic and cultural diversity, varied levels of development, different government types and varied degrees of proximity to China.

Contributors universally reported that their countries “do not want to ‘choose’” between Beijing and Washington – instead, governments hope to remain in the middle and see what opportunities might emerge out of US-China competition over third countries. However, it is possible these countries may nevertheless be pushed to “choose.” There is therefore a pressing need to understand their interests and perspectives better now, rather than after the fact.

More immediately likely, however, is that these eight countries (and others too often overlooked by European leaders) might choose sides in smaller, specific matters under the rules-based international system. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine provided a glimpse as to how such matters can play out. When the UN General Assembly (UNGA) held a vote in early March 2022 on a resolution to condemn the invasion, 141 countries supported it, 35 abstained, and 5 opposed. Of the eight countries selected (prior to the invasion) for this project:

  • Abstentions came from Bangladesh and Kazakhstan, countries with close ties to Russia, or to the USSR in the past.
  • Two votes in support came from Chile and Turkey, which have mutual defense pacts with the United States; the third, Saudi Arabia, is heavily reliant on the United States as a security provider.
  • The remaining three – Indonesia, Kenya, and Nigeria – also voted in support of the resolution. All have much larger trade flows – all of which are surpluses – with the United States than with Russia.

From a European perspective, it is worth considering how these eight countries, and others in their respective neighborhoods, might exercise their agency and leverage their positions in multilateral institutions. Or within the emerging blocs, if push comes to shove. Compared with modern Russia, China’s vastly larger economic ties with much of the world, coupled with its growing role as a security provider to a swathe of countries, would likely produce very different calculations if UNGA members were asked to vote to condemn something China did. Add to this that Beijing has repeatedly demonstrated willingness to use economic coercion when faced with even minor diplomatic slights. This dynamic begs two questions: would the 141 countries that condemned Russia’s invasion of Ukraine do the same if China had been the aggressor? What does Europe need to do to enhance its value in the eyes of such countries to shift the calculus in favor of the rules-based system?

Outlook and implications for Europe: navigating the return of bloc politics

Avoiding taking sides has served many developing countries well so far, but the strategy may prove unsustainable in the long run. Growing geopolitical tensions, further spurred by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, are changing the picture for smaller nations around the world. As US-China relations continue to deteriorate and a sense of growing bipolarity takes hold, many of the countries covered in this study will find it difficult to maintain their balancing act, for reasons outlined in the country-specific chapters below.

Europe should not lose sight of these developments. While this report focuses on responses to US-China competition, global dynamics are shifting due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine. Beijing is increasingly concerned that a US-led coalition of NATO and its East-Asian partners is forming to contain China’s rise. In response, Beijing is stepping up efforts to expand its network of friends and partners in hopes of building a competing (loose) bloc of nations. China will try to leverage its position across multiple regions as an important economic partner and as a geopolitical alternative – or at least counterbalance – to the United States and Europe.

This is sure to have a substantial impact on European interests and security in a variety of countries and regions, many of them of key strategic importance to the EU. First, the expansion of China’s footprint and influence in these countries – often at the expense of US and European actors – can impact the rules and norms underpinning the current global order. Beijing hopes to leverage its growing ‘circle of friends’ to reshape it. Second, China’s status as the top trading partner and source of investment and financing for many countries will reduce opportunities for European businesses, and could give Beijing an outsized influence over local governments and stakeholders. Finally, closer security ties between China and many developing nations can work against European interests and security in multiple ways, whether by allowing Beijing to prop up authoritarian regimes or by helping expand China’s sphere of influence.

With China’s emergence onto the world stage, liberal market democracies are no longer the only game in town for countries seeking security, infrastructure, and development support. It is therefore imperative for Europe to take action to become a more attractive partner, both in material terms and in how it communicates its role in much of the world.

There is considerable space for Europe to strengthen its role as an economic and security partner. Options include training programs and defense diplomacy efforts, or simplified and expanded development investment and financing (progress on the EU’s Global Gateway would help). Furthermore, Europe could do a better job of communicating what kind of partner it already is, especially on the economic front, where the EU taken as a whole is a large and longstanding investment partner. The EU also tends to have a more sustainable, and often favorable, trade balance with many countries that run sizeable trade deficits with China. Yet new-arrival China often attracts all the attention with its positioning as the economic partner to work with. In this sense, Europe should shift away from a communications strategy of underplaying its role while, as some partners see it, ‘lecturing’ countries about what they should be. Instead, it should emphasize what the scope of the EU’s partnership already is, as well as what fruit it could yield through stronger ties.

To remain a relevant geopolitical actor and protect its own interests and security, Europe will need to play a more active role in current dynamics and become more proactive in the shaping of global coalitions. This is particularly crucial at a time of global uncertainty, when the situation in Ukraine remains in flux, and both China and the United States may shift their trajectories after the 20th Party Congress and the US midterm elections in the fall. The EU and its member states are clearly more aligned with the United States than with China; any talk of equidistance is a thing of the past. But there still room for Europe to strengthen its relationships with partners around the globe, moving beyond the dichotomy of democracies versus authoritarian states, to prevent the further fragmentation of the global order. The growing global bipolarity may not be in Europe’s interests, but the trends pointing in that direction are undeniable. European nations will have to find a way to navigate the return of bloc politics in a way that best protects their own interests and security.

Exhibit 3

Global ViewsYou were reading the introduction of the MERICS  Paper on China "Beyond blocs: global views on China and US-China relations". Click here to go to the table of contents.