China’s Rise in the Global South

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China’s Rise in the Global South

Insights from Dawn Murphy.

China’s Rise in the Global South

President of China Xi Jinping, center right, and South African President Cyril Ramaphosa, second left, attend the China-Africa Leaders’ Roundtable Dialogue on the last day of the BRICS Summit, in Johannesburg, South Africa, Aug. 24, 2023.

Credit: Alet Pretorius/Pool Photo via AP

The Diplomat author Mercy Kuo regularly engages subject-matter experts, policy practitioners, and strategic thinkers across the globe for their diverse insights into U.S. Asia policy. This conversation with Dr. Dawn Murphy – associate professor of National Security Strategy at the U.S. National War College and author of “China’s Rise in the Global South: The Middle East, Africa, and Beijing’s Alternative World Order” (Stanford 2022) – is the 420th in “The Trans-Pacific View Insight Series.” 

The views expressed in this interview are those of the author and do not reflect the official policy or position of the National Defense University, the Department of Defense, or the U.S. government.

Explain the strategic relevance of the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa to China. 

China’s primary strategic interest in these regions is acquiring resources (e.g., oil, gas, minerals, agriculture) and markets for Chinese goods and services across a wide range of sectors. Almost 70 percent of China’s oil imports originate in the Middle East and Africa, and China views countries in these regions as critical economic partners and substantial future consumer bases. 

China also seeks support from these countries in the international system. Whether through intergovernmental organizations (e.g., the United Nations, the World Trade Organization), less formal grouping of states (e.g., BRICS plus, the G-20), or Chinese-led multilateral organizations – the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation (FOCAC), China-Arab States Cooperation Forum (CASCF), Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO) – the 65 states in these regions that recognize the PRC are essential partners to support China’s positions in these regions and on the global stage more broadly on issues such as sovereignty, Xinjiang, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and the South China Sea. 

As China’s relations with the U.S. and Western Europe sour, the Middle East, Africa, and the rest of the Global South are increasingly important for China to garner political support and economic partners.

Compare and contrast the remits of China’s special envoys to Africa and the Middle East. 

Since 2002, China has established four special envoys to the Middle East and Africa. The purpose of special envoys is for China to contribute to regional peace and security and attempt to resolve hotspot issues that endanger Chinese interests. 

For over 20 years, China’s special envoy for Middle East issues (a post created in 2002) has sought to contribute to resolving the Palestinian-Israeli conflict and other issues in the region. 

China’s special envoy for African issues (2007) was initially established to contribute to reducing tensions in Darfur. Over time, it has worked to address political, economic, and security issues across the continent, including mediating between Sudan and South Sudan in the early 2010s. 

In 2016, China established a special envoy for Syria to participate in various peace initiatives for the civil war. 

My book, “China’s Rise,” examines these three envoys for the Middle East, Africa, and Syria. All of them advocate for the utilization of multilateral mechanisms to resolve disputes. Arguably, the Middle East-focused envoys were established at the urging of the Arab states, while the African envoy was established in response to Western pressure. In each instance, China does not take a specific stance on issues or offer its own solutions; instead, it uses the envoys to bring parties together for discussion. 

China set up a special envoy for the Horn of Africa after “China’s Rise” was published. That envoy is primarily focused on security challenges in the region, with a focus on Ethiopia, Eritrea, Somalia, Sudan, and South Sudan. These special envoys, as well as China’s efforts to bring Saudi Arabia and Iran together to re-normalize relations in 2023, are all indicators of the PRC’s increasing desire to serve as a mediator in the Middle East and Africa.

Analyze how the Middle East and Africa fit and function in China’s alternative world order. 

These regions are important for China’s alternative world order because they contain many states that share China’s interests in promoting non-interference, non-intervention, sovereignty, and South-South cooperation. China views these regions as areas for vast potential future economic growth and cooperation. 

Over two decades, China has built robust multilateral mechanisms to facilitate interactions with these regions, including FOCAC, the CASCF, and the SCO. Through these forums, China coordinates its economic, political, and security relations with these states. In the longer term, if the liberal international order unravels or excludes China, these cooperation forums will serve as the foundation of China’s relations with the Middle East and Africa.

To what degree does China’s narrative as an authoritarian alternative resonate with political elites and publics in the Middle East and Africa? 

I would not frame the question necessarily as the PRC providing an authoritarian alternative. That said, the fact that the PRC advocates for a very strict interpretation of Westphalian [sovereignty] and seeks to establish positive relations with all states in the Middle East and Africa regardless of regime type does resonate with many ruling elites in these regions and much of the rest of the Global South. 

In the Middle East and Africa, China portrays itself as a great power that defends sovereignty, champions development and South-South cooperation, promotes connectivity, and advocates for the use of multilateral institutions. China stresses that it is a balanced actor among states in these regions that does not pick sides in international or internal disputes. It also emphasizes that it lacks a colonial history compared to Western countries. Those narratives do appear to be gaining traction with many governments and elites in these regions. Also, polls of public opinion about China in many countries in these regions are often relatively positive. 

That said, there are 65 countries in the Middle East and Africa. Each of these societies is comprised of a wide range of actors and interest groups. China’s narrative does not necessarily resonate positively with all those groups. 

Assess the effectiveness of China’s approach to the Global South in differentiating itself as a great power vis-à-vis strategic competition with the United States. 

I assess that China has been incredibly successful in managing its relations with the Global South and differentiating itself as a great power. It has leveraged a wide range of foreign policy tools to institutionalize and deepen its ties with the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa, including cooperation forums, special envoys, strategic partnerships, and free trade agreements. 

Increasingly, China is the top economic partner of most countries in these regions and an important political actor. That said, at this point, there is no indication that the PRC wants to play the same security role as the U.S. or replace the U.S. in the Middle East and Sub-Saharan Africa.