There is no doubt that the growing rivalry between China and the United States is a risk to the world. Poorly managed, tensions can get out of hand. Mutual mistrust, fiery rhetoric and the series of measures and countermeasures make Sino-US relations unstable and unpredictable.
It is less clear, however, if and how the rivalry between Beijing and Washington can benefit the rest of the world and, in particular, developing countries. The last G7 meeting offered two interesting examples in this regard.
First, the Covid-19 vaccines. G7 members have pledged to deliver 1 billion doses to countries in need. In February, a similar idea was raised – and quickly rejected. In recent months, it is true, vaccination in the United States, for example, has advanced enormously, which makes the decision to donate easier.
But it is also a fact that, during this period, China had a practically clear path for its vaccine diplomacy and did not miss the opportunity. The advance of the Asian country prompted others to act.
Second, the G7 announced a plan to finance infrastructure projects in developing countries, as opposed to China’s Belt and Route initiative. Called as bad as Beijing’s, the G7 initiative, dubbed B3W (Build Back Better World), will promote “value-based infrastructure” such as transparency, environmental protection and sustainable debt.
If the details are yet to come, the logic is already clear. The United States and others will not be able to contain Chinese investment in the world without offering recipient countries an alternative that is at least as attractive as that offered by China. Criticizing the Chinese plan empty-handed does not work. Here is the origin of B3W.
Unintentionally, China ends up forcing the United States – and other developed countries – to pay more attention to the developing world. It got the big boys moving. Or would the G7 mobilize now to promote infrastructure in poor countries without the advance of Chinese investments?
Or would the US Secretary of State, as he did in March, call the President of Paraguay if it hadn’t been for the fear that Asunción would raffle Taiwan and establish diplomatic relations? with Beijing on vaccines?
Or would the US government refinance Ecuador’s debt to China, as it did in January, if the package did not contain a pledge to exclude Chinese companies from the country’s 5G?
Or would the president of the Inter-American Development Bank simply use the “China” argument to try to convince the American establishment to strengthen the IDB?
This is not to judge the ends or the means of American foreign policy, which, rightly or wrongly, sees China as a threat. The point is, China’s presence in the developing world is forcing Americans to reconsider previously neglected regions and countries.
If US-Chinese rivalry is inevitable, the question becomes, for other countries, how to avoid being harmed by it or, ideally, how to take advantage of the situation. If they are seen to be in one or the other’s pocket, they will lose their bargaining power.
Maintaining its autonomy vis-à-vis the big guys and, above all, taking advantage of protest is not trivial. Despite the risks, competition between China and the United States can generate positive externalities for those who know how to take advantage of it.
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