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China benefits from global stability even as it tries to undercut it, US official says

China enjoys the best of both worlds, benefiting from the global stability that the United States has fostered even as it undermines that stability in areas where it suits its interests, a senior US State Department official said on Wednesday.

The comments by Daniel Kritenbrink, the assistant secretary of state for East Asian and Pacific affairs, made at the start of a two-day Atlantic Council conference on China and the Global South come as the People's Republic of China and the US vie for influence among developing countries in Africa, Latin America and Asia.

"The PRC has itself benefited from the stability and the opportunity that the international order provides. But unfortunately, the PRC often takes actions that undermine those principles, rather than reinforcement," Kritenbrink said, citing Beijing's expansion into the South China Sea, economic coercion of smaller states and programmes opposing "universal" human rights.

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"The PRC has become more repressive at home and more aggressive abroad," he told the conference. "The PRC is advancing an alternative vision for global governance."

Panellists pushed back, however, including those from developing countries, arguing that the battle for influence is too often framed as a binary choice between Beijing and Washington - when the reality is more nuanced.

"The developing world conceals a multiplicity of interests," said Bilahari Kausikan, chairman of the National University of Singapore's Middle East Institute. "We have concerns about both certain aspects of Chinese behaviour and certain aspects of American behaviour."

Kritenbrink said that US policy toward the Global South is not defined in opposition to China, nor does it force countries to choose. Rather, he contended, it promotes the vision of "a world where rules, norms and institutions prevail over outdated and dangerous concepts of might making right".

He added, however, that it would be naive to believe that China doesn't enter into US calculations. "Of course, we can't deny that strategic competition is also a critical part of this moment," Kritenbrink, a former US ambassador to Vietnam, said.

"Our relationship with the PRC is one of intense strategic competition. At the same time, the United States is committed to managing this competition responsibly, so that it does not veer into miscalculation, or conflict."

Kritenbrink criticised the major elements of China's outreach - the Global Development Initiative, Global Security Initiative, Global Civilization Initiative and the Belt and Road Initiative - as programmes that undercut collective defence and environmental standards and seek to reframe human rights as a privilege of the West.

Panellists at the conference said the "Global South" phrase is baggage-laden - a replacement for the now-discredited "Third World". Countries concentrated in the southern hemisphere often have little in common other than some vague sense that the Global North is too dominant even as Beijing and Washington jockey for their loyalty - and UN votes.

"It doesn't mean that these countries, however resentful they may be about different aspects of Western policy, are going to drink deeply of Chinese Kool-Aid," Kausikan said.

But, he added, China "understands the mood that constitutes the Global South better than the West and avoids what I will call sanctimonious diplomacy, insisting that its interpretation of values is the only possible interpretation".

China's recent economic slowdown - fuelled by a property crisis, rising youth unemployment, battered confidence and swooning financial markets - is likely to shift Beijing's Global South emphasis, panellists said.

Since 2015, China's spending on Belt and Road Initiative projects has been tapering off. Its slowing economy will also see it place more focus on less expensive programmes, experts said, including more training of foreign militaries, joint defence meetings, telecommunication infrastructure projects and use of the People's Liberation Army in quasi-political foreign outreach roles.

"Because Chinese feel more cornered in a way, with reduced options, it's going to use more diversity of tools for influence that are cheaper than just investing in big infrastructure projects," Nadege Rolland, a China fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, said, adding that this would not change Beijing's focus on countering the US.

"It's not like these countries are pawns in the hands of Beijing, but Beijing certainly sees them as such and so it's a very binary vision of the rejection of the existing order."

China's adaptive tactics are particularly evident in Africa, said Paul Nantulya, an African studies research associate with the US National Defence University.

"The Chinese side educates more African officers than any other industrialised country. And this becomes extremely important," he said. "I don't think that the Chinese government puts all its eggs in one basket."

Officers and soldiers of the 42nd Chinese naval escort fleet wave to the crowd at the Port of Richards Bay, South Africa, on February 19, 2023, in advance of joint maritime exercises held by China, Russia and South Africa. Photo: Xinhua alt=Officers and soldiers of the 42nd Chinese naval escort fleet wave to the crowd at the Port of Richards Bay, South Africa, on February 19, 2023, in advance of joint maritime exercises held by China, Russia and South Africa. Photo: Xinhua>

As the stakes and rhetoric mount between the world's two largest economies, Kritenbrink said that Washington remains focused on convincing - not arm-twisting - developing countries with revitalised alliances, financing projects and ties involving the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, Summit for Democracy, US-Pacific Island Country Summit and Africa outreach programmes.

"We don't want countries to have to choose between us and the PRC," he said. "But we want to help ensure that they have a choice and that they can make their decisions free from coercion."

This article originally appeared in the South China Morning Post (SCMP), the most authoritative voice reporting on China and Asia for more than a century. For more SCMP stories, please explore the SCMP app or visit the SCMP's Facebook and Twitter pages. Copyright © 2024 South China Morning Post Publishers Ltd. All rights reserved.

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