The battle for global influence intensifies as China, Russia vie for strategic allies – with SA in the G-7 mix

The global power struggle between China, Russia, the United States, and their respective allies is set to escalate as they vie for influence in key countries. This intensifying competition for hearts and minds in strategically important third-world countries reflects the emergence of a multipolar world, with the most apparent divide seen in attitudes toward Russia’s war on Ukraine. High-profile summits in the coming months, starting with the Group of Seven (G-7) meeting in Japan, will serve as platforms for world leaders to unveil plans for courting select nations in what is being dubbed a global “battle of offers” against Beijing and Moscow. Central to this strategy is strengthening ties with middle-ground countries such as Brazil, Vietnam, South Africa, and Kazakhstan.

It’s the G-7 Versus China and Russia in the Struggle for Global Influence

By Bloomberg News

The tussle for global influence is about to intensify, as China, Russia, the US and its allies step up efforts to win over governments in a deepening competition for hearts and minds in strategic third countries.

The advent of a multipolar world comprising rival factions, most clearly seen in attitudes to Russia’s war on Ukraine, will be on show in a series of high-profile summits in the coming months, starting with the annual Group of Seven meeting on May 19 in Japan. There, G-7 and European Union leaders are preparing to roll out plans to court a select group of nations in what they’re calling a global “battle of offers” with Beijing and Moscow, according to people familiar with the discussions and documents seen by Bloomberg News.

The strategy involves enhanced work with so-called middle ground countries, such as Brazil, Vietnam, South Africa and Kazakhstan. High-level engagements, better coordination between existing infrastructure projects, and bespoke action plans for each nation identified as a key partner are among the program’s objectives.

The move is tantamount to recognition that China’s granular diplomacy and provision of infrastructure investment, together with Russia’s supply of weapons, nuclear-energy technology and fertilizers, is winning out over Western appeals. At the core of the reinvigorated G-7 effort is somewhat of a tilt away from a primarily values-driven approach to one based on more tangible offerings in areas such as trade and security, the people said.

“It’s important that we give countries in our hemisphere and around the world options,” said Brian Nichols, US assistant secretary of state for Western Hemisphere affairs. Washington needs to offer countries “a clear perspective and vision on what they can do to have successful economies,” while making clear “that some of the promises that countries like China make, they’re not delivering,” he said.

But G-7 allies, all of whom have sanctioned Russia and broadly share their US colleague’s national security concerns over China, are far from the only offer in town. Even as President Joe Biden sits down with his fellow G-7 leaders in Hiroshima, President Xi Jinping will hold a China-Central Asia Summit over two days in the Chinese city of Xi’an.

In July, President Vladimir Putin hosts African leaders in his hometown of St. Petersburg, building on Moscow’s efforts to blame Western sanctions — without evidence — rather than Russia’s invasion of Ukraine for energy-price inflation and grain shortages that have hit poorer African nations hard.

President Vladimir Putin addressing the Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference in Moscow on March 20. Source: Getty Images
President Vladimir Putin addressing the Russia-Africa International Parliamentary Conference in Moscow on March 20. Source: Getty Images

Then in August, leaders of the BRICS group comprising Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa will meet in Johannesburg, with expansion to include a potential 19 hopeful entrants and the feasibility of introducing a common currency on the agenda. Both topics are a boon to China, which first proposed adding to the club and favors an alternative to the US dollar in trade among BRICS nations.

Two government officials from separate middle-ground countries said that the world has dramatically changed in recent years and Western powers have lost the leverage they once had to pressure developing countries politically and economically. One official put it simply: Western powers need us more than the other way round.

Those sensitivities were on show last week, when the US ambassador to South Africa accused Pretoria of supplying weapons to Russia — sending the rand to a record low against the dollar — only for both sides to move quickly to tamp down the friction. While South Africa has been a regular guest at G-7 summits, this year Japan invited the African Union, currently chaired by Comoros, in its place.  

“When President Biden at the beginning of his term spoke about his values approach, I think he had a lot of currency and was attracting a great deal of interest,” South African Minister of International Relations and Cooperation Naledi Pandor said in an interview last week before the US spat. “But I think the current situation in which they find themselves as a leading part of this conflict makes it more difficult to be convincing.”

G-7 allies have tried before to counter China’s influence and compete with its initiatives, with mixed results. But Russia’s war has instilled a renewed sense of purpose to those efforts, the people said, especially as Moscow has increasingly trained its disinformation and influence operations on exploiting anti-Western sentiment in Africa, Latin America and the wider “Global South.”

“The international community is at a historic crossroads,” entering “an era in which cooperation and division are intricately intertwined,” said Noriyuki Shikata, Japan’s Cabinet secretary for public affairs. That makes the G7’s strategic cooperation on global issues with emerging countries and developing countries all the more important, he said.

“I think we spent about two-thirds of our time on issues of concern to the Global South,” US Secretary of State Antony Blinken said April 18 at a joint press conference with Japan’s Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, the G-7 host, who himself undertook a trip to Africa this month.

The scale of the challenge still appears daunting given a prevailing sentiment that is mistrustful, even resentful, and at odds with G-7 thinking.

India, which holds the G-20 presidency, wants to preserve its strategic autonomy and will have a transactional approach in its dealings with the US, according to people familiar with the government in New Delhi’s thinking. When it comes to choosing between the West and China, it will back Washington and the Quad security alliance with the US, Japan and Australia. But when choosing between the West and Russia, New Delhi will tilt toward Moscow while taking a neutral line in public to cover its tracks, the people said.

India relies on Russia for weapons, including along its border with China, and India’s security and foreign policy establishment is deeply suspicious of the US. Everything the West offers has a price tag, whether overt or covert, such as using human rights and media freedoms against India when required. Such apprehensions are absent in dealings with Moscow, the people said.

Vietnam, another middle-ground country in the G-7’s focus, illustrates a further hurdle to the outreach. While it’s a beneficiary of moves to diversify from China, with US companies like Apple Inc. building out manufacturing production in the country, the fact is Vietnam can’t afford to ignore the giant consumer base just over the border. As a result, China remains Vietnam’s top trading partner, with the US a distant second.

Vietnamese officials have meanwhile been relatively quiet about Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, as it’s had a durable security partnership with Russia dating back to the Vietnam War. That’s a consideration that also features in Africa, where Russia supplied weapons to liberation movements – “and the African continent knows that,” said South Africa’s Pandor.

Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva after meeting Biden at the White House in Washington on Feb. 10. Lula will attend the G-7 summit. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg

One of the documents sets out EU action plans to boost relations with four pilot countries: Brazil, Nigeria, Kazakhstan and Chile. But it could prove an uphill task particularly in Latin America, where the US is losing some of its traditional heft as China builds its presence. For President Rodrigo Chaves of Costa Rica, a staunch US ally, Washington needs to “rebalance the level of attention” it’s paying to the region, where the alliance “seems more tenuous than ever before,” he said in an interview. â€śVery few countries remain strong allies of the United States,” he said.

Brazil has become something of a bellwether, all the more so as President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva strives to re-assert himself as a global statesman. As part of its plan, the EU will look to relaunch a strategic partnership with Brazil, conclude a trade deal with the Mercosur bloc, and enhance security and defense cooperation.

The US has announced plans to seek $500 million to bolster Brazil’s strategy to protect the Amazon, despite tensions over Lula’s approaches to China and prior comments suggesting Ukraine shared part of the blame for the war. Linda Thomas-Greenfield, the US ambassador to the United Nations, visited Brazil this month, stressing the investment and jobs yielded as part of the “strategic relationship” with Latin America’s biggest economy.

While invited to the G-7, Lula initially hesitated to go out of concern over which place at the table would be designated for him: He wasn’t prepared to travel only for a photo opportunity, said three people familiar with the matter. There is a prevailing opinion in Lula’s government that the G-7 represents the old and declining order, even if it still has symbolic importance, they said.

Olaf Scholz of Germany, who has made the concept of a multipolar world central to his chancellorship, visited Brasilia, Buenos Aires and Santiago earlier this year, and plans joint government consultations with Lula’s cabinet in Berlin later this year.  He wants the EU to strike agreements that better reflect the idea that Europe won’t simply import raw materials like lithium, but will encourage steps in the value chain like processing to be located in the countries of origin, a senior aide said.

Chile’s President Gabriel Boric hosts Scholz at La Moneda Palace in Santiago. Chile is one of four countries seen by the EU as a pilot for bolstering relations. Photographer: Cristobal Olivares/Bloomberg

The G-7 and EU are also putting an increased focus on tackling sanctions circumvention, especially enhancing the monitoring of so-called dual-use goods that can serve either a civilian or military purpose. Russia has been working to get around restrictions on the banned technologies by importing them through third countries such as Kazakhstan, the United Arab Emirates and China.

Ensuring there is no circumvention through Kazakhstan is one of the key interests identified by the EU in its action plan. US and EU officials undertook a joint trip to Kazakhstan in April, offering help to minimize any economic impact of averting sanctions evasion rather than wielding cudgels.

Biden administration officials say they are not asking countries to choose between the US and China, but are fostering an international environment in which governments are free from coercion by foreign powers. Still, Xi has accused Washington of pursuing â€ścontainment,” and even US allies have been compelled to comply with export controls aimed at denying Beijing access to advanced dual-use technologies. 

China is forging ahead with its own diplomatic push, having laid the groundwork during the pandemic that allows it to now take â€śthe big step,” in the words of one western diplomat in Beijing. That often takes the form of small-state diplomacy to complement meetings with global leaders, a key difference to the US that allows Beijing to line up votes at the UN and “take everybody by surprise,” said Eric Olander of the China Global South Project.

“While we’re all looking the other way, Xi is having a phone call with the prime minister of Dominica, a Caribbean island of 75,000 people,” he said.

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–With assistance from Alberto Nardelli, Samy Adghirni, Sudhi Ranjan Sen, Paul Vecchiatto, Michael D McDonald, Rebecca Choong Wilkins, Colum Murphy, Eric Martin, Courtney McBride, Nariman Gizitdinov, Anthony Halpin, Anna Edgerton, Michael Nienaber, Michelle Jamrisko, Adrija Chatterjee, Alex Wickham and Stephen Wicary.

© 2023 Bloomberg L.P.

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