Skip to main content
Blog post

US-China Competition in the Developing World, Then and Now

Reflecting on Sino-American relations past and present, Gregg Brazinsky warns of the “danger of thinking in terms of absolutes.”

US-China Competition in the Developing World, Then and Now

Reflecting on Sino-American relations past and present, Gregg Brazinsky warns of the “danger of thinking in terms of absolutes”

Charles Kraus of the Wilson Center’s History and Public Policy Program recently sat down with author Gregg Brazinsky to learn more about his new book, Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry during the Cold War. Brazinsky, an associate professor at The George Washington University, argues that China’s desire for status drove its efforts to cultivate allies in the Third World. For much of the Cold War, the United States contested Chinese involvement in the Global South, in part because the PRC was a non-white, anticolonial power. The legacies of this Cold War-era competition, Brazinsky writes, are still with us today.

Charles Kraus [CK]:Winning the Third Worldis a much different book from your first, Nation Building in South Korea. Can you talk about the experience of writing a second book that did not exactly build on your earlier work? Do you have any advice for young academics as they contemplate a ‘second’ big project?

Gregg Brazinsky [GB]: The books are very different in terms of scope and area covered. But there were some themes that I became interested in writing Nation Building in South Korea that informed my approach to this book. For instance, my prior book devoted a significant amount of attention to US economic aid and cultural policy. I therefore knew exactly where I needed to look in the National Archives to find relevant materials for the chapters on cultural and economic competition.

I would tell other scholars at the early stages of their career that they still have time to invest in learning new languages and broadening their areas of interest. I learned Mandarin after I was already an assistant professor but I am glad that I invested the time in it.

CK: China competed with many states during the Cold War--the United States, the Soviet Union, Taiwan, India, maybe even Yugoslavia. What distinguished the Sino-American competition? How do you discern this specific rivalry from China’s other competitions in the Third World?

GB: It depends a lot on which areas of the Third World you are talking about. I believe that the Chinese and the Soviets were, for the most part, competing for the loyalties of the left and various Afro-Asian communist parties. China and the United States most often competed in neutral countries. Often the United States saw China as a key adversary when it had gained an edge over the Soviets in local struggles for the loyalties of the left. I argue that this was the case in countries such as Mali and Tanzania.

India and Taiwan are another story. The United States viewed both of these as allies in the struggle to contain Chinese influence and worked together with them to different degrees. In India’s case, this was especially true after the 1962 Sino-Indian border conflict

CK: You worked on Winning the Third World over a period of several years, drawing on a wealth of Chinese and American sources. What finding or discovery surprised you most while researching and writing the book?

GB: In general I was surprised by the scope of China’s ambitions and activities in the Third World. We had long known that Beijing had rhetorically supported Afro-Asian revolutionaries. But I did not realize how deep the connections were in places like Zanzibar and, to a lesser degree, the Congo.

I was also surprised by how committed China was to its economic aid programs. China was still struggling with severe economic problems brought on by the failure of the Great Leap Forward. But even while its own people were starving, it still shipped rice to countries like Guinea as part of larger economic aid packages.

CK: Mao Zedong looms large in the study of Chinese foreign policy history. How did his personality and views shape China’s involvement in the Third World? What of other Chinese leaders?

GB: I think Mao was at the center of Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence in the Afro-Asian world. The CCP made a special effort to translate and disseminate his writings on revolution, nation building, and other topics. Mao’s own deep commitment to promoting revolution both at home and abroad was also a driving force behind Chinese support for insurgencies in Southeast Asia and Africa.

At the same time, Zhou Enlai also receives a great deal of attention in my book. Zhou was often tasked with implementing Chinese policies and took charge of the day to day aspects of Beijing’s diplomacy when he was Foreign Minister. Zhou was also the public face of Chinese diplomacy in the Afro-Asian world. He made several important high-profile visits to Southeast Asian and African countries and represented the PRC at major international conferences. Zhou’s urbane manner and sophistication helped to further the objective of Chinese diplomacy in these situations.

CK: Your book has been out now for several months, and gradually it will make its way into the footnotes of other scholarly works. What debates do you hope your work will sustain or spark?

GB: I hope that the book will help other scholars to understand the important role that China played in the Third World during the Cold War and contribute to a more multi-lateral understanding of the conflict. There is also a great deal of debate about the most important motivating forces behind Chinese foreign policy. Some have seen the roots of PRC diplomacy as more ideological while others have emphasized geostrategic objectives and interests. My book introduces a new interpretive paradigm by arguing that status and prestige were most critical to in shaping Chinese diplomacy in the Third World. 

CK: China's leadership aspirations in Asia, Africa, and elsewhere grow more apparent every day. Is renewed Sino-American rivalry in the developing world inevitable, or are there lessons that Chinese and Americans can draw from the Cold War to mitigate confrontation?

GB: I think there are significant parallels between China’s current involvement in Asia and Africa and its Cold War policies in the Third World. Unfortunately, the corporate media is quite taken with the Orientalist notion that contemporary Chinese diplomacy can be understood as an effort to reconstruct the “traditional Sino-centric world order.” These media filter what kind of information about China and its foreign policy is disseminated to the public. So more serious and well considered views don’t get a full hearing and many inside-the-beltway hacks accept this wrong-headed use of history as the gospel truth.

But China’s current involvement in Afro-Asian countries has as much to do with its emergence as a postcolonial state in the twentieth century than it does with the Ming or Qing Dynasty. From and economic and geostrategic standpoint, what China is seeking to accomplish through its “One Belt One Road” initiative has far more in common with its efforts to unify post-colonial Afro-Asian countries during the 1950s and 1960s than it does with the actual Silk Road that traders used centuries ago. Similarly, Beijing’s current suspicions about American motives cannot be understood without looking at the rivalry that prevailed between the two in the Third World during the Cold War.

There are many important takeaways from Winning the Third World. During the Cold War, American officials with very limited knowledge of China often exaggerated the Chinese threat and misunderstood Beijing’s motives. Today, there are still too many so-called China experts in think tanks and the government who don’t speak Mandarin and don’t have a deep knowledge of Chinese history. They tend to be most prone to drawing the wrong conclusions about the PRC’s motives and actions.

Perhaps the most important takeaway, however, is the danger of thinking in terms of absolutes. Beijing often insisted that countries side with it in the struggle against imperialism and revisionism or be considered enemies. Similarly, Washington had difficulties countenancing any form of contact between the PRC and countries receiving American aid. As a result, both countries sometimes seemed domineering and ended up damaging rather than enhancing their prestige.

While there are undeniably areas where the United States must compete with Beijing today, it is important to remember that demanding that other countries side with us on every issue ultimately will not help us to win their loyalties.

History and Public Policy Program

The History and Public Policy Program makes public the primary source record of 20th and 21st century international history from repositories around the world, facilitates scholarship based on those records, and uses these materials to provide context for classroom, public, and policy debates on global affairs.  Read more

Cold War International History Project

The Cold War International History Project supports the full and prompt release of historical materials by governments on all sides of the Cold War. Through an award winning Digital Archive, the Project allows scholars, journalists, students, and the interested public to reassess the Cold War and its many contemporary legacies. It is part of the Wilson Center's History and Public Policy Program.  Read more