China’s Limited Influence

Many people around the world believe that China’s rise to the role of dominant global player is inevitable. A Pew Research Center survey released earlier this year found that in 23 of 39 countries surveyed, a majority of respondents said China is already, or will soon become, the “world’s leading superpower.”

Even in America, just 47 percent told Pew they believe the United States will remain in that role, and the survey was conducted before Washington’s recent shutdown hardened opinions about America’s political dysfunction.

But although China’s economic influence is growing — it is now the lead trade partner for 124 countries, compared to just 76 for the United States — its power to influence other nations is slight. It has achieved little of what policymakers call “capture,” a condition in which economic or security dependence of one country on another allows the more powerful to drive the other’s policy making.

Only in countries like North Korea, Cambodia and Laos does China have that kind of heft; in North Korea, for example, China provides 90 percent of the country’s energy and 80 percent of its consumer goods. But these are not the sorts of allies that help an emerging power extend its influence.

Based on the size of their commercial relationships with China as a share of their overall economies, the governments next closest to “China capture” are Pakistan and Myanmar. But Beijing’s reluctance to undermine improving relations with India or to become more deeply implicated in Pakistan’s chaotic domestic politics will prevent a closer embrace. Myanmar is moving away from China on its own. Its recent political and economic opening signals an effort to better diversify its international partners to avoid too deep a dependence on Beijing.

There are other countries where China wields extraordinary economic influence (Sudan, Angola and the Democratic Republic of Congo) or political clout (Iran, Syria and Venezuela). The former are too corrupt for many Western governments to do business with, and lousy relations with the United States force the latter to look for powerful friends.

Russia needs a deep-pocketed customer for its oil and gas, but commercial and political competition with China in the former Soviet states that lie between them, and traditional Russian paranoia over Chinese emigration into sparsely populated Siberia, will prevent a full embrace.

In fact, the economic vulnerability and political brittleness in these countries might one day compound weaknesses inside China. As party officials undertake the reforms needed to create a dynamic economy driven by Chinese consumer purchasing power, reliance on commercial and political ties with basket-case countries can be a dangerous thing. That’s because such countries pull partners into their crises, where security and economic risks outweigh any possible benefit from the relationship. China wants a stable Korean peninsula, but Pyongyang’s unpredictable bluster often creates the opposite.

Over time, China’s trade and investment relations with key trading partners that hold strategic value like Germany, Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia might allow Beijing greater influence in their policy making decisions. That kind of clout would lead to direct political and economic benefits: China would win access to commodities, profit-making opportunities for its companies and an increase in its international political leverage vis-à-vis the United States and Europe. Germany in particular could give China a stable foothold into European markets and a means of better aligning European economic policy with Chinese preferences; countries like Brazil, Saudi Arabia and Indonesia provide China with much much-needed commodities. China is already second only to the United States as Germany’s leading non-European export market. It replaced the United States as Brazil’s largest trade partner in 2009. In the Middle East, China is fast becoming the No. 1 source of energy demand for nearly every producer in the region and investing heavily in regional infrastructure to support supply routes.

Yet, all these countries have reasons to limit their dependence on China, the United States or any other single power. Even in China’s backyard, emerging powers like Indonesia, Thailand and Vietnam will continue to forge new economic ties with Beijing, but they still hope an expanded U.S. presence in Asia will help them hedge against too great a reliance on China’s good will.

In today’s media-driven world, soft power is another crucial element of superpower influence. Yet, beyond the inaccessibility of China’s language for most foreigners and their indifference to its social trends, China’s political and economic systems have little appeal in other countries. Its state capitalist economic model attracts political leaders looking to build wealth and micromanage markets, but it offers little for ordinary citizens.

War-weary Americans and their distracted political leaders are less interested in responsibilities overseas, creating a vacuum of international leadership. But for better and for worse, neither China nor anyone else appears ready and able to fill America’s superpower shoes.

Ian Bremmer is president of Eurasia Group and author of Every Nation for Itself: Winners and Losers in a G-Zero World.

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