There’s been a lot of hubbub in the Chinese and Western news lately about the situation in Libya, and about China’s sort of “support while not supporting” stance allowed them to save some face. In the meantime, every paper over here paints the US, UK, and France out to be colonial imperialists only in Libya for the oil. Conveniently, none of these reports mention that this operation also has support of the Arab League and the African Union, or that China could have stopped the whole damn thing with a veto.

Chinese hypocrisy aside, the reactions in both China and the US are quite interesting. In the Chinese news, China portrays itself as the voice of the developing world, promoting peace and resisting Western aggression.

But the voting result of the resolution paints another picture. Gabon, Bosnia/Herzegovina, and Lebanon aren’t mighty Western powers, and they seem pretty independent in their decision-making. Meanwhile, Germany and India, two countries with strong ties to the Western world, abstained from the vote. Hard to see the correlation between abstaining and anti-Western/anti-imperialism.

Qatar and UAE, who are sending fighter jets to the effort, also don’t fit with China’s accusations that this is an excuse for the West to invade another Middle Eastern country. Turkey, who is assisting with a sea embargo, is not usually considered a Western or imperial country.

Now, despite all of this evidence, some Western and Chinese papers are buying into China’s whole “vanguard of the disadvantaged” scenario. Some are even going so far as to suggest the “Chinese bloc” will rival that of the former Soviet Union. This is all very scary for military and diplomatic reasons of course, but where are the facts? It breaks down when you look at what really counts in this game: friends.

China might think itself a counterweight to the West, and this is not automatically a bad thing. However, China also appears to be swinging for the fences when all they need is a bunt to win the game. Here are some reasons:

1) Of the permanent UNSC members, none of them will consistently (or even occasionally) support a resolution that clearly is aimed to further Chinese interests. Russia, probably the closest to China politically, is also the closest to China geographically. Fear of Chinese military prowess will likely mean Russia is more apt to veto a forceful Chinese resolution than the US, UK, or France.

2) On the opposite side, the US can almost always count on a vote from the UK. When it’s not a boneheaded idea (like Iraq), France can usually be persuaded to support, and Russia can be persuaded to abstain. This is especially true for Middle Eastern issues which aren’t usually directly threatening to Russia, but can provoke spikes in oil prices (thus improving the Russian economy)

3) In the larger Security Council, and even the United Nations, China doesn’t have many friends at all. When the chips are on the table and a very severe crisis hits, China’s “very reliable” friends include North Korea and Burma. Not the best team. I would also consider Pakistan to be quite reliable to China, and would likely be their greatest ally in any sort of conflict. But Pakistan’s own problems maintaining a functioning government means it’s not that great of an asset in a fight. If Pakistan sent troops to fight for China in some part of the world, it’s very likely the Taliban types in northeastern Pakistan could overthrow the government. I would not expect them to be as friendly as the current administration.

4) On the other hand, the US has a few “pals to the end” that would really help. Canada, Japan, and the UK are among the “very reliable” countries the US would count on. “Pretty reliable” includes South Korea, Taiwan, mostly all of Europe, Australia, Israel, and Mexico. “Maybe reliable?” includes a few Middle Eastern countries like Saudi Arabia and Egypt, along with countries like Indonesia and Vietnam that perhaps fear China more than they like the US.

The point is that when comparing China and the Soviet Union, the huge difference between the two is the number of friends. Perhaps the Soviet practice of running every Eastern European government after WWII gave them an edge in the “friends” department, but it’s undeniable that the Soviet bloc was huge and powerful, while the Chinese bloc includes China, North Korea, and Hong Kong on a good day.

I think this is a good thing for all parties involved. The Chinese will be persuaded to act more diplomatically and manipulate soft power to bring more allies to their side. I think they have an excellent chance to do this with Southeast Asia and South Korea, but have thus far been too aggressive in the South China Sea to be successful. Meanwhile, the US will continue to feel safe knowing it at least has a few good friends in important parts around the world, and that these friends haven’t turned to China even as the US economy moves along at a snail’s pace, and the Chinese are flush with money. It’s also reassuring to see that despite China’s influence and development model, democracy is actually growing in parts of the world instead of regressing. Clearly the soft power war is being won by the West, but there is nothing wrong with a competition of ideas from the Chinese.

So, next time you find yourself traveling from Michigan to visit our slightly backward neighbors to the north, remember to be friendly to them buy them a beer. That Canadian vote at the UN could be critical some day, and it’s nice to know someone has your back.

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