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Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War by Gregg Brazinsky (2017)

Updated: Nov 6, 2022

A Book Review

If not already evident, Russia’s war on Ukraine, its subsequent fallout, and recent escalatory measures taken by the United States and China has made clear that great power competition is back in full force. Indeed, the White House’s recently released National Security Strategy document went so far as to assert that “the post-Cold War era is definitively over and a competition is underway between the major powers to shape what comes next.” While pundits disagree on whether Washington should prioritize Europe or the Indo-Pacific, it is safe to say that China is at the forefront of U.S. strategy in this emerging era — necessitating a look to the past to better inform the present.

While typical Cold War narratives simplify the era from 1945 to 1991 as a dipolar ideological battle between the Soviet Union and the United States, in actuality China was a complex part of this struggle. As Gregg Brazinsky masterfully demonstrates in Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, a fierce Sino-American competition took place which was critical to the way the ideological conflict evolved and, at times, even overshadowed the popularly-touted Soviet-American rivalry. Using previously unavailable sources, Brazinsky brilliantly argues that this competition between China and the United States was primarily a fight for status, a battle that is continuing today and threatens a potential return to isolation for the massive nation.

There are many positives to Brazinsky’s authorship and few drawbacks for a tome of this size, academic depth, and modern-day relevance. His style of writing has inherent command which gives confidence to the reader in his knowledge. As Brazinsky stresses, status and ideology are interlinked: China’s struggle to achieve legitimacy while in the shadow of its communist big brother who dominated U.S. attention was a question of ideology as well as status. The USSR and China engaged in what O. Edmund Clubb called in his epic work, published in the 1970s, “the great game.” In fact, Brazinsky’s book is very reminiscent of Clubb’s tome, as both draw attention to a fallacy on the international stage of the Cold War. While Brazinsky focuses on the downplayed competition between two nations during the Cold War, Clubb focuses on the likewise downsized competition between Russia and China, which he says was hardly just a Cold War affair and spanned hundreds of years. But while the focus here is on Sino-American relations, there is something to be said for the perpetual state of competitiveness that is built into the Chinese spirit — not unlike the “Russian spirit.”

However, Brazinsky notes that Washington was primarily “reactive” and hostile towards China during the Cold War period. Inasmuch as George Kennan’s recommendation concerning Russia was just to keep them “contained” and so busy with various conflict in their border territories that they wouldn’t have the resources or energy to expand, Washington aimed to suppress China from becoming a global influencer — keeping that status to a minimum, because Beijing’s ideology wasn’t something the White House believed it could change. And rightly so.

Brazinsky chooses to organize his book not quite chronologically but by the main objectives of China’s foreign policy, which seems an effective method. Perhaps the one thing Brazinsky doesn’t do clearly is define “status,” — one of the central premises of his book. This may not necessarily be a drawback, though, for through the thematic presentation of the writing and content he keeps reminding readers that everything China did was to climb the ladder of international significance and grab the American Eagle’s tail feathers. This all-consuming desire to achieve ascendancy compromised the security of many smaller nations in China’s sphere of influence, especially in post-colonial Africa, which was in a highly volatile, vulnerable state.

Chinese economic competition and attempts to establish diplomatic advantage and regional hegemony in these countries through direct financial investment and official visits didn’t yield the desired effects, meaning their status may have been harmed rather than elevated. “Guinea’s failed economic policies were not China’s fault … but neither Guinea nor China’s other closest allies in Africa ever became effective showcases that could persuade the rest of the continent that Sino-African economic cooperation offered the best road to development and growth. This, too, is a reason that the goodwill generated by Chinese aid never extended beyond a few countries.” (303) Interestingly, however, this view of Beijing in African nations has changed now that the Soviet Union is gone and China has achieved star power — rendered in part thanks to the United States giving the country such status-raising attention.

While Brazinsky makes a compelling case for how Washington grudgingly shifted its stance towards China, it seems that China could not have truly gained the status and priority that it holds in U.S. foreign policy today if Russia hadn’t completely crumbled in 1991. Is this true? Or would China have risen regardless of the collapse of the Soviet Union?

Brazinsky’s point in the book’s conclusion that America’s “hysterical response to Chinese globalism accomplish[ed] little during the Cold War” is an important one. It raises the question: What should the current administration’s China policy be? Overstating its influence seems to be a bad idea, but ignoring and tamping down status is bad too. What makes the modern Sino-American rivalry so much different from the Soviet-American rivalry during the Cold War? How might present tensions devolve into a more drastic scenario? And how can America maintain its status and global influence while preventing China from feeling undervalued and yet not aggrandized either?

Brazinsky states explicitly that cooperation between Washington and Beijing causes the rest of the world to fall into line, essentially. This will lead to enhanced effects for both nations. But this is a rosy picture and discounts one factor that was so dissected during the Cold War. Is ideology no longer an issue? And if not, was ideology ever the real contender in the 20th century? And in the event it wasn’t, could that explain why China took a backseat for America? Was Beijing’s conversion to communism the worst thing they could have done if their aim was to raise their global status? In fact, in reflecting on this very matter, it does seem that communism is hardly a word associated with China in the public sphere anymore, at least not in the mainstream media. This is not the Cold War, when communism was the hot term that was presented in every newspaper, broadcast, and advertisement. What happens when China begins to militaristically expand its influence? What will Washington do?

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