Notebook: Winning the Third World + Shadow Cold War

Notes and observations from Winning the Third World: Sino-American Rivalry During the Cold War, by Gregg Brazinsky. University of North Carolina Press, 2017, and Shadow Cold War: The Sino-Soviet Competition for the Third World, by Jeremy Friedman. University of North Carolina Press, 2015.


  • Writing in 1920, Mao expressed hope that the New People’s Study Society would “get a great number of members to live in Southeast Asia to engage in educational and cultural movements,” adding “once there are some results, they should then organize overseas Chinese as well as the natives, from all sectors and walks of life to launch nation building.” Overseas Chinese communities never lived up to Mao’s revolutionary hopes or American fears. In recent months, Beijing has again intensified efforts directed towards these communities and, sometimes through them, their host countries.
  • In both books, Zhou Enlai’s statesmanship looms large. It was he who represented China at the 1954 meeting in Geneva, where his professionalism won him admiration. Zhou “had given the impression that he was very much the father of all of Asia,” one British memo recorded. Again it was Zhou who won China rave reviews at the first Afro-Asian solidarity conference in Bandung, Indonesia later that year. As visitor or host, Zhou was present for every major opening of bilateral ties with China, from a visit with Nehru in New Delhi in 1954 to the famous Nixon visit in 1972. It is easy to see why Henry Kissinger would later say in all his years of public life, “I have encountered no more compelling figure” than Zhou. What China would be like today had Taiwan succeeded in assassinating Zhou en route to Bandung is unfathomable.


  • Rare is discussion of how influence was tangibly used other than seemingly to spite the other country. This contrasts with contemporary scholarship that shows recipients of Beijing’s aid are more likely to vote with it at the United Nations.
  • While Friedman translates many a cable evaluating other countries through Marxist-Leninist glasses, neither book systematically examines the apparatus by which each country came to understand the world. (See Dick Cheney’s belief that American soldiers would be greeted as liberators in Iraq as one in a long list of fatal misunderstandings.) Projecting national narratives abroad is a common source of folly. An accurate understanding is more than the product of a nation’s intelligence services or the formative international experiences of its leaders. (Brazinsky writes Kennedy demanded senior advisers read translations of Che and Mao as he had.) A nation’s understanding of the world is also a consequence of its people and their global ties. Even as China becomes a less provincial nation, it will nonetheless remain a homogeneous one.
  • The complex interplay of domestic politics and foreign policy does not get the full attention it deserves in either book. The Long Telegram goes without mention as does the intensity of American domestic anti-communist fears. Only passing mention is made to how the Civil Rights movement was bolstered by concerns about American standing abroad. (Brazinsky notes that China would welcome the likes of W.E.B. DuBois and other activists specifically with African nations in mind. Particularly amusing to this reader was the description of a mass rally in Beijing shortly after the March on Washington in which Mandarin translations of “We Shall Not Be Moved” and “Ol’ Man River” were sung.)

Global scope 

  • Understandably, the deep values-based relationships between the United States, the Anglosphere, Western Europe, South Korea and Japan do not appear in either book. But undoubtedly these enduring relationships are the ones most important to a nation’s power. These are the relationships that China does not have and most wishes to undo.
  • Russia and China’s present relationship has swung back to amity, mutually enabling the other’s efforts to dominate their regions. But with China’s economy now ten times that of Russia, the circumstances differ greatly from the Cold War.  As China’s Belt and Road Initiative deepens its presence in Central Asia and Eastern Europe, this will bear watching.
  • If a third country’s rivalry were to deserve a book, it would certainly be India. After the PLA entered Tibet, an Indian delegation visited China in 1953. It was then that Zhou Enlai first proposed the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence. Nehru supported it, seeing it, in Brazinsky’s words, “as an opportunity to strengthen India’s status even if it also meant raising the prestige of a potential rival.” By 1957, that calculus was already changing. New Delhi was upset with China’s defense of the Soviet invasion of Hungary and the issue of Tibetan sovereignty. Two years later, the failed Tibetan uprising would cause the Dalai Lama to flee to India in exile. In 1962, China and India would fight a brief border war. Those events continue to exert themselves on present-day relations. With the end of the Cold War, the non-aligned group of nations India championed lost its relevance. In its place, the BRICS nations – Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa – fleetingly captured political imaginations as the new forces collectively shaping the global order. Far more consequential has been the Bush administration’s deal to legitimize India as a nuclear power, strengthening a strategic partnership between the world’s largest and oldest democracies.
  • Latin America and the Caribbean garner only modest attention from the two authors. Beyond Cuba, readers get little more than Friedman’s acknowledgment that “Beijing had been very active in creating Maoist splinter parties in Latin America,” prompting a delegation from that region to demand that Moscow and Beijing stop their infighting. Thus, there is little insight on how China’s history affects present-day relations with that region. Since 2000, trade between the region and China has jumped to $234 billion from $12 billion. Of note is China’s increasing activity in the Caribbean, which a Jamestown Foundation report suggests has much to do with Taiwan. Eleven of the twenty states that continue to recognize Taipei are in the Americas.
  • In recent a survey, 13 out of 38 countries surveyed by Pew – including many in Europe and Australia – see China as the world’s leading economic power would be troubling. (In fact, the World Bank has US GDP at $18 trillion vs. $11 trillion for China.) At the same time, the global public harbors few illusions about China. Twice as many people say the country does not respect personal freedoms as do and 21 times as many people would migrate to the United States before China.