The Chinese have paid particular attention to nations with large oil and natural gas reserves, such as Venezuela, Kazakhstan and Nigeria, but they also cultivate relations with third-tier countries -- countries that the West tends to ignore but that have voting rights in international bodies like anyone else. Beijing has forgiven billions in loans to African nations and pampered them with infrastructure projects. It has generally tied its assistance merely to two conditions that are relatively painless for the countries in question, namely that they have no official relations with Taiwan and that they support the People's Republic in international organizations.
What Beijing is not demanding of these countries is even more telling. Unlike Washington, London or Berlin, the Chinese do not tie their development aid to any conditions relating to good governance. While the West punishes authoritarian behavior by withholding funds (and, in some cases, indirectly threatens "regime change"), Beijing has no scruples about pampering the world's dictators by building them palaces and highways to their weekend villas -- and assuring them territorial integrity, no matter what human rights violations they are found guilty of.
China has friendly relations with some of the world's most problematic countries, including failed states and countries on the brink of failure such as Zimbabwe, Sudan, Myanmar and Yemen. "For the West, failed states are a problem. For China, they're an opportunity," writes American expert Stefan Halper in the magazine Foreign Policy, referring to these countries as "Beijing's coalition of the willing."
The diplomatic weapon is having its intended effect. Already, the pro-Chinese voting bloc led by African nations has managed to obstruct progress in the WTO. Meanwhile in the United Nations, the People's Republic's influence is clear: Within the last decade, support for Chinese positions on human rights issues has risen from 50 percent to well over 70 percent.
Washington, in turn, is no longer even included in certain key groups. The United States was not invited to take part in the East Asia Summit, and it was denied the observer status it had sought in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, a sort of anti-NATO under China's de facto leadership that includes Russia and most of the Central Asian countries. Iran, on the other hand, was.
Of course, none of this means that the West has already lost the battle for influence in Africa, Latin America and Asia. While Beijing cozies up to dictators, an approach the West cannot and should not take, America and Europe can compete, and even excel, in another area: by offering the ideal model of a democracy worth emulating.
There has been much speculation in recent months that developing countries could be increasingly eyeing China's blend of a market economy and Leninism, economic diversity and strict one-party control as an attractive alternative to democracy. The United States engages too little in self-reflection while the Europeans are too involved with themselves, and both make themselves less attractive as a result, says former Singaporean diplomat and political science professor Kishore Mahbubani. He believes that China's momentum is ultimately unstoppable. Many people in the West who have always viewed trade unions as disruptive and given little heed to human rights violations agree with him.