Russia and China’s popularity rising in the Global South as world fractures into liberal and illiberal spheres

Russia and China’s popularity rising in the Global South as world fractures into liberal and illiberal spheres
Three quarters of the 1.2bn people living in liberal democracies now hold a negative view of China and Russia. But the opposite is true for the 6.3bn people who reside outside of liberal democracies, where over two thirds have a positive view of China and Russia. / bne IntelliNews
By bne IntelliNews February 14, 2023

The world is increasingly polarised into liberal and illiberal spheres and outside the liberal West both China and Russia’s stars have been rising, according to report from the Centre for the Future of Democracy at Cambridge University.

As bne IntelliNews has reported, we are living in an increasingly fractured world. Rather than a return to the Cold War division of east and west based on ideological grounds, commercial interests are driving the foreign policy for the overwhelming majority of developing countries. Europe and the US are backing Ukraine against Russia as they see Russian President Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine as an attack on European values, but most of the countries outside Europe (and several within) the war is an irrelevance to them and they continue to judge Russia on the basis of commercial links.

Three quarters (75%) of the 1.2bn people living in liberal democracies now hold a negative view of China and 87% hold a negative view towards Russia. But the opposite is true for the 6.3bn people who reside outside of liberal democracies where 70% have a positive view of China and 66% of Russia. (chart)

It appears that the public's dissatisfaction with democratic performance has a correlation with the receptiveness towards authoritarian powers. A majority of the public in 7 out of 10 countries (69%) have a positive view of Russia  are also dissatisfied with the democratic performance of their own country. And three quarter (73%) of countries that have a positive view of China are also dissatisfied with their democratic performance.

China has emerged as the leading nation in the developing world. For the first time ever, more people in developing countries have a positive view of China, at 62%, than the United States, at 61%, according to the study. This is particularly noticeable among the 4.6bn people living in countries supported by the Belt and Road Initiative, where almost two-thirds hold a positive view of China, compared to just 27% in non-participating countries.

However, this increase in support for the Global South has come at a cost, a dramatic collapse in the support in developed nations. In the Western world, just 23% of citizens hold a positive view of China, a stark contrast from five years ago when 42% held a positive view. The same trend can be seen with Russia, with support from Western citizens falling from 39% a decade ago to just 12% today. Russia has also lost its leverage among European countries, formerly sympathetic to Russia, including Greece (down from 69% to 30% favourable), Hungary (from 45% to 25%) and Italy (from 38% to 14%). In spite of Russian efforts at fostering disinformation and ties to extremist parties, the country enjoys little support from within Western electorates.

Russia's real influence lies outside of the West, where 75% of respondents in South Asia, 68% in Francophone Africa, and 62% in Southeast Asia view the country positively.

The study went on to divide the world up into two camps by plotting countries with positive sentiment towards the US on the horizontal axis, according to over 100 surveys, against those that have favourable views of Russia and China on the vertical. (chart)

Blue connecting lines show countries that have a minimum 15pp more preference for the US over Russia and China. Purple lines show countries with a minimum 15pp preference for Russia and China over the US.

America’s bloc is much larger and contains a total of 64 countries in total compared to only 15 in the Sino-Russian camp. The US block also contains more people, but only because India, with 1.4bn people, was narrowly included in the US block, the study says. Excluding India, which is also a member of the BRICS block and has repeatedly supported Russia in UN votes, and the two blocks contain an almost equal number of people with 2.5bn people in societies aligned behind America, 2.3bn in societies close to Russia and China, and each bloc accounting for around 30% of current world population.

“By economic power, however, the American alliance comes out far ahead,” the study found. “Societies aligned with the United States have a total gross domestic product of $70 trillion – double the collective $35 trillion that is accounted for by countries favouring Russia and China.6 This reveals America’s key strength: the ability to project power through allied high-income democracies. America’s own economy, at $21 trillion, is less than the collective GDP within China and Russia’s orbit, yet American partners effectively triple its economic clout and enable the maintenance of non-military tool such as sanctions and blacklists. By contrast, Russia and China are lonely giants, together accounting for almost $30 trillion of the $35 trillion economy in their zone.”

Russia’s growing friendship with Global South

The last decade has brought some large changes in attitudes to Russia and the clearest case where opinions in the developed and developing worlds have separated.

During the boom years until 2012 a narrow majority of Americans and Europeans had an overall positive view of Russia. Yet following the 2014 annexation of Crimea and downing of MH-17 commercial airliner, Western views of Russia began to deteriorate rapidly and have only become worse.

By contrast, until the 2022 invasion of Ukraine, most developing regions were becoming rapidly more Russia favourable. Large increases were seen in Southern Asia (57% to 76%), Southeast Asia(52% to 67%), and Latin America (43% to 53%), while even in the Middle East positive sentiment rose (41% to 53%) in spite of Russia’s post-2015 intervention to support Syria’s widely reviled leader, Bashar al-Assad. (chart)​

During the Cold War, several African countries, including Angola, Ethiopia, and Algeria, had close ties with the Soviet Union. The Communist bloc also supported post-colonial movements, including those in Congo and South Africa. However, with the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991, Russia's global ambitions declined and it became a marginal player in international politics. In recent years, however, Putin has regained some of Russia's influence in Africa, driven by the annexation of Crimea and the support of African governments, who have relied on Russian mercenaries and weapons. As a result, Russia remains popular in many parts of Africa, especially in the Sahel region of Francophone West Africa and the Arabic-speaking north.