In a recent post coinciding with the U.N. General Assembly meetings, Erik Voeten dispelled any illusion that the U.S. has won friends and influence from President Obama’s international charm offensive. If votes in the U.N. General Assembly are any indication, the U.S. has less influence today than it did four years ago. Other countries now are less likely to vote with the U.S. than they were in 2009, and that trend is not improving.
To be fair, the causes may have little to do with Obama per se. Voeten points to the fact that domestic politics constrains how the U.S. can vote on Israel and Cuba; and offers that other states may simply be balancing against American power.
There is additional evidence that points to an equally plausible explanation. We find that the countries voting less with the U.S. are actually voting more with China. In other words, while the U.S. is getting lonelier, China is making friends.
The reason has to do with China’s growing trade relations. The more countries trade with China, the more likely they are to side with China on foreign policy. There is certainly qualitative evidence to this effect. Countries such as Costa Rica have switched diplomatic recognition to China from Taiwan, citing “an act of elemental realism, an awakening to the global context we are forced to deal with.” The reality is that China had displaced Taiwan as a key bilateral trade partner, giving countries like Costa Rica more to gain from closer ties with the former than the latter.
This is not just an isolated case. Examining bilateral trade data for China and developing countries in Africa and Latin America between 1992-2006 (the last year for which data were available), we find that trade with China generates important foreign policy consequences. The more robust the trade relationship, the more likely those states were to converge with China on foreign policy issues (and we can show that the causality does not run from foreign policy to trade).
This pattern holds across foreign policy issues but is especially discernible on a subset of issues that are known to be important to both China and the U.S.: country-specific human rights resolutions, which China consistently opposes. The graph above shows Africa and Latin America’s average trade dependence (i.e., total trade/GDP) and corresponding propensity to vote with China on country-specific human rights votes between 1992-2006. The chart suggests that, on average, as countries in these two regions have increased trade with China, they have increasingly sided with China on human rights votes in the UNGA. This relationship also holds when we control for a host of other factors.
Thus, while China has touted a policy of noninterference—that it does not mix business with politics—we find that business and politics are inextricably linked. Even in the absence of a purposeful plan, foreign policy consequences follow from trade. As China rises, the U.S. will find itself a whole lot lonelier.