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Understanding Influence in the Strategic Competition with China


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Research Questions

  1. What do qualitative metrics and case studies reveal about how China attempts to exert influence around the world?
  2. How should the United States respond to China's influence-seeking activities?

Over the past two decades, China's role in the geopolitical landscape has grown, particularly as a result of the country's rising economic and military power. Thus, U.S. leaders now view China as a strategic competitor—one that seeks to upend the post–World War II liberal international order. One of China's strategies in that competition is to seek influence in countries around the world. In this report, the authors assess China's ability to use various mechanisms of influence to shape the policies and behavior of 20 countries, as well as the lessons that these examples offer for the United States' strategic competition with China. With this study, the authors aim to produce a transferable framework (comprising inputs, intervening factors, and outputs) and other tools of analysis that can provide reliable means of assessing bilateral influence relationships in other cases.

Among the study's chief findings is that China's burgeoning economic power, above and beyond any other considerations, is the foundation for its influence. Furthermore, Beijing's ability to manipulate local political, economic, and social events to its benefit is an important factor in its influence efforts. If China's mammoth economic magnet is the gravitational center of its influence, its ability to reach into other countries and effectively manipulate perceptions and events is the predominant tool. Nevertheless, success in the competition for influence is as much about how the United States responds to current challenges as it is about anything China does or does not do.

Key Findings

  • The most effective source of influence in the various cases and data sources that the authors investigated was the weight of attraction of China's economy.
  • The most easily measurable components of influence—the inputs (e.g., trade, foreign direct investment, number of visits by senior officials, presence of an influence country's media)—are imperfect predictors of outcomes.
  • As a result, inputs are not necessarily the best indicators of potential influence and go only so far in defining the scope and severity of the influence challenge.
  • The second-most-effective source of influence was China's targeted, often clandestine outreach—sometimes with financial incentives—to specific leaders, elites, and opinion-shapers in targeted countries.
  • The contest for influence is primarily, indeed dominantly, nonmilitary in character.
  • China faces a dilemma in exercising influence: The more strongly China tries to use its clout to force outcomes in other countries, the greater the backlash it foments and the more those countries reject its influence.
  • The most generalized geopolitical reaction to growing Chinese power is hedging.
  • Despite that predominant trend of hedging, the general geopolitical alignment of the focus countries that we assessed for this study remains highly positive for the United States.
  • The emerging competition for influence is not strictly government to government.


  • For countries that are the target of Chinese influence, the United States should continue to offer the credible promise of assistance when they stand up to Chinese coercion.
  • The U.S. government needs a comprehensive approach to understanding, tracking, and responding to China's targeted influence programs aimed at specific leaders or elites.
  • If the United States is not willing to simply accept the unqualified effect of China's economic growth, it must do much more to develop investment tools capable of offering countries an alternative to Chinese money—especially in infrastructure.
  • The United States should support independent research, journalism, and transparency initiatives focused on China's activities in key countries.
  • The United States should develop an influence strategy with a broader network (beyond journalists) to rally nongovernmental sources of opinion and action in targeted countries


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