The emblem of the United Nations is seen at its headquarters in New York City, New York. Picture taken June 18, 2021.

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Who are China's fellow travelers in the international system?


Photo Credit: REUTERS/Andrew Kelly


The US preference for working with “friendly” and “like-minded” countries in an attempt to limit China’s growing economic influence and dominance of clean energy supply chains faces a difficult reality. China’s positions in the United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) and its authoritarian political institutions distance it from the United States and other advanced Western democracies. But these same factors make it much closer to those of the developing and middle-income countries that represent the vast majority of the international system.

As discussed in a recent post, data on regime type and voting coalitions in the UNGA can help identify which countries are, from a US perspective, “friendly” and “like-minded.” Viewed through the prism of political-institutional and preference similarity, the countries that emerged as most friendly with the United States were Israel, Australia, and a raft of highly democratic NATO members. At the other end of the spectrum were Syria, Iran, Venezuela, and China—the rising authoritarian superpower whose key position in global supply chains for everything from renewable technology to critical minerals, pharmaceuticals, and personal protective equipment is occasioning US talk of friendshoring in the first place.

The landscape looks very different when centering the view from Beijing, applying the same methodology to China:

  1. On the one hand, China’s authoritarianism and positions in the UNGA may distance it from Western advanced democracies but on the other hand align it more with developing and middle-income countries, including those that are democracies; and
  2. The closest of China’s “fellow travelers”—countries with similarly authoritarian institutions and stances in the UNGA—is North Korea, the country that defines the concept of a pariah state. But China’s standing with its ally in Pyongyang (or vice versa) does not similarly distance it from much of the international community.

Figure 1 displays countries by the average difference, during 2020–22, between their absolute deviation from China’s polyarchy score (0.08) and estimated UNGA ideal points, which gauge alignment with the US-led liberal order. Polyarchy, as defined by Robert Dahl, involves democratic structures that empower and involve various societal actors—like nongovernmental organizations, businesses, and political groups—while curbing governmental power. The figure's origin marks the Chinese position. The BRICS members during this time period—Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa—are marked red and all others blue, covering 171 countries.

The clustering of values around 0.3-0.4 on the x-axis indicates the bulk of countries are much more closely aligned with China’s ideal point in the UNGA than with that of the United States. The mean and median ideal point distance from China’s in the UNGA are fractions of those from the United States (mean, 0.81 vs. 2.68; median, 0.46 vs. 2.95). Whereas the countries voting in alignment with the United States are liberal democracies (high polyarchy scores), countries voting with China can be found across the governance spectrum, from hard autocracies like Eritrea to lower- and middle-income democracies like Kenya and Costa Rica. There are essentially no authoritarian countries close to the US position in the UNGA. There are plenty of democratic countries that vote with China.

Explanations for China’s more mainstream positions with respect to UNGA voting vary, mostly emphasizing China’s vast network of trade and investment ties—China was as of 2023 the top trading partner for 120 countries, including US allies Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—as mechanisms for changing global norms on national sovereignty, noninterference, and human rights. Other observers point to China’s historical position as the only developing country with a permanent seat and veto in the UN Security Council: China’s views may be more mainstream because most countries are not rich democracies. Despite (or perhaps because of) its meteoric economic growth over the past three decades and emergence as a global power, China is still identified as a leader among the Global South. Still others point to China’s championing of culturally specific, state-based definitions of human rights and political participation that may garner sympathy from other unelected autocrats facing territorial and/or cultural autonomy movements.

Whatever the cause (or causes), the outcome has been that China’s position in the UNGA is significantly closer to mainstream sentiment than that of the United States. Whether China’s proximity to mainstream sentiment translates into a recognizable, dependable set of reliable “friends,” however, is a more open question.

Unlike the United States, China does not have a large network of formal military alliances. Indeed, China has just one formal alliance partner: North Korea, under the auspices of the 1961 Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty, most recently renewed in 2021.[1] It’s also the country that falls closest to the origin in the figure.

Beyond North Korea, who does China consider friendly? One answer might be the BRICS, a club that includes Brazil, Russia, India, China, South Africa, and more recently[2] Egypt, Ethiopia, Iran, and the United Arab Emirates (UAE). BRICS members may be relatively aligned in their opposition to the US-led order (x-axis) but are more diverse in level of democracy (y-axis), with electoral democracies South Africa and Brazil coexisting with hard authoritarian regimes like Iran and the UAE. They may share a desire to reform or even demolish the US-led world order, but it is hard to see a shared vision of what the alternative might look like.

Using factor analysis,[3] I again collapse these two dimensions into a single measure of friendliness and like-mindedness with China. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the list of least-friendly countries is essentially the inverse of the US friends list, populated by Western liberal democratic NATO members plus Australia and Israel. China’s most-friendly list is not so easily characterized. At the top is North Korea, followed by four of the six members of the Gulf Cooperation Council, Eritrea, Belarus, and two failed/failing states (Somalia and Yemen). The list even includes Eswatini (formerly Swaziland)—which has not had formal diplomatic relations with the People's Republic of China since 1968, when it extended diplomatic recognition to the Republic of China (Taiwan). Allow me to emphasize that last point: One of China’s closest fellow travelers—at least according to these metrics—is a country that neither recognizes nor is recognized by China.

The 10 countries most and least friendly to China, 2020–22 
Most friendly Least friendly
1. DPRK 162. Czechia
2. Saudi Arabia  163. Germany
3. UAE 164. Estonia
4. Bahrain 165. Denmark
5. Qatar 166. Canada
6. Eritrea 167. Australia
7. Yemen 168. France
8. Belarus 169. Great Britain
9. Eswatini (Swaziland) 170. Israel
10. Somalia 171. USA
Sources: V-Dem, Voeten, Streznhov, and Bailey.

Unlike the United States, China is not pursuing or messaging around a friendshoring strategy. If anything, China is attempting to become more self-reliant, addressing supply chain vulnerabilities for energy and food by increasing targets for renewable energy and technology production while ramping up domestic coal production and pursuing targeted food self-sufficiency. China’s comparatively cozy relations with Russia and the members of the Gulf Cooperation Council help offset its lack of domestic oil and natural gas reserves. China’s overarching strategy does not seem to revolve around a tight-knit group of like-minded countries.

Nevertheless, the growing distance between the United States and its closest allies, on the one hand, and the bulk of countries in the UNGA on the other, is a concerning sign. As the United States and China decouple, many countries in the Global South, especially in high-leverage regions like Southeast Asia, are desperate not to be asked to choose between China and the West; from the US perspective, what these countries should be concerned about is whether the United States would not like how they would fall. China's relationships reflect its investment and trade ties, but in the UNGA, China's positions are much more mainstream than those of the United States—even if its closest fellow travelers are a less unified and reliable set of countries.


1. China was in a formal defensive pact with the Soviet Union, the Sino-Soviet Treaty of Friendship, Alliance and Mutual Assistance, from 1950 to 1979.

2. The last four entered the organization on January 1, 2024.

3. Factor analysis reduces some number of variables to fewer underlying “factors,” or dimensions that explain a large amount of the variation contained in the data. In cases where two variables are moderately or strongly correlated, the underlying factor will be strongly correlated with both. In this case, the underlying factor is correlated with both observed variables at r = 0.68.

Data Disclosure

This publication does not include a replication package.

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