A candlelight vigil outside the Chinese consulate building in Sydney on 4 June 2021 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
A candlelight vigil outside the Chinese consulate building in Sydney on 4 June 2021 to mark the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown (Saeed Khan/AFP via Getty Images)
On 1 June, I woke up to the news that the Chinese government had announced that it will allow all couples in the country to have three children, an increase from two. I joked to myself, “Finally, I’m legal!”
I was born illegally as the third child of my family. At the time, the notoriously abusive one-child policy, in effect between 1980 and 2015, limited most couples to only one child. (My parents were legally allowed two because we lived in a rural area.) Luckily, my parents were able to register me with the government after paying a hefty fine. My mother liked to say, “We have to even sell the broom in order to afford you!”
But unlike my family there were millions of families who couldn’t afford the fine. So their unauthorised children were denied legal documentation and unable to go to school, get health care, or obtain other public services. Couples who were employed by the government or government-affiliated institutions were often also fired for having too many children. To avoid that, the families had to hide the children or send them to live with relatives.
Government statistics show that China had 13 million such “black children”. In 2015, the authorities finally allowed those children to obtain registration even if their parents failed to pay the fines.
Growing up I internalised the social stigma of being the “extra child” because government propaganda – textbooks, slogans on the walls, TV and newspapers – constantly told me and millions of other “extra children” that we were taking up limited resources. We were an undue burden on society.
Now third children are legal, but there are the fourth, fifth, and sixth children who still have to hide or feel ashamed of themselves for existing.
Four decades ago, to curb population growth and ease environmental and natural resource challenges, the Chinese government limited most couples to just one child, locking people up for having extra children and dragging women away to perform forced abortions on them. Now, to ease the challenges brought by an aging population, the government wants more children.
However, the new three-child policy is unlikely to substantially increase the birth rate, and the government knows that. The two-child policy was already not working because many people didn’t want to have a second child, largely due to the high costs of raising a child. After an initial spike, the birth rate declined each year.
Major investments in making parenting affordable and feasible through measures such as free childcare and education and expanded and equitable caregiving leave could have helped, but the government did not choose that approach. As a result, the announcement of the three-child policy was met with widespread cynicism online. “I’m not buying three Rolls-Royces not because there’s any restriction, but because they’re expensive,” read one post. “I want to sell my quota to rich people,” another said.
So why didn’t Beijing just lift all restrictions on birth?
Apparently, the government is worried that the wrong people will have more children. “We found in some impoverished areas in the west that people are still obsessed with having more children,” Yuan Xin, vice president of the government-affiliated China Population Association, told the state newspaper China Daily. “So a more relaxed family-planning policy may mean more children for them and make it more difficult for them to escape poverty.”
On the other side of the equation is government propaganda encouraging educated women to marry young and have children. In recent years, I’ve seen an increasing number of news articles on state media depicting university students having children in a positive light, while unmarried women in their late 20s – mostly an urban, educated cohort – are stigmatised as “leftover women.”
One would think if the authorities were only concerned with poor families stuck in poverty for having too many children, they would allow single women to have children on their own and same-sex couples to have children – the two groups are mostly educated, middle-class city dwellers. Yet children born outside of marriage still face fines and denial of access to public services, and same-sex unions are not recognized. Under President Xi Jinping, the ruling Chinese Communist Party has revived talk of traditional family values, seeing the traditional family structure as fundamental to social stability.
Outside of the realm of the ethnic Han majority, there are reports about authorities in Xinjiang taking brutal measures to cut down birth rates among Uighurs and other minorities, including forced abortions and sterilizations. The government even boasted that the measures saved Uighur women from being “baby-making machines.”
Putting these policy pieces together, one sees that there is a specific kind of children the Communist Party welcomes: those born to mothers who are young, educated, Han and married to a man. The eugenic undertone is alarming.
One-child, two-child or three-child policy. Fundamentally, they are the same in the sense that all are infringements on women’s reproductive rights and bodily autonomy: treating human beings as instruments of achieving the goals of the state.
Since 2013, public finance from China, Japan and South Korea accounted for more than 95% of total foreign financing toward coal-fired power plants. This financing enabled the construction and operation of coal power plants in developing countries, where investment in power supply does not match demand. These investments also came at a time when the global carbon budget was already overstretched.
At the Leaders Summit on Climate, South Korea made headlines by announcing it will immediately stop state-backed overseas coal finance. Four weeks later, Japan finally joined the other G7 countries to commit to end international coal financing by the end of 2021. While China is moving in the same direction by transitioning their international financing, it is now the only nation among the three largest providers of foreign coal finance without a formal commitment to end overseas coal finance.
It’s time for China to explicitly exit the sector. If the world is to reach carbon-neutral goals and prevent the worst impacts of climate change, no new coal investment can happen. It’s not just a moral argument — financially, coal investments are becoming less attractive than ever. With both of these dynamics in play, developing countries are less interested than ever in coal power.
Excluding China, global coal power capacity slowed to its lowest net increase in 2020, and President Xi suggested at the Leaders’ Summit that China would more strictly control domestic coal growth through the rest of the decade. Many coal power projects were cancelled or shelved, including some that Chinese companies planned to build or finance. Additionally, some Southeast Asian, South Asian and African countries that previously focused on coal power development decided to pause coal power.
The question is, why are host countries losing interest in coal? Three interrelated factors explain:
Resistance from local communities and civil organizations led to many coal-fired power projects failing to acquire permits needed to push forward, leading to project delays and even cancellations. These dynamics have been a key factor in Vietnam considering to stop building new coal power.
In most developing countries in South and Southeast Asia, the drop in electricity demand caused by the pandemic, such as reductions in services and lockdowns within industry, left governments with large, running bills fixed on their coal capacity tariffs. These governments had to pay those bills regardless of actual power generation. Coupled with highly impacted economies, the unsustainable situation triggered countries like Indonesia and Pakistan to consider the use of coal power. It is unlikely that countries will continue a coal-reliant path after the pandemic now that a long-existent structural challenge — coal power’s inability to adjust to volatile demand — has been exposed.
Coal power projects rely on heavy capital investment when counting in the associated transportation and storage facilities, and the increasing environmental costs from water usage and carbon trading. The costs of new coal-fired power plants are already higher than new renewable plants in 35 countries, including Pakistan, Bangladesh, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam, Malaysia and Turkey. This is leading to a foreseeable phase-out of the international coal finance supply.
With South Korea and Japan putting an end to overseas coal finance and developing countries losing interest in coal, China should be next to make a commitment — and it is signaling movement in that direction.
In a joint statement the United States and China released in April 2021, China pledged to maximize its overseas investment to support the transition from fossil fuel to renewables. This is an important step toward aligning China’s outbound investment with the Paris Agreement, and fulfilling President Xi’s commitment to a green Belt and Road Initiative. China should elaborate on this high-level commitment in an action plan for China to quit overseas coal financing, both public and private.
China has been by far the largest financier for overseas coal projects. While losing this business might be painful, missing out on renewables by hesitating on the energy transition would be significantly worse.
Recent moves from Chinese policy makers and stakeholders illustrate what a national commitment to phase out coal might require. Important milestones China must reach to end overseas coal finance include:
In a recent case from Bangladesh, the Chinese Embassy made it clear that China will no longer consider coal mining and coal-fired power stations in the country. The Bangladesh finance ministry sent a request to the Chinese Embassy to cancel two coal-related projects from a past bilateral investment memorandum of understanding (MOU), which the embassy agreed to do. Revisiting what to finance in this manner can happen elsewhere, particularly considering increasing coal phase-out trends.
In April 2020, the Deputy Governor of the Central Bank of China said China will stringently regulate overseas coal financing. This is reflected in the updated Green Bond Taxonomy that the People’s Bank of China (PBOC) and two other ministries published in April 2021. Coal and other fossil fuel power projects, domestic and overseas, will not be eligible to use the proceeds from a green bond.
Regulators who oversee outbound investment daily can also effectively shift financial flows away from coal, especially through an exclusion list. Both the industrial authority and the supervisor of state-owned enterprises (SOEs) — the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) and the State-Owned Assets Supervision and Administration (SASAC), respectively — can add coal projects to their sensitive or negative list. This can prevent SOEs and other Chinese investors from financing the sector. These regulatory and supervisory attempts prepare institutions to be ready for a wider national commitment.
Driven by China’s carbon neutrality goal and the growing overseas market need for renewables, some traditional coal power builders in China have begun to transition their businesses. For example, typical coal power builder and investor Datang extended its business in overseas renewables. China’s five biggest centrally-owned power generators are all rolling out plans for the very near carbon-neutral future ahead of schedule, featuring increased capacity in clean energies. These plans should integrate overseas investment as well.
COP26 President Alok Sharma, UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres and IEA President Fatih Birol are among the voices to recently urge the world to quit coal immediately, and with good reason: Achieving the global transition to a net-zero GHG emissions future will require a consistent, thorough policy framework for ending overseas coal finance.
As the last three nations to fund overseas coal finance, South Korea, Japan and China’s actions to step away from coal financing will be instrumental in executing this transition. Doing so could also free up international financing resources to support renewable power projects, which are also necessary to reach net zero by 2050 and could meet development and climate needs in developing countries.
Full credit to US President Joe Biden for turning the G7 juggernaut around and bringing it back to first principles of international engagements, putting power behind forgotten moral stances of the past, and pressing the reset on values that have been deteriorating since 2008. While the six big agenda items in its 13 June 2021 Carbis Bay Summit are in themselves as piously bland as any earlier ones or the several declarations crafted by G20, it is the last (“embrace our values”) that invites special attention. The other five—end the pandemic and prepare for the future, reinvigorate economies, secure future prosperity, protect the planet, and strengthen partnerships—are the usual holy grail statements, to be made and forgotten.
That said, there is a sharp pitch that Biden has pushed for, in continuum of his predecessor Donald J Trump, in bringing values as a counter to the new rogue that has infected the world—an aggressive China. There are four direct references and one indirect action plan to help nations stand up to this aggression.
First, on the pandemic and the manner in which Beijing has prevented any investigation into its labs as being the cause of COVID-19. The G7 squarely seeks investigations into China’s role in the outbreak. Here, the World Health Organisation as well as science journals have displayed weak knees and corrupt susceptibility. The G7 hopes to correct it. Clause 16:
Second, as the G7 pushes for a rules-based international order, it challenges China’s “non-market policies and practices”. In other words, it is calling out China’s stealth capitalism that has allowed it to grow through access to Western markets but keeping its own selectively shut and ensuring Chinese State capital rides the entrepreneurial capital of the West. But calling out is one thing; pushing another. The communique seeks a consultative and collective approach, something that the diverse group of countries, several of which are bound together with China in a stronger financial embrace, may not work out. This is possibly the weakest link in the communique. Clause 49:
Third, it calls out China’s human rights violations and smothering of freedoms. Here it crosses a pink line by mentioning the rights and freedoms of Uyghur Muslims in China’s Xinjiang region, who other than being de-religionised also act as fodder for cheap labour. It also crosses a red line by talking about autonomy in Hong Kong.
And fourth, it crosses another red line by coming out in support of Taiwan and countries around the South China Sea, which China has been harassing with impunity for several years and creating security threats.
There is one more tame-China expression in the communique that doesn’t name the country but addresses the problems posed by it—the Build Back Better World (B3W), conceptualised by the US to narrow the US $40 trillion infrastructure needs of the developing world that has now been adopted by the G7. Under this, and led by the US, the G7 will catalyse new infrastructure partnerships across the world, to counter China’s relentless but now receding Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). This, the G7 has pledged, will strengthen education and skilling, facilitate labour market participation, and capture diversity in region, gender, age, disability, ethnicity, sexual orientation or economic status.
The B3W is not merely a financial spin to BRI or responding to the debt trap diplomacy of China’s political ambitions. It is a geopolitical ricochet around the BRI that should help create a new development model
The B3W is not merely a financial spin to BRI or responding to the debt trap diplomacy of China’s political ambitions. It is a geopolitical ricochet around the BRI that should help create a new development model. How it will play out, however, is unclear—it will need financial institutions and technologies, it will involve governments and corporations, it will affect people and communities. A much-needed idea but complex in its expression, particularly because all the G7 members, including those invited to Cornwall (India, Australia, South Korea and South Africa), are noisy democracies, the B3W should replace the BRI as a development playbook.
The G7 will now be tested around its weak links. Essentially, how its members (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, plus the EU) resolve the internal conflicts that plague their individual economic relationships with China into a collective, cohesive action. Here, the actions of Germany will be watched most closely, as it is not merely the economic anchor of Europe but also the EU, and it is seen to be compromised, trading values for cash; it will have to change. And it is changing: A new law, enacted on 9 June 2021 introduces a shift to mandatory compliance with international norms on labour exploitation.
The G7 will now be tested around its weak links. Essentially, how its members (Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the UK, and the US, plus the EU) resolve the internal conflicts that plague their individual economic relationships with China into a collective, cohesive action. Here, the actions of Germany will be watched most closely, as it is not merely the economic anchor of Europe but also the EU, and it is seen to be compromised, trading values for cash; it will have to change
On the other side, the stance of the US is clear—it is going for the jugular and attempting to force reforms in China through economic isolation. By putting its money where its geopolitical intentions are, the Biden administration is creating a counter-force to Xi Jinping’s BRI and potential returns to private companies as they build infrastructure. Between Germany and the US stand the other five G7 nations. For now, the floor belongs to the US.
The idea of B3W is finding resonance. Already, India is studying the proposal and is likely to engage with it going forward. Given that New Delhi has been on the forefront of objecting to Beijing’s BRI, notably because it passes through its territory in Pakistan Occupied Kashmir but equally because of the opaque nature of the deals with countries it runs through, joining the B3W is akin to its membership of the Quad. This is a step in the right direction, on the right side of an alternative and emerging geopolitics.
In terms of foreign relations, China labors to maintain parallel relationships and do everything it can to avoid having to choose a side. China is still a bench player in Middle East politics and security, certainly when compared to United States involvement in the region, and in most cases it wishes to avoid direct involvement in conflict areas or unnecessary long-term commitments. Chinese involvement in the Middle East is generally explained as driven mainly by economic motives and tightly linked to energy security needs, as Beijing imports 70 percent of its oil consumption, chiefly from the Gulf. China’s need for oil is even expected to increase in the coming decades, and hence the centrality of the Gulf states to Chinese interests in the Middle East. In addition, China sees the Gulf as a potential market for investment, both for heavy industry infrastructure such as ports and railways, and as a destination for Chinese technology. The Gulf states too see a benefit in linking the Chinese Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with their own structural reforms, such as the Saudi Vision 2030.
Maintaining a delicate balance between rival parties likewise characterizes China’s relations with Iran on one hand, and with the Arab Gulf states on the other. Even the signing of the 25 year “strategic agreement” between China and Iran in March 2021 is not evidence of any change in this balancing policy, which until now has been quite successful – as evidenced by China’s consistent avoidance of any explicit declaration regarding its regional policy, adoption of clear positions on controversial issues, and choice of sides in any conflicts.
In order to maintain a cautious balance between Iran and the Arab Gulf states, China deliberately splits its contacts and visits equally between the Persian and Arab sides of the Gulf. Thus, when China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi visited Tehran and signed the agreement with Iran, he was also careful to visit and meet the leaders of Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, and Bahrain. The Chinese Minister began this part of the visit in Riyadh, where he presented a five point initiative, including reference to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, the Iranian nuclear issue, closer cooperation in the fight against COVID-19, and an old-new proposal to set up a mechanism for regional cooperation under Chinese auspices.
China’s economic motive has apparently been joined recently by a political motive. It is often said that China benefits from the United States presence in the Middle East, which maintains regional stability and secures maritime routes. But there are signs that China also sees the region as a place for diplomatic activity that positions it as a responsible, and no less important, moral power, against the US, which Beijing taunts as a belligerent power that is the source of regional problems. In Operation Guardian of the Walls, China used its status as the current president of the UN Security Council in order to present the United States as having “taken sides” in the conflict, and to undermine Washington’s position as an objective and reliable broker. At the same time, China exploited the conflict to present itself as the guardian of minority rights, and above all as a power that is attentive to the rights of Muslims.
The purpose of this message is to deflect the criticisms of China over its treatment of its Muslim population, and particularly its actions in Xinjiang, where Beijing is accused of setting up re-education camps for Muslim Uyghurs. This message is also intended for the ears of Muslim countries in the Middle East, which are often considered to have chosen the economic benefits offered by China, in return for refraining from any criticism on this matter. Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman even justified Beijing’s actions against the Uyghurs and declared that China has “the right to take action against terror and extremism.” Gulf states were among the signatories of a letter to the UN Human Rights Commissioner that praised China for “its remarkable achievements” on human rights. It is also reported that Saudi Arabia, Egypt and the UAE have extradited exiled Uyghurs from their territory to Beijing. Casting China as an ethical power that supports the rights of Muslims is convenient for its Muslim partners: after all, both sides are opposed to external involvement in their affairs and take action against internal opposition to their authoritarian regimes – particularly in view of the priority that the Biden administration assigns to human rights. It is possible that China will continue to exploit local crises in a similar way, and even extend its activity in this direction.
As China’s interest in the Gulf increases, it appears that Washington has not hesitated to exert pressure on the regional states, since it perceives certain aspects of their cooperation with China as damaging to American national security. The Gulf states are aware of increasing American concerns about China and do not want to get caught in a conflict between powers. However, Washington’s decision not to supply them with some of its technological-military products could drive them to purchase such components from China. For its part, China has signaled that it wants closer strategic cooperation with the Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia – with which it cooperates on nuclear matters, where a great deal is apparently still concealed – and the United Arab Emirates.
China has doubled its arms sales to the Middle East in general, and the Gulf states in particular, in the period 2016-2020 compared to the years 2011-2015. However, this figure is still low, representing only 7 percent of all Chinese arms sales. At the same time, in May 2021 the Wall Street Journal reported that US intelligence agencies were concerned by the development of security ties between China and the UAE, and particularly by China’s possible access to advanced American technology, in connection with the sale of F-35 aircraft to the UAE. The report claims that the US identified Chinese military cargo aircraft landing in the UAE and unloading “undetermined materiel.” It was also reported that China hopes to build a naval base in the UAE, and that the US has made progress on the F-35 deal conditional on cancellation of the port project.
For their part, the Gulf states recognize that at present, in spite of doubts about American commitment to their security, there is no substitute for US military presence in the Gulf to block Iranian aggression. However, they wish to diversity their sources of support in order to avoid a situation of absolute dependence on the United States, and supplement their strategic ties with the US by developing relations with competing powers. As the US reinforces the impression that it intends to reduce its involvement in the region, it must take into account that its rivals, including China, will exploit this in order to intensify their own involvement at its expense. On the other hand, the extent of cooperation with China is a function of American pressure. The stronger such pressure, the harder it will be for Gulf states to develop ties with China.
In conclusion, the Gulf states have thus far managed to pursue a foreign policy of delicate balance, hedging, and risk management, similar to Beijing’s policy of “both this and that,” namely, a policy of developing their “economic plus” relations with China while maintaining strategic relations with the United States. However, it is not impossible that China will use future opportunities to promote its position at the expense of Washington, making it hard for them to continue their balanced policy. Moreover, economic relations between China and the Gulf states go far beyond Beijing’s energy needs and the construction of heavy infrastructure. China is also interested in expanding its involvement in areas of technology, and above all 5G and AI, a prospect that is of great concern to the United States.
Israel must examine its collaboration with the Gulf states involving research and development of advanced technologies, noting the restrictions that the US has placed on transfer of such technologies to China. Israel has additional concerns. On the one hand, Israeli technologies exported to the Gulf could be at risk of leaking to China, and from there to its enemies, above all Iran. On the other hand, investments by companies from the Gulf in Israeli infrastructure, such as Haifa Port, could embody the risk of greater exposure to Chinese companies that have close ties with Gulf companies, invest in them, and possibly acquire them at some point.
Therefore, alongside the window of opportunity opened with the Abraham Accords, Israel must also take steps to minimize these potential risks. It must intensify its knowledge about relations between China and the Gulf states, and specifically about security and other collaboration between them. It should set up a database of all Chinese investments in the region and examine its own technological collaborations with the Gulf states, and their expected investments in Israel, in light of Chinese involvement. And finally, Israel must reinforce and expand its mechanisms for supervising investments, in order to ensure coordinated regulation with the United States against the common risks faced by both countries.
A Chinese spacecraft will blast off from the Gobi Desert on a Long March rocket in the coming days, ferrying three men to an orbiting space module for a three-month stay, the first time China has sent humans into space for nearly five years.
Shenzhou-12, meaning “Divine Vessel”, will be the third of 11 missions needed to complete China’s space station by 2022. Among them, four will be missions with people on board, potentially propelling up to 12 Chinese astronauts into space – more than the 11 men and women that China has sent since 2003.
The craft will also carry into space the hopes of some in Earth’s most populous nation.
“The motherland is powerful,” one person wrote on Chinese social media, which has lit up with well-wishes for the Shenzhou-12 crew. “The launch is a gift to the 100th anniversary of the founding of the Communist Party.”
Chinese astronauts have had a relatively low international profile. A United States law banning NASA from any connection with China means its astronauts have not been to the more-than-two-decade-old International Space Station, visited by more than 240 men and women of various nationalities.
China, which aims to become a major spacefaring power by 2030, in May became the second country to put a rover on Mars, two years after landing the first spacecraft on the far side of the moon.
It also plans to put astronauts on the moon.
The Shenzhou-12 crew is to live on the Tianhe, “Harmony of the Heavens”, a cylinder 16.6 metres (55 feet) long and 4.2 metres (14 feet) in diameter.
The planned three-month stay would break the country’s record of 30 days, set by the 2016 mission – China’s last crewed flight – of Chen Dong and Jing Haipeng to a prototype station.
Three men from China’s first and second groups of astronauts will be on this mission, Yang Liwei, director of the China Manned Space Engineering Office and China’s first astronaut, told the state-run news agency Global Times last month.
China’s space bloggers speculate the astronauts will be Nie Haisheng – who at 56 would be the oldest Chinese astronaut sent into space, Deng Qingming, 55, and Ye Guangfu, 40.
The authorities typically do not announce a mission’s crew until near or after the launch. China Manned Space did not respond to a Reuters news agency fax request for comment.
The oldest human in space was John Glenn, who flew on the space shuttle at age 77 in 1998 – after having been the first American to orbit the earth in 1962, a US senator and a presidential candidate.
While no women are scheduled for the Shenzhou-12 mission, they are expected to participate in every following mission, Yang told the Global Times.
Two women, Liu Yang and Wang Yaping, were selected in 2011 among China’s second cohort, after the first batch of 14 men in the mid-1990s. Liu was China’s first woman in space in 2012, while Wang was the youngest, at 33, in 2013.
Carlos Barria / Reuters
In Europe this week, on his first overseas trip since taking office, U.S. President Joe Biden has framed the current moment in world politics as an existential choice between democracy and autocracy, a fundamental decision that, as he put it in a speech in Pittsburgh on March 31, is “what competition between America and China and the rest of the world is all about.” China’s economic success and political durability have indeed demonstrated that development does not require democratization. And as China grows more influential, it may “ultimately present a stronger ideological challenge than the Soviet Union did,” as Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan noted in these pages in 2019.
The Biden administration is correct to emphasize the challenges facing democracy around the world, but the more immediate threat to the United States and other democracies lies within, not without. At present, the dangers of conceiving of U.S.-Chinese competition as a global contest between democratic and autocratic systems outweigh the benefits. Domestically, invoking competition with China may seem like an attractive way to build bipartisan support for long-overdue investments at home. But such appeals are unlikely to sway Republican members of Congress and may validate their efforts to cast China as a greater threat to U.S. democracy than Republican efforts to overturn the 2020 election and restrict future voting. No matter how carefully the administration differentiates between the Chinese government and people of Chinese ethnicity, this good-versus-evil rhetoric creates a permissive environment for xenophobia, anti-Asian racism, and violence against anyone perceived as foreign.
The U.S. government should resist the temptation to mirror the ideological insecurity of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). Casting U.S.-Chinese competition as a contest between systems overstates China’s ideological appeal and undermines Washington’s ability to engage productively with a wide range of governments in Asia and beyond. Simultaneously defending American values and achieving a peaceful—if competitive—coexistence with China requires a more pragmatic approach.
Over the past year, as the United States has been wracked by political turmoil and one of the world’s worst outbreaks of COVID-19, China’s leaders have redoubled their efforts to project strength. Yet beneath Chinese propaganda lies political insecurity and fears of ideological bankruptcy. During the final decades of the twentieth century, as other communist regimes collapsed, the CCP embraced capitalism and tolerated rampant inequality as the price of rapid growth, creating a widening gulf between its founding ideals and its current practices that has exposed it to charges of hypocrisy. The CCP sees itself as locked in an ideological struggle to defend its domestic legitimacy and ward off the threat of democratization. So far at least, its ideological aspirations have been more nationalistic than universalistic, even as its efforts to quell criticism have gone global. These efforts have had a corrosive effect on free speech but do not amount to an existential threat to liberal democracy.
The true sources of China’s foreign policy influence are transactional and coercive, not ideological. In Southeast Asia, for example, Beijing’s behavior reveals no favoritism toward regimes with similar ideological foundations. Like China, Vietnam is ruled by a single-party authoritarian regime, officially communist in orientation but having opened up and undertaken a significant process of economic reform since the 1980s. And yet Vietnam has consistently opposed Chinese activities in the South China Sea, forged its own reform path under single-party rule, and built its own 5G network to avoid partnering with the Chinese technology giant Huawei.
China has found it easier to manage relations with Malaysia and the Philippines, two multiparty, noncommunist regimes. Malaysia is a hybrid regime whose Malay Muslim majority population strongly opposes communism. Still, strong economic ties with China have discouraged the Malaysian government from escalating periodic encounters with Chinese vessels in disputed waters. The Philippines is an electoral democracy, albeit a flawed one. Even after the Philippines prevailed in a case brought to The Hague over China’s claims in the South China Sea, Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte has avoided confronting Beijing and expressed interest in cooperating on petroleum exploration.
The sources of China’s foreign influence are transactional, not ideological
Around the world, Beijing’s “no strings attached” assistance has avoided ideological conditions, other than deference on issues the CCP deems integral to its political survival and territorial sovereignty. As the political scientist Yeling Tan has noted, Chinese economic efforts overseas are “mostly the product of the country’s messy internal politics and not the result of a coordinated master plan.” The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has brought Chinese investment and infrastructure development to more than a hundred countries, but local politics and institutions have often trumped instructions from Beijing. For example, the massive Melaka Gateway project in Malaysia was put on hold when the long-time China skeptic Mahathir Mohamad replaced Najib Razak as prime minister in 2018.
In Myanmar, China has acted pragmatically rather than ideologically. Even though political liberalization in the 2010s had led to greater engagement between Myanmar and the United States, China’s BRI initiatives in Myanmar remained active, and China proved to be a useful partner for Aung San Suu Kyi as her government faced international condemnation in response to the Rohingya genocide. Following Myanmar’s 2021 coup, China adopted a cautious stance, favoring a return to order to protect its investments. In Myanmar as elsewhere, China’s geostrategic interests eclipse any ideological commonalities that Beijing might have with its partners and rivals.
Over the last two decades, the CCP has built contacts with more than 400 political parties in over 160 countries. Although Chinese efforts to cultivate future foreign leaders are nominally designed to help ruling parties in other countries hone their survival strategies, many of these exchanges are more like junkets than serious learning opportunities. And even as the CCP uses training sessions to burnish its image abroad, it also relies on Harvard Business School materials to teach project management and evaluation.
These exchanges may also reflect pull factors more than an outward push by Beijing. In Malaysia, for example, members of the former ruling Barisan Nasional coalition have sought counsel from the CCP on governance issues. Despite their distaste for communist ideology, Malaysian officials discovered in the CCP a shared distrust of the United States and interest in “Asian values,” ultimately concluding that it was “no longer a Communist threat to Malaysia.”
Under Chinese President Xi Jinping, China has become more ambitious in its efforts to make the international order more hospitable to its interests. But a world safe for autocracy does not preclude a world safe for democracy. With U.S. experts warning that “our entire democracy is at risk” from new voting restrictions and specious claims of election fraud, repairing democracy is the paramount task in the United States. And while it is important to affirm liberal values abroad, building U.S. grand strategy around fighting authoritarianism could backfire, provoking Chinese escalation on the ideological front—and pushing other countries closer to China.
So far, the CCP has touted the superiority of its system and offered it as an example that other countries can learn from. But the more Beijing sees geopolitical competition as being fought along ideological lines, the more likely it is to prioritize taking steps to weaken democracies. Such efforts could go beyond Beijing’s current exports of surveillance technology and coronavirus-related disinformation campaigns to include more concerted attempts to remake other countries in China’s image. Beijing’s “Wolf Warrior” diplomacy has demonstrated its willingness to amplify domestic criticism within democracies. But intelligence officials have concluded that China has so far refrained from Russian-style efforts to interfere in U.S. elections. Stressing the need to counter authoritarianism worldwide could increase Chinese fears that Washington seeks regime change in Beijing and precipitate even more disruptive moves abroad.
Framing U.S. strategy as a competition between democracy and authoritarianism is also likely to alienate countries that see limited ideological attraction in either the United States or China (and that, in any case, are driven less by ideological affinity than by national interests). And there is the related challenge of how strictly to define “democratic.” On the one hand, it would be counterproductive for the United States to set too high a bar for joining the democratic tent. But the opposite approach—calling partners “democratic” while overlooking their domestic abuses—would dilute the term, opening the United States to charges of hypocrisy and undermining U.S. moral leadership.
A world safe for autocracy does not preclude a world safe for democracy.
Indonesia offers an instructive lesson. It is a strategically important U.S. partner, but its democracy is in a fragile state today: President Joko Widodo’s administration has used repressive tactics to stifle criticism and opposition mobilization, and the Indonesian military plays an outsize role in national politics. Even leaving such issues aside, for Indonesians, appeals to the normative superiority of liberal democracy would not outweigh the immediate economic benefits of trade with China. Many Indonesians are wary of what they view as the excesses of American liberalism and the partisan rancor of U.S. politics. Although they have little appetite for communism, they admire China’s economic success and political stability. China’s approach to Indonesia is focused on deepening trade relations, securing access to natural resources, and deflecting criticism of its internment of up to two million Uyghurs by organizing junkets for Indonesia’s Muslim elites. Yet these measures have not bought Indonesia’s deference to Chinese interests in the South China Sea or assuaged Indonesia’s fundamental wariness of Chinese influence. Indeed, strong economic ties with China rarely create puppet states: cases such as Cambodia, a dictatorship which has proved to be a useful Chinese partner in Southeast Asia, are rare and driven by regional alliance patterns and historical ties.
The final risk is that elevating ideology will push autocracies, China and Russia most notably, to deepen their cooperation. During the Cold War, the United States was most successful when it exploited rifts between the two communist rivals. Today, there is no inevitable “alliance of autocracies,” but framing international politics as a systems contest could have the counterproductive effect of bringing one about.
Although it is tempting to see China’s growing influence as a harbinger of rising authoritarianism worldwide, the more proximate roots of democratic backsliding in most countries are domestic: popular resentment over the perceived loss of power and resources to immigrants, minorities, and robots; “out of touch” political and intellectual elites; economic dislocation resulting from globalization and deindustrialization; and polarization and disinformation fed by a loosely regulated digital sphere.
The United States can defend democracy without making ideology the focus of its approach to China. Internationally, the United States should recommit to leading by example, getting its own democratic house in order. American leaders must recognize that laying the groundwork for consolidated democracy requires more than simply holding elections and that governance reforms even in highly flawed democracies yield palpable benefits. Indeed, even authoritarian countries may have a keen interest in performance-enhancing reforms. A pragmatic focus on governance meets third-country partners where they are, as China has long recognized.
Ultimately, the Biden administration should work to reenvision an open and rules-based international order that is flexible enough to accommodate illiberal and liberal countries alike. China’s rise does not require the wholesale destruction of the existing international order, although China does favor a more conservative version that emphasizes Westphalian norms of sovereignty and noninterference. Yet the extraterritorial clause in the Hong Kong National Security Law and the efforts to intimidate and punish free speech abroad all threaten the principle of noninterference. If China wants to defend a return to a more Westphalian system of mutual coexistence among sovereign states, it will need to curtail these extrusions of “sharp power” into other societies.
Internationally, Washington should focus on tempering the unilateral exercise of covert, coercive, or corrupt power, whether through military, economic, or informational means. The United States should also work to concentrate global attention on common issues such as climate and health, which will have knock-on benefits for U.S. competitiveness and influence. As Anne-Marie Slaughter, the CEO of New America, wrote recently in the Financial Times, “a special presidential fund to combat the HIV-AIDS pandemic accomplished more for America’s reputation in Africa than many direct efforts to combat Chinese influence on the continent.”
Even as the Biden administration builds common cause with other democracies, it should invest in keeping China within a more flexible international order. If Chinese leaders conclude that Washington will never allow Beijing to play a leading role on the world stage, it could lead to precisely the kind of all-out confrontation that the United States must strive to avoid as it resumes international leadership.
BANNER IMAGE: Abu Dhabi’s Crown Prince Sheikh Mohammed bin Zayed Al Nahyan meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping on 22 July 2019. Courtesy of Reuters / Alamy Stock Photo