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Borders and identities in the globalised world

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We intend to be kind to everyone. We have many friends. But just as importantly, we aspire to remain ourselves.”Lee Kuan Yen (1923-2015), Prime Minister of Singapore (1959-1990) (Source: Zajec 2016, 236).

A new global governance

The effects of globalisation are radically challenging our perception of the world. In order to respond effectively to current challenges, we must change our mindset, open up to the world, consider those around us and create a new global governance (Brown 2019; Foucher 2019).

The geopolitical transition is underway. China is not only an economic powerhouse, but also a global geopolitical force. Meant to revitalise the “Silk Roads”, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) aims to control the strategic space in which world trade occurs. Inevitably, BRI is meant to shape future global trade routes, and whoever controls these routes will control the world.

US President Donald Trump is pursuing a policy to protect American interests. His “America first” strategy is challenging global governance as we know it. It is revealing, in various ways, the world’s“ unpaid bills”, especially Europe’s(Foucher, 2019).

The persistent institutional crisis within Europe follows the same logic. Created in the aftermath of the Second World War, the European Union is now divided, mainly about refugee flows, BRI, Chinese investments in Europe, and Brexit, to name a few issues.

It is therefore essential to consider the problem’s origins while avoiding ad hoc or, even worse, simplistic solutions, such as those advocated daily by populists on social networks. Thus, we must reset our mindset and have the audacity and imagination to create a new global governance – one that is fairer, more equitable and more responsive not only to current challenges, but to the needs of all humanity:

  1. Identities and borders: How can the right to self-determination be respected and ensured without being divisive? How can we respect the sovereignty of states and territories without renouncing the positive effects of globalisation?
  2. How is it possible to manage Chinese power, power exerted by a country that does not share universal values – the values of the West, especially those of Europe and the United States? How can we integrate this geopolitical force, one which is based on an authoritarian capitalist system and which is expanding not only economically but also geographically? This means a China that is engaging in a conquest of space without making war in the classic sense of the term.
  3. Beyond borders: How can we integrate these two systems of opposing values into a new structure ensuring global cosmopolitical governance?

French geopolitics can provide us with part of the answer. It was Jacques Ancel (1879-1943) who added a very human concept –the identity of the heart – to geopolitical considerations (Ancel 1938, 97-99; Gauchon 2008,11-12). His concept is based on the need for balance and harmony within a society, country or region.

According to Ancel, “The border is a political isobar, which fixes, for a time, the balance between two pressures: the balance of masses, the balance of forces.” In the same spirit:“A solid nation, one in harmony, exists even without visible borders.”(Ancel 1938,196; foreword by Siegfried in Ancel (1938, VIII).

Geopolitical reminder

Geopolitics is the study of the relationships between space and power. It is a multidisciplinary undertaking that encompasses economic, political, cultural, historical and social dimensions. The term “space” refers to land, sea and cyberspace (Banik2016, 19-21).

Ancel’s geopolitics stand in contrast to the German geopolitics of Friedrich Ratzel (1869-1904), which consider states to be “entities determined by people and territory”(Gauchon 2008, 7-9).

Klaus Haushofer (1869-1946) added the notion of “living space and pan-ideas” to this German geopolitical discussion. That is to say, he highlighted the potential solidarity of a people scattered throughout the world in order to justify the expansion ofits living space. Conversely, Ancel placed the human being at the centre of his geopolitical considerations, i.e.man as creator. Thus, “human groups [are what] achieve a harmonious balance, ultimately recognising borders based on a common memory, history and language”. The result is “a nation of the heart in and of itself, non-rational” (Ancel 1938, 106; Gauchon2008, 7-9).

In search of a new balance

The characteristics of globalisation are ambivalent, even contradictory. Thanks to the Internet and digital technology, we are connected with each other to an ever-greater degree. We have access to many sources of information which provide us with seemingly endless facts and figures. The transparency and availability of information might increase, but knowledge and expertise do not necessarily follow suit.

At the same time, the world’s various actors are becoming both more interdependent and more competitive. Nation-states find themselves at odds with the transnational powers resulting from globalisation, such as global companies, economic and political associations and interest groups. All these transnational forces often act beyond the borders, rules and standards set by national laws. This cross-border activity requires greater strategic coordination between the various national and transnational actors (Banik 2016, 17-24).

Yet it is precisely the lack of coordination that causes not only a feeling of loss of control among the public, but also a general feeling of insecurity. Consequently, globalisation engenders an opening to the world, while simultaneously increasing the need to belong to a country or region. It is the need for identity, the need to remain ourselves in the whirlwind of globalisation.

This feeling of insecurity fuels the populist discourse of the far-right parties calling for a return to a Europe of Nations, a return to national thinking. According to this populist, simplistic perspective, the only means to regain control and sovereignty is to restore and strengthen visible borders within and outside the EU.

Moreover, our current world order contains a sort of ideological contradiction between two systems with opposing values: on one side, the West, the EU and the United States; on the other, China with its authoritarian capitalist system. This is highlighted by a renewal of the cult of personality surrounding “strong men”, such as Trump, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin. This resurgence of personality cults reinforces the identity aspect in the relevant political strategies.

Despite the advent of these “strong men”, there is a lack of foresight among the entire political class, or even incompetence on its part, whatever the country of origin, at both the national and international levels. This lack of foresight manifests as the chaos found within international organisations and institutions, which all emerged following the Second World War and which are now struggling to find adequate solutions to current challenges (Banik, 2019). The current political storytelling has become obsolete.

Due to the measurable and undeniable economic success of the authoritarian capitalist system in China, our democratic system is experiencing a crisis of confidence – a crisis that can be found mainly in the EU member states.  Thus weakened, Europe is no longer able to respond to current geopolitical and economic challenges and is torn instead between two powers, the United States and China. In the absence of a real, common strategy, the EU is unable to find effective solutions to the issues faced by all actors, such as demographic shifts, increased global urbanisation, worldwide competition for natural resources, technological impacts on the labour market (particularly artificial intelligence), and international terrorism.

Borders and their hallmarks

The process of transnationalisation and deterritorialisation inevitably brings us back to the issues of border, identity and nationality. Nationality is defined as the legal relationship between an individual and a country (Gauchon 2008, 33). It is obvious, even if it is difficult to admit: “Globalisation’s flows do not erase borders, countries, regions, territories or places”(Zajec 2016, 238). On the contrary, the more connected the world is, the more the debate around borders is crucial in any geopolitical discussion. “[N]o natural borders, no closed physical domains that can close states, nations ad aeternum.”(Ancel 1938, 194).

According to Ancel, borders can be described using the “three Ps”: precarious, persistent and permeable. In addition, borderscan be visible or invisible, for example when moving from an urban area to a maritime one. (Ancel 1938, 97-99; foreword by Siegfriedin Ancel, XI).

Arbitrary borders and ‘borders of civilisation’

Ancel mainly differentiates between two types of border. On the one hand, there arethe so-called arbitrary borders, which are tense and strategic, resulting from military claims. The treaties that delineate these borders are temporal and purely based on the national interests of the states involved.

“Borders of civilisation”, on the other hand, are more permanent, since they are based on a memory, history and common language resulting from the balance achieved by a specific group of human beings. Such borders are “nevertheless more complicated, because they are subject to many political and commercial interpretations”. Even if commercial interpretations aim to “pave the way” and not to “enclose” as military interpretations do (Ancel 1938, 102-107), “paving the way” also means, in our current world, a conquest, an expansion, sometimes using military means, into the territory of others.

BRI – a true opening of borders?

The positive effects of globalisation can largely be seen as “paving the way”. Even if BRI is based on a commercial justification, the new Silk Roads are nevertheless closely linked with the idea of geographic and, above all, geopolitical expansion. China’s geopolitical influence is growing, especially in the Eurasian region as a whole, a region which is currently of great strategic import. Thus, BRIis part of China’s security strategy and is developing considerable geostrategic significance.

For years, China has been investing heavily in its military sector. Although the 7.5% increase in 2019 is less than the increase in 2018 (8.1%), the country plans to spend CNY1,190 billion, or €156 billion, to achieve Xi’s goal of having its armed forces “combat ready” (Le Point économique, 2019).

The conquest of space without making war

Having already had a large army, especially in terms of manpower, China has now become a great naval force, a fact Westerners are only beginning to acclimate to, since, for them, China has traditionally been a weak country located very far away.BRI, the revival of the Silk Roads, is the counterpart to Trump’s “America first” policy. The initiative increasingly has military implications: “BRI will likely result in increased overseas access and presence for the People’s Liberation Army(Ratner, 2018; CNBC Asia Politics, 2018). In addition, the majority of workers on BRI construction sites are Chinese and not members of the local workforce. As a result, the initiative is the manifestation of a “China first” policy, one that primarily pursues Chinese interests. The positive impact on countries in the BRI region is quite limited. Worse yet, these countries are becoming more dependent on China, playing the role of debtor to Beijing’s creditor.

In addition, China has skilfully bundled its civil and military interests under the rubric “security”, a concern that now determines its internal and external strategy. In 2017, the budget of the Ministry of the Interior even exceeded that of the Ministry of Defence by 19% (Strittmatter2019, 35).Preserving external security means safeguarding China’s sovereignty, while preserving internal security means ensuring internal stability and control by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Despite the apparent opening of its external borders, China is increasingly enclosing its population, especially through censorship –its invisible border.

The term “harmony” has acquired a special meaning since Xi came to power. He has been the CPC’s “president for life” since 2018. All civil, military and administrative power rests with him and he is pursuing a strategy to protect China’s internal and external interests. As a result, China is extending its borders without making war or conquering territory in the traditional sense of the word. Instead, itis conquering geostrategic space by expanding its geopolitical influence. In China, it seems there is no longer a state, there is only the Communist Party.

Solidity

In keeping with Jacques Ancel’s analysis, especially from the perspective of the “three Ps”– the persistence, precariousness and permeability of borders – developments such as“America first”, China’s Social Credit System, its Corporate Social Credit System(Le Monde 2019), BRI and Brexit are all challenging the very concept of borders.

Faced by two superpowers, China and the United States, the EU is experiencing a full-blown identity crisis and finds itself confronted with a major strategic dilemma. “A solid nation in harmony exists even without visible borders” (Ancel 1938, 196; foreword by Siegfriedin Ancel, VIII). Neither solid nor in harmony, the EU is being dragged into a false discussion on border reinforcement. The visible strengthening of borders does not address the root of the problem.

The solution can be found instead in strengthening the solidity of and identity within the European population. The only basis for a stronger and more harmonious Europe is to ensure that the different identities within the Union are perceived positively and that the shared– and not common – interests of its member states are protected and promoted.

Opposing ideologies

China has introduced a new ideology derived from the notion of “harmony”, which is the key factor in its all-important internal and external strategy. As noted, the aim of BRI is not only to build up a huge network of commercial infrastructure in order to “develop wealth in the region and preserve peace, friendship and trust and understanding between different peoples”, as the CPC has expressed it. BRI is also an integral part of the Party’s plan for preserving national unity and internal stability. Harmony is China’s “leitmotiv”, its mantra while it pursues a policy of expansion, of conquest, geographically and geopolitically, without resorting to armed force.

Although less elegant, Donald Trump’s policy maintains the same logic: the return to national sovereignty, to protecting and defending national interests. The US government has renounced many policy and trade agreements in order to better protect its interest and to expand its sphere of influence. Stability and preserving unity, identity and sovereignty are the top priorities.

Thus, the balance of power, the field of engagement between the countries and actors is changing. Two systems with opposing values are facing off in a race for global leadership. The EU finds itself squarely in the centre of this field of engagement.

The EU: a political union of shared interests

The European Union has three major problems: First, it lacks a real strategy or vision; second, the European institutions do not function in a truly democratic manner; third, the different national identities within the EU are misperceived and, subsequently, hard to manage. It is precisely this unsuccessful management of European identities that fuels the discourse on strengthening borders as the sole remedy for the Union’s difficulties.

The EU is not a national power like the United States, China and Russia, but a “forward-thinking” geopolitical actor that must find its own way as globalisation progresses. Without a new political narrative, Europe must inevitably lose influence on the international scene. Only close cooperation between EU member states and the promotion of shared interests can ensure that Europe will become a power to reckon with on the geopolitical stage, on par with China and the United States.

First and foremost, the emotional charge must be removed from the discourse on borders and national identities. Europe must ensure a space exists where people can live in freedom, a space where we can live our different European identities. Were this to be realised, it would not be a threat to Brussels but, on the contrary, a complementary force ensuring the right to self-determination.

In addition, the European institutions must be democratised. What is needed is a European Parliament that reflects the voice of Europeans and that, after elections, forms a truly European government, an assembly of specialists and experts that transcends party politics. The EU must stop being divided along party lines. Were that the case, the EU would become the main driver for improving the democratic system.

Democracy should never be called into question, but democratic structures must be adapted on an ongoing basis. A harmonious Europe is the only way to ensure a secure space – one surrounded by borders –that defends its shared political, economic and geopolitical interests. This is how the EU could take the lead in creating a new type of global governance. In view of the weaknesses of nation-states such as China and the United States, Europe is in a favourable position to lead the way in building a new system of cosmopolitical governance – a cosmopolitical system with “borders of civilisation” which might be visible, arbitrary or even invisible, but which, above all, would not divide but provide the framework needed to consolidate the required cosmopolitical standards.

Conclusion: new “storytelling” for the EU

As noted, Ancel emphasises the human notion in his geopolitical approach. The important thing is to recognise and calmly accept the feeling of belonging to a country, to a region –accept, that is, the very natural need for identity. Such an identity ensures the political unity that would sustain the evolution towards a new Europe and, subsequently, towards a new global governance. A European identity must be cultivated, in addition to the various national identities. This European identity, moreover, can help define the objective interests shared by most member states.

Globalisation is forcing us to think and act in terms of geo-economics (Overholt 2018). Safeguarding economic interests has become imperative. The EU must build a political union of shared interests and must create strategic alliances as a result. The important thing is to build these alliances in the spirit of cooperation and not, as is the case in today’s world, in the spirit of competition. Facing today’s challenges is only possible in a spirit of cooperation and tolerance, especially since the ultimate goal is not only to improve our democratic processes, but to move humanity forward as well. According to Ancel, a border is “a political isobar, which fixes, for a time, the balance between two pressures: the balance of masses, the balance of forces”(Ancel 1938, 195). In this spirit, we must change our global governance and, above all, our political narratives.

A new “storytelling”is required since today’s political practices and narrative strategies have lost their significance. The balance of power has changed radically. Neither the West nor China will alter its political system. It is therefore necessary to integrate China into the new global governance, even if it clearly does not adhere to our values.

Shared interests and common cosmopolitical standards must be defined in order to ensure social justice (Nida Rümelin 2017, 70, 178-180) and greater equity, particularly in the distribution of natural resources, in order to effectively combat global poverty. Globalisation requires the establishment of more regulations, standards, laws and coordination between national and transnational forces.

The real problem does not stem from the issue of borders. Borders will always exist, even in the globalised world. There are no problems with borders. There are only problems with nations.” (Ancel 1938, 196). It is important to tolerate and accept different national identities and lifestyles and, above all, to recognise that we all live in a world which requires more and not fewer regulations and laws.

Moreover, only the existence of a true European identity can ensure the necessary political unity for evolving towards a solid, harmonious Europe. By acting boldly, this new Europe can take the lead in establishing a new cosmopolitical governance. What is needed is a politically united Europe that asserts its shared objective interests and values by creating a space providing freedom and tolerance. Consequently, we must revitalise an idea advanced by Jacques Ancel: “We do not change borders except by force; we change our minds” (Ancel 1938; foreword by Lomnica in Ancel 1938, 2).

Let us change our way of thinking

Note: This is a translation of an article originally written in French. The original will be published by L’Harmattan, Paris, in spring 2020.

Author, speaker and guest lecturer on current geopolitical, economic and political issues related to China, EU and the US, focus on Jacques Ancel’s geopolitical vision “identity of heart”. Author at worldscientific.com, at moderndiplomacy.eu and book author at éditions L'Harmattan, Paris. As a member of the successor generation of the displaced population - her family had to flee on her mother's side from Königsberg in East Prussia in January 1945 and on her father's side from Schneidemühl in West Prussia - Katja increasingly connects the topics of identities and borders in her geopolitical views. Personal website: www.katjabanik.com

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The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?

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The conflict between emerging and existing powers is almost as old as time.  Labeled the Thucydides Trap, it first recounted the 5th century BC Peloponesian war and its inevitability as Sparta, the dominant power, feared the rise of Athens.  Is something similar about to transpire between the US and China?

The latest war of words is about nuclear submarines.  When armed with ballistic missiles, they become a hidden mortal danger.  So the US also deploys nuclear attack submarines which shadow rival nuclear ballistic submarines … just in case.

Australia was in the process of acquiring 12 French conventional attack submarines (a deal worth $37 billion) when the US and UK stepped in with the AUKUS deal.  Intended to counter China, it offers Australia  advanced nuclear propulsion systems and an opportunity to construct nuclear subs of their own with the technology transfer.  Australia will then become the seventh country in the world to build and operate nuclear submarines.

The fear of the ‘yellow peril’ is ingrained in the Australian consciousness from the days when they were afraid of being swamped by Chinese immigrants.  It led to restrictive immigration policies for non-whites. 

Much of the concern with China is due to the forceful nature of Chinese leader Xi Jinping’s policies.  In Xinjiang the Uyghur population is a minority in its home province due to the influx of Han Chinese.  Moreover, Uyghurs feel discriminated against, in jobs and the progress they can make.  Some have rebelled causing many to be put in re-education camps where there are tales of torture although denied by Chinese authorities.  Biden has declared it a genocide and introduced sanctions on leading Chinese officials there. 

China’s proactive foreign policy, renewed interest in Afghanistan, its warships patrolling all the way across the Indian Ocean to Africa are further evidence.

The new Afghan leaders, at least many of them, spent their exile in Pakistan giving the latter influence with the new government.  And Pakistan is effectively a Chinese client state.  The mineral wealth of Afghanistan, if it is to be developed, is thus likely to include Chinese help.

The UN General Assembly holds its first debate of the new session on the third Tuesday of each year; the session then runs through to the September following.  As leaders converge, one of the questions being asked of those involved in AUKUS is how they are going to pacify an angry France.  It has recalled its ambassadors from Australia and the US — in the latter case a move without precedent in almost 250 years of diplomacy.

If the French feel the Australians have been duplicitous, the Australians for their part claim they are obligated to do the best for the people who elected them.  The new deal brings jobs, technology and a greater role for Australia in dealing with an increasingly powerful China

It would be a great shame if the West in trying to shore up its interests in the Indo-Pacific region loses a crucial ally — France — at the very least in wholehearted support.  Is Mr. Xi smiling and quoting some ancient Chinese proverb, perhaps Lao Tzu, to his colleagues?   

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Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing

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Last year in March, former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe had indicated Japan would initiate measures to reduce the country heavily relying on China for factory production. Since July 2020, Japan has rolled out subsidies totaling over 400 billion Yen to move its enterprises out of China to Southeast Asia and beyond. It is yet to be seen if the scale of incentives has actually triggered a major change in where Japanese companies relocate production.  On the other hand, experts in China continue to wonder why would Japanese companies which are on average making 17% profit diversify into the ASEAN nations, where in 2019, their rate of return on direct investment was a mere 5%?

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In less than ten days, Japan is going to have a third prime minister within a short span of twelve months. On September 1 last year, when Prime Minister Shinzo Abe resigned on health grounds, Yoshihide Suga was chosen as Abe’s successor. At the time, China’s leadership did not show any worrying signs as the new Japanese leader was expected to continue with the foreign policy of the previous government. But one year later, Suga’s unexpected departure is leaving Japan’s diplomatic relations with China considerably strained over Taiwan. Yet the leadership in Beijing is not going to lose sleep over the next prime minister’s public stance on the Japan-Taiwan “alliance.” What China will be closely watching is how many more billions of Yen and for how long a new leader in Tokyo will carry on with rolling out subsidies to lure away Japanese businesses out of China?

Interestingly, on assuming office Prime Minister Suga had promised continuity in domestic policies and that he will respect Abe’s foreign policy. However, Suga’s promised commitment to further improve relations with China was viewed differently in the People’s Republic. Writing in an article on the day Yoshihide Suga took office in Tokyo, Zhou Yongsheng, professor of Japanese studies at Beijing’s China Foreign Affairs University, observed: “[Under Suga] Japan will continue to align with the US as far as international relations and security affairs are concerned, and continue to back the US policy of containing China It is under these preconditions that Japan will seek cooperation with China.”

In sharp contrast, reviewing Suga’s foreign policy performance after two months, NIKKEI Asia’s foreign affairs analyst Hiroyuki Akita wrote in November 2020: “Suga has not said much publicly about his views on diplomacy but he has urged his aids to continue Abe’s diplomacy as it is at least for one year.” Akita gave a thumbs up to this approach and recalled a Japanese saying to describe it: “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” However, not everyone agreed with Akita praising Suga’s brief record in diplomacy as flawless. Having spent seven years in the Abe cabinet as Chief Cabinet Secretary, Suga’s image was that of “a fixer, not a leader.” Suga did everything in diplomacy in his early phase as the prime minister what Abe had been espousing for the past seven years.

But as Toshiya Takahashi, professor of IR at Shoin University in Japan had predicted within a few weeks of Suga becoming the top leader, “Abe’s shoes were too big for Suga to fill.” Why so? Mainly because unlike Abe, not only Suga was not ideological, he was also far less diplomacy driven. “Suga is not an ideologically driven revisionist — he is a conservative politician, but his attitude has no relation to ideology. He does not seem to hold any specific cherished foreign policy objectives that he is willing to push with all his political capital in the way that Abe did in 2015 with the passage of the security-related bills,” Takahashi had commented.   

To observers and experts in both Japan and China, Prime Minister Suga’s (he will relinquish office on September 30) non-enthusiastic approach to foreign policy might have much to do with the current state of strained relationship between Japan and China. Asahi Shimbun opinion poll last year claimed foreign policy and national security as among the two most popular elements of Abe’s legacy. No wonder, critics in Japan have been pointing out that Suga’s cabinet did not have the luxury and support Abe enjoyed in foreign affairs of having in the government someone like Shotaro Yachi – the former secretary general of the National Security Secretariat. In China too, reacting to Suga’s first policy speech after taking office, scholars such as Lü  Yaodong, Institute of Japanese Studies, CASS in Beijing had observed, “Suga seems not to be as enthusiastic about China-Japan ties as Abe. Compared with Abe’s administration, Suga may walk back China-Japan ties.” (Emphasis added)

Remember, as already mentioned, the LDP had succeeded in pursuing policy of (economic) cooperation and avoiding confrontationist diplomacy with China under Abe. But Suga government’s failure to effectively fight coronavirus pandemic and its perception that China was increasingly becoming aggressive in SCS, are being cited as reasons why Japan was compelled to take strong steps against China. It is too well-known by now how Tokyo angered Beijing by referring to the importance of Taiwan to regional security in the recently released 2021 Defense White Paper. In fact, a Chinese scholar had warned as early as within a month of Suga taking over as prime minister from Shinzo Abe, saying that “Japan will take a more offensive stance against China over maritime boundary disputes under the incitement of the US” (emphasis added).

Hence, it is of extreme import to mention here China’s top diplomat Wang Yi’s recent trip to four ASEAN nations. Apparently, the second visit by the Chinese foreign minister in quick succession in the neighborhood had aroused the global media attention as it was soon after the recent visit to the region by the US vice president Kamala Harris. However, according to a Chinese commentator, Wang Yi’s recent visit to ASEAN countries must be viewed in the context of the region turning into a “battle ground” for rising economic one-upmanship among big powers. “Just a day after Wang Yi’s departure, Vietnam reached an agreement on defense equipment and technology cooperation with Japan,” the commentary noted.   

Furthermore, whilst under the previous Abe government, Japan consistently increased its investments in the ASEAN nations, except in the year 2016, all through from 2014 until last year, Japan’s investment in the region far exceeded that of China’s. Contrary to his vows, since coming into office in September last year, especially following his meeting with President Biden in the White House in April this year, Prime Minister Suga’s quiet agenda has been to confront China in both political and economic arena. In Japan, the Suga agenda was interpreted by analysts as “rebuilding Japan-US industrial chain, decoupling economic ties with China.”    

A policy report released by Japan External Trade Organization (JETRO) in March 2021, revealed three important facts: first, in the year 2019, total Japanese investment in ASEAN nations stood at USD 265.5 billion – 14% of the country’s overall overseas investment, i.e., USD 1,858.3 billion.; second, in 2000, Japanese investments in ASEAN totaled USD 25 billion as against its USD 8.7 billion investment in China – a gap of USD 16.3 billion. Whereas in 2019, Japan invested USD 135.2 billion more in ASEAN as compared with China. As pointed out by one Chinese analyst, this gap is hugely significant, especially as the overall size of the ASEAN economy is a little over one-fifth of China’s GDP; third, followingthegovernment’s new strategy last year to encourage Japanese businesses to move out of China to new locations in ASEAN nations, the new guidelines also entailed reducing investments into China. A large part of the investments was diversified into ASEAN markets.

Finally, what is beginning to worry the Chinese authorities is the trend and direction of slow exodus of Japanese businesses out of China going back to Japan and towards Vietnam and Indonesia on one hand, and widening gap in Japanese investments between ASEAN and the PRC, on the other hand. At the same time, it was beyond anyone’s imagination in China that Japan would be acting foolish and risking “economic security” by diversifying businesses and investments into less profitable “barren” markets. But then who could anticipate what political and economic policy-rejigging coronavirus pandemic would bring about?

Overall, China’s more immediate and bigger concerns are firstly the sudden departure of Prime Minister Suga – in spite of Suga having made it clear he had no will to change or reverse “decoupling” policy he had been pursuing, and secondly, whoever emerges as the new leader of the four contenders by the month-end, analysts in Japan believe Tokyo is unlikely to change its “anti-China” political and economic policies.  

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How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It

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Authors: Caitlin Dearing Scott and Isabella Mekker

From its declared policy of noninterference and personnel contributions to United Nations (UN) Peacekeeping Missions to its purported role in mediating conflicts, China has long sought to portray itself as a responsible global leader, pushing narratives about building a “community of common destiny” and promoting its model of governance and economic and political development as a path to stability. This narrative belies the reality. Chinese Communist Party (CCP)-style “stability,” whether to protect Belt and Road Investments (BRI) or regimes with favorable policies towards China, in practice facilitates authoritarianism and human rights violations, contributes to environmental degradation and corruption, and undermines democratic governance, all of which can fuel instability, intentionally or otherwise.

In pursuit of its true goal – “a world safe for the party” – China has leveraged its diplomatic and economic power to weaken  the international human rights system, bolstering support for illiberal regimes, contributing to democratic decline and exacerbating global fragility in the process. Nowhere is this more apparent than in conflict-affected contexts.

Conflict Resolution, CCP Style

Although China brands itself as a ‘promoter of stability, peace, and unity’, its very definition of stability is built on its authoritarian model of governance. This, plus its concerns about non-interference in its own domestic issues, informs its conflict resolution approach, which emphasizes host state consent and political settlement, two-ideas that can be laudable in theory, depending on the context. In practice, however, China’s conflict mediation efforts in some instances have provided support to incumbent regimes who are perpetuating violence and conflict, promoting a  ‘stability’ that disregards the voices of vulnerable populations and the need for inclusive governance. In the case of the Syrian civil war, China’s “political solution” meant maintaining China-friendly Bashar al-Assad’s grip on power, while blocking resolutions condemning the regime’s brutality against its citizens. 

“Stability” promoted by China can also come at the expense of human rights. China (and Russia) have previously pushed for cuts to human rights positions within peacekeeping missions, endangering the capacity of these missions to protect civilians in conflict.  In Myanmar, where the military is committing unprecedented human rights violations against its own citizens, China initially blocked a UN Security Council statement condemning the military coup and other international efforts to restore stability at a time when a strong international response was much needed. This was in line with China’s previous engagement in the country, working closely with the military regime to “mediate” conflict near the Chinese border in a way that preserved China’s interests and influence, but did little to actually address conflict. After a growing humanitarian crisis began to threaten its investments on the Myanmar side of the border, however, China changed rhetorical course, showing where human rights violations stand in its hierarchy of stability.

Advancing China’s Interests, Undermining Governance

China’s policies in fragile states mirror its unstated preference for expanding its economic and political interests, even if securing them sidelines the stated imperative of addressing fragility. In some instances, China has lobbied for UN policies in conflict-affected contexts that appear to support its own agenda rather than – or sometimes at the expense of – peace. According to the U.S. China Economic and Security Review Commission’s 2020 report to Congress, “China has shown an apparent willingness to leverage its influence in the UN peacekeeping operations system to advance its economic interests in African countries, raising the possibility that Beijing is subverting UN norms and procedures in the process.” Per the report, the most notable example of this was in 2014 when China lobbied to expand the UN Mission in South Sudan to protect oil installations of which the China National Petroleum Corporation held a 40 percent stake.

Moreover, China’s pursuit of its interests sets up countries on unstable trajectories. China’s economic investment policies and initiatives exacerbates governance deficits and increases fragility by encouraging corruption, facilitating authoritarianism and human rights violations, and contributing to environmental degradation, all key drivers of conflict. Two cases from Nigeria and Pakistan highlight the point.

In Nigeria, China’s investment projects have exacerbated corruption and fueled distrust in local government – key drivers of conflict and intercommunal violence in the country. China has exploited poor regulatory environments and worked within illegal and corrupt frameworks, often tied to armed groups and criminal networks. In one illustrative example, China state-owned timber trading companies  offered bribes to local officials to illegally harvest endangered rosewood. Members of local communities have cited feelings of exploitation by officials accepting bribes from Chinese businessmen, further stressing fragile ties between local government and citizens. Such business practices also demonstrate a blatant disregard for the environmental consequences of illegally harvesting endangered flora and fauna. Moreover, the inherently opaque nature of these projects that are tied to CCP interests makes it difficult to demand accountability.

Similarly in Pakistan, a 62-billion-dollar project known as the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) aimed at linking Xinjiang to the Arabian sea, has exacerbated tension in conflict-affected provinces. The project plans to build infrastructure and extract resources from several less developed regions, while overwhelmingly benefitting industrial and political hubs such as Punjab. Many provinces, including Balochistan and Sindh, have accused political elites of altering the route of the corridor in their own interests, thus further marginalizing their communities. Separatist groups have launched several attacks throughout the country, not only fueling conflict between Pakistani ethnic groups but also leading to attacks against Chinese expatriates. Recently, prominent voices from within China have called for a military intervention in Pakistan. CPEC has increased military presence throughout small villages, sparked an uptick in violent conflict along the route, and further eroded trust in local government institutions.

These cases may of course signal more opportunism and indifference by China to the impact of its engagement on stability in any given country, as opposed to an explicit attempt to undermine democratic governance (as it has done elsewhere in support of pro-China interests). Regardless of the intent, however, the impact is the same. China’s focus on political leverage and profits first and foremost undermines stability – and China likewise can benefit from instability in states with corrupt politicians interested in trading local resources for short-term political gains.

What Can be Done: Bolstering Democratic Resilience to Address Fragility and Foreign Influence

Foreign authoritarian influence has a compounding impact in conflict-affected contexts, further undermining governance structures, institutions, and processes that can mitigate or exacerbate fragility.  Good governance, on the contrary, can not only help countries prevent and manage conflict, but can also help countries address the myriad challenges associated with foreign authoritarian influence. Strong democratic institutions help societies respond positively and productively to threats both domestic and foreign.

Targeted investment in democracy in conflict-affected contexts vulnerable to foreign authoritarian influence offers an important opportunity for utilizing the Global Fragility Strategy in support of US foreign policy initiatives and advancing the Biden Administration’s policy priorities to tackle climate change, prevent authoritarian resurgence, confront corruption, and prevail in strategic competition with China.  An investment in support of democracy and good governance to address any one of these issues will reap dividends across each of these issues – engaging in conflict prevention and stabilization programming will both advance global democracy and advance US goals vis-à-vis China and other authoritarian rivals. Such investments, which must be long-term to account for the compounding impact of foreign authoritarian influence in already fragile environments, should include:

  • Supporting governments, civil society, and citizens to better understand, expose and counter foreign authoritarian influence, particularly in conflict-affected contexts where data and research efforts can be challenging. An understanding of China’s playbook is critical to countering CCP influence operations;
  • Helping independent media to investigate and expose foreign authoritarian influence and how it fuels conflict, whether through training, financial support, or other protections of the civic and information space, to raise public awareness of the impact of such engagement on conflict dynamics and promote transparency and accountability in dealings with foreign actors;  
  • Developing evidenced-based tools to prevent and mitigate foreign authoritarian influence in fragile contexts;
  • Strengthening electoral institutions, political parties, legislative bodies, and judiciaries to uproot elite capture and mitigate malign influence;
  • Leveraging diplomacy to build political will and incentives for government officials to resist foreign malign influences. Such diplomatic efforts can include increased outreach and contact with countries previously neglected by the US – but prioritized by China – and public diplomacy to both expose the CCP’s misleading narrative and advance narratives about what democracy can deliver;  and
  • Coordinating with similarly-minded donors such as the European Union, Japan, and Australia, to implement a unified approach to match the scale of Chinese investment and maximize the impact of any intervention.

Only democracy can help countries navigate the nexus of domestic and foreign threats to their stability. In the era of COVID-19, authoritarian resurgence, and climate crisis, supporting countries to develop these “resilience” fundamentals is a sound – and necessary – investment.

*Isabella Mekker is a Program Associate with IRI’s Center for Global Impact, working on countering foreign authoritarian influence and conflict prevention and stabilization programming.

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