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Tsai’s re-election Poses New Challenge to China

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Taiwan is never out of news. Taiwan-China ties is now a part of popular folklore with Beijing expressing its resolve a number of times to integrate the island nation with the mainland by all means and if necessary by the use of force and Taiwan defying the might of China’s growing military muscle. The political pendulum in Taiwan has swung between parties which are fiercely independent and those which take a softer stance towards Beijing. The latest in this narrative is the resounding landslide victory by the incumbent President Tsai Ing-wen of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) when elections were held on January 11. The landslide victory that the voters delivered is also a stunning rebuke of Beijing’s campaign to isolate the self-ruled island, handing over its first female leader a second term. It was only in November 2019 that Tsai’s DPP suffered a huge defeat in Taiwan’s local elections but the political pendulum swung quickly in her favour, with the political resurgence ensuring her victory and another term at the helm to carve out a course for Taiwan’ future.

Tsai’s victory would surely infuriate China. Soon after her victory, Tsai told the cheering crowd: “Today we have defended our democracy and freedom, tomorrow let us stand united to overcome all challenges and difficulties”. Tsai secured 57 percent of the popular vote with a record-breaking 8.2 million ballots, 1.3 million more than her 2016 victory. Her main rival Han Kuo-yu, from the China-friendly Kuomintang, racked up 39 per cent and conceded defeat. The DPP managed to retain its majority in the island’s unicameral parliament with 61 out of 113 seats, while the KMT took 38 seats. The result is a blow for Beijing, which views Taiwan as part of China and has made no secret of wanting to see Tsai turfed out.

Over the last four years, Beijing had ramped up economic, military and diplomatic pressure on the self-ruled island, hoping it would scare voters into supporting Tsai’s opposition. But the strong arm tactics backfired and voters flocked to Tsai’s DPP, fuelled in part by China’s hard-line response to months of huge and violent pro-democracy protests in Hong Kong. The US, the main backer of Taiwan and bound by the Taiwan Relations Act and therefore main military ally, rejoiced Tsai’s re-election as it felt that it would contribute to maintaining cross-Strait stability.

What is that came in Tsai’s favour that led to her victory? She pitched herself as a defender of liberal democratic values against the increasingly authoritarian shadow cast by China under President Xi Jinping. As said, Beijing has vowed to one day retake the island, by force if necessary and loathed Tsai because she refuses to acknowledge the idea that Taiwan is part of “one China”. Though Tsai is committed to dialogue with Beijing and wants peace, she is not shy to urge Beijing to halt its sabre-rattling towards Taiwan. She expects that Beijing respects the idea that only the island’s 23 million inhabitants can decide its future.

There is yet another angle to Taiwan-China relationship. As with many other Asian countries, China has successfully increased Taiwan’s dependence on it economically making the latter as its largest trading partner, thereby increasing Taiwan’s vulnerability. Beijing lost no time in reacting that it continues to stand by its policy of opposing any form of Taiwanese independence and its spillitist attempts and that it  “uphold(s) the basic principles of ‘peaceful reunification’ and ‘one country, two systems’ and the one-China principle.”

Taiwan’s election results showed that Beijing’s carrot and stick policy utterly failed. This was the second major electoral setback for Beijing in recent weeks. In November, Hong Kong’s pro-democracy camp scored a landslide win over pro-Beijing parties in district elections as the city convulses with months of anti-government protests. Tsai’s landslide victory was indeed a slap in the face to Beijing as Taiwanese voters rejected to its intimidation. In the coming months it is to be seen if Beijing’s hardline position towards Tsai shall continue or if Beijing adopts a more ‘soft sell’ approach that is more carrot and less stick from now on. That is unlikely to happen, though.

For record, Beijing hoped that it could replicate the Hong Kong model of “one country, two systems” in Taiwan with the hope that it can apply the same model on Taiwan if the island ever came to be controlled by Beijing. But as the election outcome demonstrated Taiwanese voters are wary of such a proposal.

What is indeed Tsai’s doctrine? As can be discerned from her address on May 20, 2016 after her victory for the first time as President, her international policy vision clearly intended to drive the country away from its reliance on China and toward the rest of the world. In her speech, Tsai articulated Taiwan’s New Southbound Policy, which implied that Taiwan shall engage with South and Southeast Asian states and share its expertise and democratic values with an international community.

Beijing has successfully worked for Taiwan’s isolation by economic doles to countries that maintained diplomatic ties with Taiwan, leaving only 15 countries now with diplomatic ties from the 22 nations that had diplomatic relations with Taipei when Tsai became President in 2016. Between 2016 and now Beijing successfully campaigned to poach Taipei’s allies and pressured international organizations and corporations to exclude Taiwan, from the World Health Assembly to Marriott and American Airlines. Owing to China’s pressure, the United Nations, which does not recognize Taiwan, has stopped allowing Republic of China passport holders into its New York headquarters.

The DPP does not recognize the so-called “1992 consensus” considered by Beijing to be indispensable for cross-strait exchanges. While Beijing interprets the consensus as the self-governing island and the mainland as part of a single Chinese nation, Tsai refuses to acknowledge it as the “consensus” limits Taiwan’s international space and severs the official cross-strait communications that had thrived under her predecessor, Ma Ying-jeou. Tsai has successfully rebuffed the Chinese pressure and bolstered Taiwan’s international presence. Her New Southbound Policy received a boost from the US-China trade war. She realised that by befriending the US, she can garner global support so that she can keep a hostile Beijing at bay and preserve Taiwan’s sovereignty. Thus, Tsai hoped that Taiwan can present itself as a more humane, democratic alternative at the international stage.

From its part, Taiwan has worked hard to retain its remaining diplomatic allies despite Beijing’s attempts to woo them away from Taiwan to China. For example, in May 2018, Taiwan agreed to assist Haiti in securing a $150 million infrastructure loan from Taiwanese banks. Also in May 2019, Taiwan agreed to extend a $100 million loan to Nicaragua and its embattled President Daniel Ortega. Though both Haiti and Nicaragua are serial rights violators, both states are among Taipei’s 15 remaining formal allies. Though the deal is still active, Nicaragua has not yet received its loan as Taiwan has not found a domestic bank to transfer the funds due to fears of US sanctions.   

Though Tsai has spoken of creating an ‘Alliance of Democratic Values’ to stand in opposition to an increasingly overbearing China, some of her diplomatic moves are questionable. This is because Tsai has “rewarded” rights violators like Nicaragua, Haiti, and eSwatini, an absolute monarchy and one of the world’s least free states. King Mswati III rules all branches of national government, and critics of the king are subject to imprisonment. In 2018, the king received an honorary degree from a Taipei university, where Tsai thanked eSwatini “for speaking up for Taiwan and always being by our side.” Such conduct on the part of Tsai can have few supporters. While continuing her fight to keep Taiwan’s remaining allies, Tsai might toy with the idea of replacing Republic of China (ROC) with a “Republic of Taiwan” in preparation to a future declaration of Taiwan independence. Beijing has warned that any such move could trigger a use of force against Taiwan. 

Instead, it could be more desirable if Tsai continues to pursue her New Southbound Policy, seen as deepening Taiwan’s ties with other Asian states and as a way to build more sustainable ties so that Taiwan could survive as a peaceful nation without worrying much about pressure from China. The New Southbound Policy has won praise for assisting Taiwanese businesses in China in returning to Taiwan. These companies have benefited from government incentives and for relocating to Southeast Asian states. Coming in the wake of the ongoing US-China trade dispute, the initiative announced in 2016 has motivated Taiwanese companies to leave China and avoid high export tariffs. With her re-election, Tsai is expected to continue with her engagement with neighbouring countries and drive Taiwan’s foreign policy and trade away from the cross-strait paradigm. What probably is lacking or weak is to inject the new dimension of ethics-based foreign policy in Tsai’s narrative. 

A lot was at stake for Tsai when she sought a second term. And, now with her win, the global impact of the result is going to be huge. Taiwan has played a key role in the global supply chain as a high-tech manufacturer, mostly notably as an Apple Inc supplier. Its strategic location just off the coast of China and on the edge of the Pacific is equally important. Taiwan is also a potential military flashpoint between the US and China as the former sells arms and provides other assistance to Taiwan. The island nation also lies on major shipping lanes between Southeast Asia and US allies Japan and South Korea, and on the disputed South China Sea, where China has built artificial islands and air bases. Taiwan is also close to a major US military base on the southern Japanese island of Okinawa.

Leading democratic nations honour Taiwan’s democratic credentials despite not maintaining official diplomatic ties. It is therefore for this reason when Tsai says it is up to Taiwan, not China, to decide the island’s future, and warns of the Chinese threat to democracy and liberty, the world listens. It was also a reason why her main opponent Han Kuo-yu of the Kuomintang party, which ruled China until 1949 when forced to flee to Taiwan after losing a civil war, lost as he favoured close ties with China and believed that it was the only way to ensure Taiwan’s security and prosperity. His double-speak was that he also claimed to defend the island’s freedom and democracy.

Though China was closely watching the elections and expected a Han victory, the people of Taiwan thought otherwise in reposing faith with Tsai. What China is likely to do now is that it would further ratchet pressure on Taiwan, perhaps even by conducting military drills close to the island to intimidate. China needs to be mindful that a conflict would hugely damage both China and Taiwan that it can ill afford. The real test/danger would come if Tsai declares formal independence and term Republic of Taiwan and if so, if Beijing would use force to reclaim the island as mandated by its 2005 law authorising the use of force against Taiwan if China judges it to have seceded.  

Positions of the US and China

As expected, the US rejoiced in Tsai’s victory, hailing it as a demonstration of the island’s “robust democratic system”. Although the US has no formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, it is bound by law to provide the island with means to defend itself. The US State Department issued a statement, saying that “under her leadership, we hope Taiwan will continue to serve as a shining example for countries that strive for democracy, prosperity, and a better path for their people”.

The US saw the election results as a blow to China. Though it did not take any open position, it expressed concern at Chinese efforts at intimidation and influence. When Beijing successfully wooed some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies in Central America and the Pacific, the Trump administration was dismayed, which is why it approved billions in new arms sales to Taiwan so that it can defend its sovereignty when needed. The US is concerned that Beijing has been trying assiduously to wean away Taiwan’s remaining allies, trying to see that they stick with Taipei and not give Beijing further foothold.

Even when the US-China trade stand-off continues and elections in Taiwan over, the US transited one of its warships through the Taiwan Strait, a move that irked Beijing. The passage of the USS Shiloh guided-missile cruiser through the narrow waterway, separating the island from the Chinese mainland, was announced by the Taiwanese Ministry of National Defense and confirmed by the US Seventh Fleet as a “routine visit”, demonstrating the US commitment to a free and open Indo-Pacific.

Interestingly, the development came a day after President Trump and his Chinese counterpart Xi Jinping sealed a “phase one” trade deal as part of a broader bid to reduce trade tensions that have stirred up global markets for more than a year. The deal, however, is unlikely to resolve persisting and much wider strategic tensions between the US and an increasingly powerful China.

Though Beijing did not react on the passage of the US warship through the Taiwan Strait, it said that it does not oppose “normal passage” of foreign vessels through the strait, though it censures trips aimed at sending a geopolitical signal. Beijing is paranoid that Tsai is getting cosy with Washington, accusing the latter as the main reason for sowing rising discord between the mainland and Taiwan. Beijing is further dismayed that diplomats from Britain and Japan congratulated Tai on her re-election.

Writing in Japan Forward, Robert Eldridge says that like the US, Japan should have its own Taiwan Relations Act. The administration of Abe Shinzo is openly cozy with the Tsai administration. He and his brother Nobuo Kishi are known to be highly pro-Taiwan. There have been a variety of formal and informal interactions between the two countries. In March 2017, Senior Vice Minister of Internal Affairs and Communications Jiro Akama travelled to Taipei for one day to promote tourism. He was the most senior Japanese official to visit Taiwan in 45 years. In response to criticism from China, Abe later responded that Taiwan is “an important partner that shares Japan’s values and interests.” In addition, Keisuke Suzuki, the director of the ruling Liberal Democratic Party’s youth division and a member of Deputy Prime Minister and Finance Minister Taro Aso’s faction, visited Taiwan. He again visited Taiwan to attend a Taiwan-US-Japan security-related conference at which he argued for a Japanese version of the Taiwan Relations Act (TRA).

Japan, which chose diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China over Taiwan, has no such TRA governing its relations with Taiwan, despite the historic, geographic, and socially close ties it has with Taiwan. However, while the US passed the TRA in a matter of weeks, Japan has been unable to do it over the course of decades.

Reactions in Hong Kong

Expectedly, Hong Kong protestors feted landslide election win for Tsai. They saw this as a fillip to their movement that puts pressure on China. The former British colony returned to Chinese rule in 1997 amid promises it would be granted a high degree of autonomy and eventual universal suffrage. But China’s tightening grip on the city and Beijing’s failure to live up to its promises have fed the unrest. This is one of the biggest popular challenges to the ruling Communist Party since the return.

There is a growing opinion within the DPP that Taiwan owes Hong Kong more concrete support. The election outcome demonstrates that it is a proof that Xi Jinping’s strategy of keeping Hong Kong and Taiwan under control is a total failure. The 23 million people of Taiwan are not willing to give up their sovereignty and subject to the authoritarian control of the Chinese leadership.   

Taiwan was part of Japan for 50 years before being handed back to the 1911 regime, and has never been ruled by the Chinese Communist Party, nor has it formed part of the People’s Republic of China. Tsai argues that the erosion of democratic progress and civil liberties in Hong Kong under China’s “one country, two systems” means that Taiwan should never take Beijing seriously when it talks about “unification.” Taipei expects Beijing should respect the popular will of the Taiwanese people as reflected in the election outcome. Viewed from all perspectives, Tsai’s re-election could prove to be a fundamental turning point for Taiwan. This does not mean to suggest that Beijing would soften its stance any time soon as Beijing made it clear that its position would not change even if Tsai is re-elected. China is committed to promoting “one country, two systems” for Taiwan, a model under which Beijing runs Hong Kong with a high degree of autonomy. Tsai has openly rejected such a system. Given the divergence of positions by both sides, the future is full of complexities with no ready answer in sight. 

Professor (Dr.) Rajaram Panda, former Senior Fellow at IDSA and ICCR India Chair Professor at Reitaku University, Japan is currently Lok Sabha Research Fellow, Parliament of India, and Member of Governing Council, Indian Council of World Affairs, New Delhi.

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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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