The COVID-19 pandemic is far from over, but the battle for “coronavirus narratives” is already in full swing. The front lines are the pages of newspapers and magazines, televisions screens and computer monitors, virtual seats at international organizations and online university lecture halls. Who is primarily to blame for the appearance of COVID-19? Which country and which system have been most effective in combatting the virus? Who has demonstrated the most compassion and empathy? Who has shown a willingness to selflessly help their foreign partners and even their strategic adversaries in the battle against the pandemic?
Common sense would suggest that it might be better to postpone any discussion of these and other similar issues until the global community has the spread of the virus under control. One way or another, victory over the coronavirus will be something that the global community can share. Let the epidemiologists, sociologists, political scientists, psychologists, economists and other experts argue about strategy and the offensive and defensive tactics that needed to be adopted on various fronts. But no! There has been no ceasefire in the “battle of narratives.” Nor is there likely to be one. What is more, one gets the distinct impression that more energy is being put into this battle than into the fight against the coronavirus itself.
But this is hardly surprising. Because right now, literally in front of our very eyes, national and transnational mythologemes of the fight against coronavirus are being created – mythologemes that may end up being just as important as those about World War II or the Cold War. Like the numerous narratives of the past, the narrative that is being created today does not have to reflect the true situation. In fact, it could be entirely false. What is most important here is that the elites are able to convince their own societies of the truth of their version, so that the narrative will be accepted, supported and passed on to future generations. And then its significance as an integral part of national identity and an instrument of political mobilization will be difficult to overestimate.
Whose Narrative is Most Convincing?
Sooner or later, every country that has been affected by the coronavirus pandemic will have developed its own narrative about the fight against COVID-19. There will be heroes, villains, noble feats and tragic mistakes. But the truly era-defining war of “coronavirus narratives” is currently unfolding between China and the West, headed by the United States. The side that can convince the world that its strategy for overcoming the coronavirus is the most effective will at the same time stake its claim to global leadership in the post-corona world. And the side that gives off the impression that it is helpless in the face of the pandemic or has been slow to react to it will automatically be relegated to the position of outsider – a country that will not be able to cope with the challenges awaiting us as we move deeper into the 21st century.
Right now, the West as a whole, and the United States in particular, have been forced to fight a number of difficult defensive battles in the war of “coronavirus narratives.” The public is constantly reminded that COVID-19 did not originate just anywhere, but in China, and hinting at the possibility that the virus was artificially created couldn’t hurt, right? Then there is the argument that Beijing actively misled the international community about the origin of COVID-19 and silenced the doctors who discovered it. And we can blame the Chinese leadership for its massive human rights violations at the peak of the disease in Wuhan, for trying to bribe WHO officials and for various other wrongdoings.
But, as the Russian saying goes, “the winners are not judged.” The statistics are on China’s side, not the United States’. As of April 22, 2020, China had registered a total of 88,423 coronavirus cases and 4632 deaths, compared to 790,480 cases in the United States and 42,214 deaths. China is the most populous country in the world, yet only eighth in terms of the number of infected, far behind the United States and several other Western countries (Spain, Italy, France, Germany and the United Kingdom). As a side note, it is worth mentioning that the spread of coronavirus in the West has forced many to abandon the previously held propagandist theory that the course of the pandemic in Iran was indisputable proof of the complete failure of the country’s illiberal system to deal with the epidemiological crisis. Today Iran, just like China, compares favourably with most leading countries in the West in terms of both the number of infected and the number of deaths.
The discouraging statistics for the West make it difficult to build a reliable defence against the Chinese “coronavirus narrative.” But the West, particularly the United States, desperately needs an alternative narrative. And now more so than ever, as the outlines of a post-corona bipolar world are coming into sight. Observing this epic battle of narratives from the outside (as Russia does not really have a dog in the fight at this point), we can see that the West is building three lines of defence.
China Can Never Be Trusted!
The first line of defence is to try and discredit China’s official coronavirus numbers. The West has always been sceptical about China’s statistics on just about anything, but now this traditional mistrust has turned into outright rejection. Many point to “indirect data” (for example, the sharp decrease in the number of mobile network subscribers in the country) as proof that the number of infected was not in the tens of thousands, but rather in the millions. It thus follows that the number of deaths is also an order of magnitude (or even two) higher than official reports suggest. Moreover, certain voices insist that China is on the verge of a secondary outbreak (which may happen as early as this autumn), and if this is the case, then we may have been a little hasty in praising the effectiveness of China’s strategy in fighting COVID-19.
How strong is this line of defence? The design looks flimsy and unreliable. Naturally, Beijing manipulated the statistics from time to time and the accuracy and completeness of official data on the pandemic are probably questionable. But surely only the most hardened Sinophobe would entertain the notion that the actual numbers of infected and dead are several times higher than the officially reported figures. The reality is that it is impossible to hide the real numbers in today’s transparent and interconnected world – even in a totalitarian and completely closed country like North Korea, not to mention China, which is deeply integrated into the global economic and political system. Attempts to destroy the Chinese narrative by reference to Xi Jinping’s statistical gymnastics can be likened to Lord Cardigan’s hopeless Charge of the Light Brigade on the fortified positions of Russian troops during the Crimean War.
It’s All Trump’s Fault!
The second line of defence is a classic example of ad hominem fallacy. That is, in this case, reducing all of the West’s problems in the fight against coronavirus to the subjective miscalculations of individual statesmen and politicians. The primary culprit is, of course, President of the United States Donald Trump, although fingers are certainly being pointed at European leaders too, from British Prime Minister Boris Johnson to his Spanish opposite number Pedro Sánchez. The basic premise is that western healthcare, just like the western socio-political system, is far more effective “in principle” than that of China. Unfortunately for the West, however, the countless managerial missteps of certain individuals and the inconsistencies brought about by the belief in their own infallibility have cancelled out any objective advantages that the West may have had over China. People in the West caught a “bad break” when, at a crucial moment in history, their leaders turned out to be wholly incapable of meeting the challenge before them.
There are gaping holes in the second line of defence as well. It is difficult to find a convincing argument that would explain why such different leaders (in terms of their political views, professional experience, management style and even age) have done about as poorly as each other in their response to the coronavirus in the United States, Spain, Italy, Germany and the United Kingdom. Let us not forget that the population of these countries is several times lower than that of China, yet the number of infected exceeds the Chinese figures significantly. If the Western political system continues to put incompetent and inadequate in positions of power, then perhaps the problem is not the people themselves, but the system as such!
Back to the Roots!
The third line of defence is the willingness to acknowledge the serious systemic imperfections of modern capitalism without touching upon the fundamental principles of political liberalism. In this case, it is not so much Donald Trump and Boris Johnson who are to blame, but rather Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher. The argument here is that many Western countries made the fatal mistake in the late 1970s and early 1980s of privatizing numerous industries and stimulating economic inequality. What is more, the state started to reject its traditional social obligations. Not only did this result in the degradation of national healthcare systems, but it also led to increased social and political polarization and a general distrust of state institutions and of other people. This all came to a head when a real test in the form of the coronavirus appeared. For example, in the United States, not only did the Republicans and Democrats not rally together in the fight against the pandemic, but they also turned COVID-19 into another reason to step up interparty hostilities.
The conclusion can thus be made that, in order to successfully fight the pandemic and overcome the various other challenges that await humanity, the West needs to return to the historical fork in the road, as it were, where the wrong choice was made. The proponents of this argument point to the relatively successful strategy of the Scandinavian countries in fighting the coronavirus, where social interaction remains high, the state never abandoned its social obligations and the government, opposition, trade unions and employer associations have come together to fight the pandemic.
There is, of course, a logic to this approach. However, the first thing that we should point out here is that the success of the Scandinavian countries in fighting coronavirus has been mixed thus far. As of April 23, 2020, Finland had 3868 registered cases, with 98 deaths (2.5 per cent), compared to 14,777 and 1580 (10.5 per cent), respectively, in Sweden. This can hardly be seen as an unequivocal success for the Prime Minister of Sweden, Stefan Löfven. Secondly, some doubt if the Scandinavian models of the social state can be interpreted as a consistent implementation of “true capitalism at all.”
What if the Defence Falls?
As we can see, holding these lines of defence requires huge resources and casualties from the West. At the first line of defence, the question simply comes down to increasing the effectiveness of propaganda and counterpropaganda and enhancing the West’s intelligence and analytical potential in the name of winning the information war against Beijing. At the second line of defence, at least some of today’s leaders, as well as members of their inner circles, will need to go. And holding the third line of defence will take more than simply removing individual figures from the political scene, no matter how influential they may be. Substantial reforms of the political and socio-economic models of leading Western nations are what is needed here, with all the costs that this will entail for the current elites.
Let us say that there is enough determination and political will in the West to make these sacrifices. Will this be enough to guarantee victory over China in the “battle of narratives”? And what if the third line of defence is breached? Such a breach would represent a direct or indirect acknowledgement that the relative failures of the West and the relative successes of China in the fight against coronavirus are not down to Beijing manipulating the statistics, the inferiority of certain leaders in the West or the departure of leading Western countries from the traditional foundations of the capitalist system.
The failure of the third line of defence would demonstrate that the failures of the West are rooted in the very principles of political liberalism, which is losing all credibility in front of our very eyes through its inability to respond in an effective manner to the challenges of the 21st century. And we are not talking about losing a battle here (even a major one) – we are talking about losing the war.
The Return of Convergence Theory?
iberal political systems assume a degree of external and internal openness. As a rule, liberalism promotes the idea of the free movement of goods, services and people around the world. While people in China saw the closing of the country’s borders as a natural measure for preventing the spread of the coronavirus, similar steps in Western countries were met with fierce criticism from the political opposition. And this is understandable, as a person in a liberal society is first and foremost a “citizen of the world,” rather than a citizen in an authoritarian society. Inside one’s own country, the former enjoys more professional, social and geographical mobility than the latter and has a much wider network of social and professional contacts. This is precisely why a liberal society is, by definition, a more fertile environment for spreading COVID-19.
Liberal societies are far more resistant to attempts by the state to interfere in the private lives of their citizens, be it monitoring smartphones to identify people with whom an infected individual may have had contact or restricting the movement of the population. It is more difficult to place limits on household consumption in liberal societies, even when such restrictions are necessary to prevent panic buying, artificial scarcity and price gouging. Similarly, the liberal economic model is not as effective as the authoritarian model when it comes to mobilizing productive resources in times of war, natural disasters and other difficult times.
None of this necessarily means that authoritarianism will always triumph over liberalism. Even the most effective forms of authoritarianism (as displayed by the Chinese model) have their obvious flaws and imperfections. But if China scores a resounding victory in the battle of “coronavirus narratives,” then much will surely change in terms of what we consider the most desirable future for humankind.
After all, COVID-19 is not the last pandemic that the world will have to face. And let us not forget about climate change, the increasingly frequent natural disasters, possible resource shortages and other emergency situations which, unfortunately, are becoming part of the “new normality.” People across the world want to be free. Freedom is still valued highly. But what if we put the question rather coldly: Would you prefer to survive in an authoritarian Wuhan or die in a free New York?
In the middle of the last century, several prominent thinkers, including Pitirim Sorokin and John Galbraith put forward the idea of converging two opposing socio-economic systems. The so-called convergence theory gained popularity in the 1960s–1970s, even though it was heavily criticized in both the East and the West. The implosion of the world socialist system at the end of the 20th century meant that everyone simply forgot about it, condemning it to the scrapheap of human errors. Perhaps now is the time to revisit the idea from a 21st-century perspective?
From our partner RIAC
The Demise of a French Sub Deal: Is China a Threat?
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?
Japanese firms’ slow and steady exit is sounding alarm bells in Beijing
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%?
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.
How China Exacerbates Global Fragility and What Can be Done to Bolster Democratic Resilience to Confront It
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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