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Illusions of a New Bipolarity

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There is a certain foreign political dimension to the COVID-19 pandemic that is beginning to rear its head with increasing frequency and can thus explain the current behaviour of states on the international stage. Coronavirus plays two largely contradictory roles – it accelerates some processes while at the same time putting the brakes on, or even halting, others. The former include, among other things, the geopolitical plans of a number of states, while the latter includes finding solutions to global socioeconomic problems and domestic political processes. One area in which events are accelerating is the rivalry between the United States and China, which has prompted many to start talking about a “new bipolarity.” Are we really seeing a revival of bipolarity, but in a modern form? That is, in the true definition of the word – is the world being split into two antagonistic systems?

It has become the norm in the mainstream media, especially those media outlets that push the liberal political agenda, to separate the world into two camps. “China is on the way up and, thanks to Trump’s trade war,” CNN tells us, “the world is heading for an us-versus-them universe […] There will be two camps, pro-America; pro-China […]” Let us be clear, we are not talking about escalating tensions between two states here, but rather between two “camps.”

And now let us not forget that the only bipolarity that we have ever experienced was in the form of the U.S.–Soviet confrontation during the Cold Warю It was marked by a gradual stabilization of international relations that culminated in the Helsinki Final Act of 1975. In other words, the logic of bipolarity entailed not only rivalry between the two global centres of power, but also their joint activities to eliminate the threat of a major armed confrontation. However, relations between Washington and Beijing appear to be heading in a completely different direction. According to Graham Allison “[W]ar between the U.S. and China in the decades ahead is not just possible, but much more likely than currently recognized.” [3] It thus follows that interaction between China and the United States will lead to loosening, rather than a stabilization, of international relations.

There is a more optimistic scenario, too, which would involve Washington agreeing to coexist with Beijing in a “competition without catastrophe” [4]. The problem with this scenario is that any large-scale “rebalancing” will have to be carried out on conditions set by the United States [5]. However, given the current circumstances, such a rebalancing can only be achieved in a climate of equality or, what is more likely, under conditions that suit China. In order for this to happen, American foreign policy needs to return to some semblance of realism. But that’s another story.

Are there any favourable “external conditions” for a bipolar world to take shape? Is there anything in the current international climate that would convince us to place our trust in China and the United States as the countries that are expected to lead these new poles? We should keep in mind that, during the Cold War, East and West continued to develop actively. Today, both China and the United States are shoulder deep in globalization. But just look at what is happening to globalization. Economic, informational, technological and other forms of competition are only growing, and what used to be a self-regulating economic process is turning into a political instrument for suppressing business competitors, with unreasonable restrictions, the extraterritorial application of national laws and actions in circumvention of the WTO rules in the name of “national security” becoming the norm. Many of the problems that led to the global financial crisis in 2008–2009 have not been properly addressed. And the coronavirus pandemic promises even harder times. It turns out that that, in its current manifestation, globalization is not a process that Washington or Beijing are able to steer, rather, it is a phenomenon that makes it increasingly difficult for China and the United States to pursue their respective goals.

Some proponents of a new bipolarity might concede that deglobalization processes are indeed taking place right now, but in no way does this prove that the world is not being split in two and becoming bipolar in nature once again. The answer to this would be that none of the world’s most respected economists would challenge the idea that globalization is a representation of the interdependence of the modern world. We are talking about the specific ultra-liberal form of globalization that has dominated for the last 30 or 40 years exhausting its usefulness. There is no objective reason to expect a return to the old kind of bipolarity, which functioned as two parts of the world that existed almost in complete isolation from each other socially and economically under the leadership of the United States and the Soviet Union. Despite all the current trade, financial and sanctions wars, the global nature of the market cannot be dismantled and returned to the Council for Mutual Economic Assistance and the European Economic Community, for example, which in any case had little to do with one another.

It thus follows that China and the United States are destined to have close economic ties, yet at the same time are sliding towards confrontation. And neither the first nor the second circumstance was characteristic of the confrontation between the United States and the Soviet Union. It turns out that the United States and China cannot exist in economic isolation from one another, nor can they build a kind of economic interdependence that would suit both sides, which has led to a kind of acute “ischemia” in the rivalry between the two countries. Even at the embryonic stage, this kind of bipolarity cannot offer stability to the world or anything that would even remotely resemble U.S.–Soviet relations.

One of the reasons why the rivalry between the Soviet Union and the United States grew into a standoff between two poles was that external contours emerged in the form of the socialist and capitalist camps, respectively. The events of the past 20 years show that the West, in the previous sense of the word, no longer exists. The dominance and economic might of the United States are very much on the decline, as its ability to use force effectively and maintain its leading technological status in a respectable way. Even the United Kingdom, traditionally Washington’s closest ally, refused to support the White House in its war against the Chinese telecoms giant Huawei. According to the people of Japan, Canada, Germany and France, the United States poses a greater threat to their respective countries than Russia and (with the exception of Japan) China [6].

It is unclear exactly where the boundaries of the West begin and end. It is turning into a dual-core system with centres in Washington and the European Union that are undergoing a kind of strategic decoupling [7]. The United States has, since the presidency of George W. Bush, pursued a course of monetizing and pragmatizing relations with its allies, strategically leaving Europe. The European Union is trying to shed its image as a purely economic centre of power through the idea of strategic autonomy and a common strategic culture. Europe will never again be the focus of the United States’ attention, writes Foreign Affairs, and so must ensure the survival of its own model in order to stake a claim to global leadership.

As for China’s external contours, there is nothing here that resembles the socialist camp that existed under the auspices of the USSR. Political and ideological cohesion was key to the bipolarity that we witnessed during the Cold War. China has long surpassed the Soviet Union in terms of its economic influence, but politically Beijing has very few allies, especially when it comes to an out and out confrontation with the United States. This is perhaps the biggest difference between what we are witnessing today and the bipolarity of the past – when superpowers are not surrounding themselves with ideological blocs, bipolarity becomes nothing but two states getting into a bickering match, albeit with certain global attributes. China has perhaps one true strategic partner, and that is Russia. The United States, on the other hand, has many allies, although many of them, including France and Germany, are tired of being of their forced dependence on Washington.

Can the Russia–China tandem stake a claim to being one of the blocs in the new bipolar world? Probably not. As a rule, the poles can have only one indisputable leader. China–Russia relations are largely asymmetrical in favour of China, although they are far from being subordinate. Neither side is willing to let the other assume the role of leader. And let us not forget that the two countries pursue strategies that do not always coincide: the military and political standoff between China and the United States is largely focused in the South China and East China seas, thousands of miles away from Russia. Russia does not have any interests in that region. Yet it is precisely here that China’s most vulnerable geopolitical sore spots are located (Hong Kong, Taiwan and the Paracel and the Spratly Islands). Russia has a zone of strategic tension of its own to the west, far away from China.

Another thing that we should keep in mind is that bipolarity was only possible in a world that was already split along ideological lines. But the confrontation between socialism and capitalism is a thing of the past, and value differences have also receded into the background, making way for realpolitik and geopolitics [8]. Without an ideological confrontation, it is impossible to recreate the necessary conditions for the world to split into two camps. It is true that China and the United States have fundamentally different values and political systems, as was the case with the United States and the Soviet Union during the Cold War. But these contradictions run nowhere near as deep. The United States remains convinced of its exclusivity and its God-given right to global leadership [9]. China, on the other hand, does not demonstrate any kind of messianism and, unlike the Soviet Union, it does not promote socialist and communist ideas. Beijing does not rely on hackneyed ideological phrases, rather, it points to the effectiveness of its development model. The inescapable growth of competition between Beijing and Washington is not due to the irreconcilability of ideologies, but rather to their geopolitical incompatibility, and this is simply not enough for the confrontation to transmute into a bloc-based rivalry.

Yet many are still enticed by discussions of a new bipolarity, and there are many reasons why. Let us outline a few of them. First, the world order that existed during the Cold War was relatively simple. Second, people are motivated by anti-Chinese sentiments. That is, many associate the bipolarity of the Cold War with the eventual victory of one of the sides, and they hope that the United States will defeat China in much the same way that it defeated the Soviet Union. Third, it would seem that those who still believe in the return of a consolidated West under the leadership of the United States and the emergence of an anti-Western bloc led by China and neighbouring Russia see U.S.–China bipolarity as a viable option. Such conclusions are normally based on the immature and ideologically motivated idea of the world being split into “liberal democracies” on the one hand and “authoritarian regimes” on the other.

If the idea of a new bipolarity is untenable, then the possibility of a new Cold War, that is, the appearance of elements of the political, military, financial and economic confrontation between Russia and the West, has also no substance behind. The phenomenon of the Cold War is inseparable from the post-War conditions that led to the emergence of U.S.–Soviet bipolarity. Its key parameters are well known and almost none of them have been recreated. No one makes the claim today that there is a new geopolitical rift between Russia and the United States, and thus the West. The phrase “New Cold War” would still make sense with regard to the trajectory along which China and the United States are currently travelling. However, even then it is used rarely, and mostly by Washington [10]. Again, we need to keep in mind that the Cold War as an element of U.S.–Soviet bipolarity was a path to a certain balance of interests, and not a slippery slope towards an open confrontation.

As for relations between Russia and the European Union, I dare say that, even given the depressing strategies pursued by both sides, the principle of a new bipolarity has not taken root. It is only under extreme duress and with extreme reluctance that the European Union has taken any steps against China. This was laid bare for all to see in the tragicomic story involving the EU report on disinformation about the COVID-19 pandemic. The handling of the coronavirus is leaving more and more people in Europe with no illusions about the United States and the “shining city upon a hill,” or indeed about the far-reaching ambitions harboured by Brussels. The point of view that the current state of relations with Moscow will only make the situation worse has been argued very articulately in a number of analytical works [11], not to mention by a number of politicians in Europe. The pandemic has led to a certain opportunistic surge in anti-Russia and anti-China rhetoric. But it works far better on the European Union’s less blinkered view of the world than it does on neoliberal apologetics, which in many ways perverts legacy of liberal thought.

[1] Pence M. Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China. The Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018. Perlez J. Pence’s China Speech Seen as Portent of ‘New Cold.

War,’” The New York Times, 5 October 2018. Rogin J. Pence: “It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War.”

Washington Post, 13 November 2018.

[2] Monaghan A. Dealing with the Russians. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.

[3] Allison G. Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap? Boston and New York: Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. 2017, p. xvii.

[4] Campbell K. M. and J. Sullivan. Competition Without Catastrophe. How America Can Both Challenge and Coexist with China // Foreign Affairs, September–October 2019.

[5] Campbell K. M. The Pivot: The Future of American Statecraft in Asia. New York, Twelve, 2016.

[6] Munich Security Report 2019, p. 7.

[7] Gromyko, A. A Splintered West: The Consequences for the Euro-Atlantic // Contemporary Europe, No. 4, 2018, pp. 5–16.

[8] The return of geopolitics had been a topic of discussion long before Donald Trump moved into the White House. See, for example, Larrabee S. Russia, Ukraine, and Central Europe: The Return of Geopolitics // Journal of International Affairs, No. 2. Spring–Summer 2010, pp. 33–52.

[9] The idea of American leadership appears 36 times in the country’s 32-page National Security Strategy for 2015.

[10] Pence M. Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China. The Hudson Institute, Washington, DC, 4 October 2018. Perlez J. Pence’s China Speech Seen as Portent of ‘New Cold War,’” The New York Times, 5 October 2018. Rogin J. Pence: “It’s Up to China to Avoid a Cold War.” Washington Post, 13 November 2018.

[11] Monaghan A. Dealing with the Russians. Cambridge, Polity Press, 2019.

From our partner RIAC

Director of the Institute of Europe of the Russian Academy of Sciences (IE RAS), RAS Corresponding Member, RIAC member

East Asia

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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East Asia

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%?

***

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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East Asia

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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A new whitepaper outlining the key considerations in setting the course for Africa’s energy future was released today at the...

Defense9 hours ago

Eastern seas after Afghanistan: UK and Australia come to the rescue of the U.S. in a clumsy way

In March 2021 the People’s Republic of China emerged as the world’s largest naval fleet, surpassing the US Navy. An...

Southeast Asia11 hours ago

AUKUS: A Sequela of World War II and US Withdrawal from Afghanistan

Deemed as a historic security pact, AUKUS was unveiled by the leaders of the US, the UK and Australia –...

Americas15 hours ago

Interpreting the Biden Doctrine: The View From Moscow

It is the success or failure of remaking America, not Afghanistan, that will determine not just the legacy of the...

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