“What bothered us most about the Government is that they treated us like idiots”. This quote is attributed to a German worker during the twilight of the communist regime in East Germany. Somebody should make the same claim but this time to Communist top leaders in Beijing. It is time we have a debate about the consequences to have a superpower under an authoritarian and secretive regime operating within the post-Cold War international system.
There is no doubt that around the world, the efforts and personal sacrifices of the valiant people of Wuhan have been widely recognized. The desperate efforts to contain the disease and treat those who were infected by the virus by the Chinese medical community will be remembered as an example of the remarkable capacity that China possesses to contribute positively to the world’s wellbeing. Doctor Li Wenliang’s martyrdom at the hands of the communist regime in sounding an alert and treating his colleagues and community makes it very clear. But Dr. Li was a physician and not a political scientist; were he more politically aware, he would have known that the biological coronavirus that he so desperately tried to make the authorities aware of had been hybridized with the political virus called communist secrecy. The recent affirmation made by the German magazine Der Spiegel that Xi Jinping personally requested to the World Health Organization to delay a global warning about human to human transmission, besides to make WHO an accomplice of such practices, only reinforce the problem. In other words, the central problem here is the lack of transparency in the Chinese communist regime.
This should not come as a surprise. Although firmly of the prejudices of his time, sixty-four years ago, George Keanan, in his famous long telegram, had already offered good elements of where to set the foundations of our mistrust on a Communist regime:
In atmosphere of oriental secretiveness and conspiracy which pervades this Government, possibilities for distorting or poisoning sources and currents of information are infinite. The very disrespect of Russians for objective truth–indeed, their disbelief in its existence–leads them to view all stated facts as instruments for furtherance of one ulterior purpose or another. There is good reason to suspect that this Government is actually a conspiracy within a conspiracy.
Considering the CCP’s performance until now in coping with the coronavirus pandemic, Keanan’s assessment of the Soviets acquires terrifying new contours. It was not the Chinese people that tried to cover up the initial phases of the pandemic when they first became aware of it. This was a result of a historic and perverted need of Communist regimes to display a layer of cohesiveness and solidity to make every single social problem understood as a conspiracy to overthrow the government or embarrassing those at the top of it. So far, this was exactly what Beijing apparently did, or is trying to do.
Add to that, in a moment where monitoring – and therefore information – is the fundamental weapon against the virus, the world has been forced into a state of disbelief with every Chinese report about the situation on the ground. The numbers released by Beijing authorities simply do not add up and, as with most other official data, to make things worse they are nearly impossible to check. It is true that not all Western democracies are in consonance with the ideals of transparency and accountability, but it is hard to believe that a similar phenomenon in Western Europe or North America would illicit a similar misinformation campaign. With mass media based on the idea of a free press, together with the scrutiny of opposition powers, the constant shadow of brave whistle-blowers and social groups pushing for their own agendas, someone would expose the story and it would quickly bespread from social networks to mainstream media, and from there straight to the government agendas.
For too long, based on the course of other former authoritarian nations, Western powers have indulged in wishful thinking about China, imagining a delayed democratization or, at least, flexibilization of the Chinese regime as a result of its economic development and its integration into the world supply chain. The Western liberal order did not compromise in bringing most of its erstwhile rivals in the Soviet-orbit into the fold of liberal democracies, as if by phagocytosis. This was accomplished by a guided transformation of their entire political systems. The Russian refusal to do so explains in part its current international marginalization. Although the some sectors of the American political elite still hold on to their radical views about the welfare state—seeing it as a branch of socialism—the truth is that former authoritarian countries had to spontaneously, or under pressure, adopt not only a veneer of the liberal economic model, but to embrace its values as well. Failure to do so has been used as an explanation, in the hallways of power in Brussels and Washington, for those states’ incapacity to be fully integrated into the European Union system and into the global economy as well. If it is true that in Beijing there is an anxiety about what is thought to be a long-delayed unification with Taiwan, the same anxiety happens in the West about the long-awaited democratization of the Chinese regime. So far, the characteristic secrecy of the Chinese manner of practicing government had, until now, been a Chinese issue. But the Coronavirus episode has made it a global problem. As it is in Washington, from now on what happens in China does not stay in China, and that is the price for any nation with superpower aspirations. The leaders inBeijing seem to either refuse to accept, or refuse to understand, this fundamental feature of the global order.
That is the reason for Mearsheimer’s thesis that a revisionist China is inevitable, in the sense that CCP seems more desirous to reform the international system so that it mirrors their model, than the other way around. Unable and unwilling to go through such a flexibilization process, China literally bought its ticket to ride to the world liberal order imagining that loans and abundant investments in infrastructure around the globe would do enough to ease these ideological tensions. But the coronavirus era is showing us that this is not entirely the case.
Thus, this event more than any other makes it clear that membership in the globalized world in which we live carries with it responsibilities—and not just rights—on the part of its participants. China is one of the most tightly integrated economies—by design, in fact—in this globalized world, and thus far, the more responsible, albeit smaller, nations of the world have not pushed the communist giant to wield its power more responsibly. China’s CCP regime has a high degree of power and influence outside of its borders, and it therefore has the duty to use this power not just for the furtherance of its own rule, but for the betterment of the global order – or, at the very least, in a way that does not lead to the deaths of hundreds of thousands of victims in other countries. Until that day, the pressure must be kept on the regime to take accountability for its failures, and designation of this pandemic as the CCP Virus is but a small step in that direction.
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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