Connect with us

East Asia

Alex Axar’s Visit to Taiwan: A Strong Message to China

Published

on

The official four-day visits of US Health and Human Services Secretary Alex Azar to Taiwan in August 2020, marked the senior most US visit to this self-governing island since formal diplomatic relations were severed in 1979 in deference to China. This is going to be a fresh thorn in prickly US-China ties.

Despite switching allegiance to Beijing, the US maintains unofficial ties with Taiwan in deference to Beijing. It remains the island’s most important ally and provider of defensive arms. A 2018 US law urged Washington to send increasingly high-level officials to Taiwan in contrast to past years when such visits were extremely rare. Azar’s visit is therefore the highest-level American official to visit Taiwan since their break in formal diplomatic ties in 1979. In recent times, US-China bilateral ties have experienced strain over a range of issues such as South China Sea, TikTok, Hong Kong and trade. In a throwback to the Cold War, the two recently ordered tit-for-tat closures of consulates in Houston and Chengdu and rhetorical sniping has become a daily occurrence. The significance of Azar’ visit should be measured against this backdrop.

Taiwan’s credentials on virus control

First, a few words about the credibility Taiwan earned by its deft handling the pandemic can help analyse Azar’s visit in context. Besides demonstrating America’s strong commitments to defend Taiwan’s security, necessary protocol was maintained on the Covid-19 issue for the delegation. The fact that such protocol was strictly maintained spoke plenty of Taiwan’s unbending stands in securing its territory from any possible virus threat. Like Taiwan, South Korea and Vietnam are the other two success story in containing the virus. Therefore, use of face masks and other necessary safety protocols were strictly followed by all the delegation members, except in “rare circumstances”. With a population of 23 million, Taiwan has reported 479 cases and seven deaths.

Not only Taiwan handled the virus in the country successfully, it proved to be a responsible nation for the world by sending quietly Covid-19 assistance to foreign countries surreptitiously to avoid protests from China. China’s attempts to isolate Taiwan compelled the island at times to keep its donations of masks and personal protective equipment under the radar. Taiwan chose such an approach as it did not want to complicate the recipient country’s relationship with China. China has pursued all possible measures to isolate Taiwan diplomatically, including barring its participation in forums such as the World Health Assembly.

After bringing the virus under control at home, the island nation donated 51 million masks overseas, including 10 million to the US, along with other items of personal protective equipment. There was no problem in naming the US as one of the recipient country but the vulnerability of other recipient countries prevented Taiwan from revealing their identities. Just 15 countries maintain formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan, and China has sought to peel away its remaining allies. Taiwan is aware that acquiescence to Chinese pressure would merely turn Taiwan into another Hong Kong, where China has enforced a new national security law to throttle democracy. Taiwan is unwilling, and rightly so, to surrender its hard-earned democracy after experiencing a phase of dictatorship to the authoritarian aggression from Beijing.

Why Azar’s Taipei visit not a normal one? 

Azar’s visit was not a normal one; it posits in the large political and geopolitical context. It will likely to exacerbate mounting tensions between Washington and Beijing, which claims Taiwan as its own territory to be annexed by force if necessary. When President Donald Trump took umbrage over mounting trade deficit with China, he first put pressure on Beijing to take necessary corrective measures to address this issue. But having failed to get satisfactory response, he started to take countermeasures by tariffs and quantitative quota restrictions. Beijing too retaliated on its own ways. Finding the two at loggerheads and in a throwback to the Cold War, the two ordered tit-for-tat closures of consulates in Houston and Chengdu amid rhetorical sniping. Azar’s visit now adds to those frictions.

Though the visit represented an acknowledgment of the US-Taiwan deep friendship and partnership across a wide spectrum of security, economics, health care, and democratic open transparent values, Beijing was never expected to buy this justification. Even when the US and Taiwan celebrate the bond, China responded with two screaming jets towards the island before the talks began.

In a steady deterioration of bilateral ties, when Washington explicitly denied most of China’s maritime claims in the strategically vital South China Sea, it instantly drew China’s ire. China’s claims almost to the whole of this strategic waterway and considers activities in the area by the US Navy, including ships close to Chinese-controlled islands, as threatening regional peace and stability.

The Trump administration lunched the tariff war targeting Chinese institutions and officials, besides campaigning to exclude Chinese telecoms giants Huawei from the US and its allies, which China saw as US attempt to prevent China’s development as a global technology power. Trump suspects Huawei’s links with the ruling Communist Party and that compromises personal data and the integrity of the information systems in the companies in which it operates. Beijing demands proof of this. Further, Trump escalated tensions when he signed an executive order banning to deal with the Chinese owners of consumers apps TikTok and WeChat, possibly leading to their becoming unavailable in the lucrative American market.

Adding another dimension to the US-China tensions, Azar while in Taipei alleged that Beijing broke the international health treaty by failing to warn the world about Covid-19 on time. He also expressed regret over Taiwan being excluded from the World Health Assembly denying it an opportunity to share its health expertise. The US and Taiwan have developed their relationship as one based on “shared democratic values”. The US sees Taiwan playing its role in a brewing ideological battle between the two even when Beijing is not shy of warning consequences if Taiwan continues to nurture ties with Washington.

In the recent past, especially after Tsai came to power, Beijing has used economic doles as weapons and was instrumental in wooing some of Taiwan’s diplomatic allies to switch allegiance to Beijing, leaving Taiwan with only 15 diplomatic allies. Even without formal official ties with many countries who switched allegiance to China, Taiwan’s engagement economically and in cultural domains with many countries it does business with has remained robust. However, Taiwan suffers international recognition as it cannot engage officially with world organizations. Even with the WHO, it was deprived of its observer status because of China blocking it at a time its experience in handling coronavirus could have been of some help to the world community.

On the issue of Taiwan’s exclusion from the World Health Organisation in 2018 that blocked a million-dollar Taiwanese contribution, Azar described Beijing’s position that time as “political bullying”. Had that not happened, Taiwanese contribution could have helped combat an Ebola outbreak in Congo. Indeed, in times of events of global dimensions, international organisations should not be places to play politics but unfortunately China did in 2018 and again in 2020 by denying Taiwan observer status at the world health assembly where its experience in handling the virus could have benefitted other nations.

No wonder, Taiwan saw Azar’s trip as a diplomatic coup and an opportunity to showcase its widely praised response to the virus. Beijing however saw it as another provocation from the US. When the US increases interactions with Taiwan and also sells arms committed under the Taiwan Relations Act, Beijing sees that red and as a challenge to its sovereignty and in defiance of its threats to unify the island with the mainland by force. Azar’s remarks that “Taiwan’s response to Covid-19 has been among the most successful in the world, and that is a tribute to the open, transparent, democratic nature of Taiwan’s society and culture”, infuriates Beijing. Seeing an opportunity and praise pouring in from around the world, Taiwan started promoting the island as a model of democracy and sent millions of masks labeled “Made in Taiwan” to countries in need.

Taiwan was not intimidated when Chinese jets J-11 and J-10 fighter aircraft briefly crossed the mid-line of the Taiwan Strait, the side sensitive and narrow separating it from its giant neighbour, even when Azar was on his way to Taiwan. The aircrafts were tracked by land-based Taiwanese anti-aircraft missiles patrolling the area which drove the jets away from its airspace.

Taiwan strengthens defence capabilities

In view of the looming threat from China and often reminding the island nation of the possible use of force, Tsai has reiterated a number of times the need for the island to ramp up its defences to safeguard its democracy from Beijing’s “coercive actions”. Such a commitment to accelerate the development of asymmetric capabilities, as explained by President Tsai Ing-wen during a video address to the Hudson Institute, a Washington-based think tank, is under the rubric of the island nation’s defence concept. Taiwan’s cabinet has proposed a more than 10 per cent increase in the island’s military budget to $15.42 billion in response to Beijing’s aggression in the region and seeks a “constructive security relationship” with the US.

Despite Taiwan’s determination and resolve to cope with the Chinese threat stemming from its own strength and military capabilities, the truism is Beijing-Taipei relationship if measured in terms of comparative military strengths between the two is something like comparing between David and Goliath as the gulf between the two is huge. Indeed, few geopolitical contexts are as mismatched as China and Taiwan.  

China has already acquired enough military muscle and economic strengths over the past decades and has emerged as the world’s second largest economic power as well as a regional superpower in Asia. Compared to China, Taiwan is a dwarf. Its military expenditure is more than any other country except the US. After splitting from the mainland, the two sides claimed to represent China for almost three decades, during which military exchanges took place until détente set in the early 1990s. From this time onwards, both sides settled on there being “one China” but agreed to disagree on what that meant. Since then Taiwan has assumed a more distinct identity and considers itself as a de facto independent state separate from the mainland.

However, in terms of military comparison, China is much ahead of Taiwan. Taiwan has around 215,000 soldiers and a defence budget of $12 billion compared with China’s estimated two million armed forces and a defence budget of $178 billion. China is a nuclear-armed state with a growing arsenal of state-of-the-art weaponry including advanced fighter jets, two aircraft carriers, and more on the way. Its growing number of missiles, some of them hypersonic, is positioned just across the Taiwan Strait. It has more than 60 submarines, including nuclear-powered vessels.

In comparison, Taiwan’s 300 or so fighter jets have all been in services since the 1990s.
Its navy is massively outgunned by China’s — two of its four ageing submarines were built decades ago. Though Taiwan is aware that it does not need to match China dollar for dollar, it has certain strategy to defend itself in case it comes under attack. Some of the Western weapon exporting countries are reluctant to sell big-ticket military items in order not to displease China, leaving Taiwan to develop itself indigenously an innovative domestic weapons industry.

China under Xi Jinping has ramped up pressure and gone ballistic often warning that Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland is inevitable. Such belligerence has become more frequent after 2016 when Tsai was elected President who rejects the idea of a “one China” and sees Taiwan as a de facto sovereign state. Tsai is not deterred by such bellicosity even though Chinese fighter jets routinely fly into Taiwan’s defence zone.

The US is bound to arm Taiwan by law so that it can defend itself. Though the US officially maintains ties with the mainland China, it also takes into consideration geopolitics of the region and urges peaceful resolution of disputes between China and Taiwan. The US was careful not to sell major weaponry to the island nation until the mid-1990s as it was wary not to cause friction in its relations with China. That situation dramatically changed soon after. The Trump administration seriously started viewing America’s ties with Taiwan differently after frictions with China started widening.

Under the Taiwan Relations Act, the US has obligation to arms Taiwan. The Trump administration has taken major decisions to sell 66 next-generation F-16 fighters and an upgrade to the island’s Patriot missiles with the objective of strengthening Taiwan’s military capability in the wake of looming China threat. Taiwan’s decision to purchase the 66 new generation F-16 fighter jets from US aircraft manufacturer Lockheed Martin in a $62 billion, 10-year deal, is sure to anger Beijing. This new acquisition will add to its fleet of F-16s Taiwan purchased in 1992.

Given the China-Taiwan tensions, if a conflict erupts in the region it would be either centered on the South China Sea or on the Taiwan issue. If Beijing takes resorts to any military adventurism, the US is most likely to intervene with its massive military assets.  China is best advised to exercise restraint not to precipitate events, lest the costs would be heavy for all. The Taiwan Strait remains one of the world’s most dangerous flashpoints.

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

Continue Reading
Comments

East Asia

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

Published

on

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?   

Continue Reading

East Asia

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

Published

on

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.  

Continue Reading

East Asia

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

Published

on

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.

Continue Reading

Publications

Latest

Trending