Dealing with China is so complex, it has produced its own lexicon: engagement, containment, confrontation, constrainment and even “con-gagement.”
The word stew reflects the dilemma for governments facing a power that is no longer simply “rising.” Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平) believes China is now strong enough that it can forcefully assert its agenda at home and abroad because it has reached the point it can withstand whatever penalties come its way.
Xi’s imposition of sweeping national security legislation in Hong Kong despite global outrage, a deadly military skirmish on the border with India and Beijing’s aggressive COVID-19-era diplomacy are only the latest examples of how Western policies have largely failed to shape, slow or stop China.
Illustration: June hsu
As the US prioritizes “America First,” and the values-based multilateral architecture weakens, countries are increasingly realizing that they need to rethink their China strategy. Until now, strategies have largely fallen into one of two camps: keep your fingers crossed that China turns into a better actor by pulling it into the global system of rules and institutions, or try and halt it in its tracks by economic or military pressure.
“The open policies toward China from the US and the EU were well intended and mutually beneficial, with hopes that China will join or at least learn to conform to the order of the free world. But with growing economic power and military might, it’s becoming apparent that Xi thinks the order under the Chinese Communist Party is superior,” said Fernando Cheung (張超雄), a pro-democracy lawmaker in Hong Kong.
While COVID-19 has accelerated the conversation on China, “the problem is a lack of agreement of what teaming up should look like — not all like-minded governments are all that like-minded when it comes to dealing with the challenges China poses,” said Bates Gill, a professor of Asia-Pacific security studies at Macquarie University in Sydney who has consulted for companies and government agencies.
The fissures US President Donald Trump has opened with longstanding US allies also hinder a united approach.
“The basic building blocks of such a strategy — working multilaterally, respecting allies and committing to a reliable and predictable set of well-thought-through policies which align ways, means and ends — are not part of this administration’s playbook,” Gill said.
For much of Trump’s presidency, he has shied away from criticizing China for human rights violations, veering between a trade war and publicly admiring Xi. Now, the US is stepping up its actions from stronger measures against telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies Co to requiring Chinese state media in the US to register as foreign agents and imposing sanctions on Chinese officials.
“For China, sticking to its own domestic priorities — for instance, the decision to ram through security legislation in Hong Kong, the emphasis on building self-reliance in high-tech industry and sticking to China’s own political system regardless of the US attacks — are themselves the biggest retaliation against the US and the Trump administration,” said Shi Yinhong (時殷弘), a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing who advises the Chinese government.
Officials from multiple countries say the only solution to dealing with China is to better band together, with or without the US. They are starting to do so in new and interesting ways — particularly middle powers like Australia, Canada, India and the UK, which have long struggled to balance their economic reliance on China with their strategic concerns about its actions.
The US is belatedly attempting to repair some relationships: Diplomats are seeking to rally allies in Asia and elsewhere, according to a senior Trump administration official and two diplomats in Beijing. Part of the clarion call is to reduce economic dependency on China via supply chain disengagement, while cranking up domestic investments in advanced technology and manufacturing.
Australia, Canada and the UK early this month released statements alongside the US, condemning Beijing’s crackdown in Hong Kong. One Western diplomat described a more united approach to China as the “new normal.”
After the border clash with China, Indian officials said they planned to invite Australia to annual naval exercises alongside Japan and the US, signaling progress on the on-again, off-again security grouping of the four nations known as the Quad.
It will not be easy to coordinate efforts. Some China hawks in Trump’s inner circle still want to try and force a Soviet-style collapse of the Chinese Communist Party, an approach other nations would not support, one US official said.
In a June 15 meeting with US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo, EU High Representative for Foreign Affairs and Security Policy Josep Borrell suggested a dedicated dialogue with the US focused solely on China.
However, an official close to French President Emmanuel Macron warned the EU should not become a mediator between Washington and Beijing, in part because Europe had its own agenda and proposals.
Meanwhile, from Africa to Southeast Asia, China’s economic diplomacy — often in regions largely ignored by the Trump administration and US investors — makes ties with Beijing too valuable to throw out.
In some ways, Trump’s approach to China has created a vicious cycle. One US official said some fear the countries are stuck in a doom loop of tit-for-tat measures that leave both sides worse off. There no longer are trusted intermediarys close to the White House, such as former US Treasury secretary Henry Paulson, founder of the Paulson Institute, a think tank dedicated to fostering US-China relationships.
Some US allies are tired of being lectured by US officials on Huawei and feel that multilateral forums have had their agendas taken over by the US-China rivalry, one Western diplomat said.
Rather than attempt to alter China’s overall approach or its internal politics, smaller countries have opted to pursue technical cooperation with Beijing on issues such as climate change, they said.
‘CHINA AS A PARTNER’
A senior European official echoed that view, saying that national leaders wanted to keep China as a partner on some matters. Another said that EU nations see more room for collaboration with China than the US and worry that antagonizing Beijing could provoke it to block progress on other issues such as the conflicts in Afghanistan or Syria.
While attempts to cooperate — including a parliamentary alliance of lawmakers in the US and seven other democracies — are important, Trump is unlikely to “win continental European hearts,” Natixis chief economist for Asia-Pacific Alicia Garcia Herrero said, adding that it might be possible that such an effort would succeed under former US vice president Joe Biden, Trump’s Democratic rival in the November election.
At the same time, large swathes of the world are content with the benefits of Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative on trade and infrastructure.
“I don’t think development aid is as much of a priority for African leaders as credit from China that is not tied to certain conditions — whether it’s rule of law, anti-corruption, transparency,” said Adewunmi Emoruwa, lead strategist for Nigeria-based advisory service firm Gatefield.
While some Chinese projects in developing countries have caused controversy and concern about high debt levels, many nations, particularly those in Africa, lack the resources or expertise to establish alternate supply chains. China is Africa’s biggest trading partner, with two-way flows totaling more than US$180 billion — almost four times the amount of trade between Africa and the US.
Beijing’s investments often come without conditions, unlike those by Western donors. China’s role in global manufacturing and the vested interests of Western allies also makes it difficult for Trump to argue persuasively for a full decoupling from the world’s second-largest economy, said Charles Liu (劉揚聲), a former Chinese diplomat and founder of private equity firm Hao Capital.
“The US has not prepared itself mentally for the rise of China, so it has been trying to find ways to create problems for China and limit its ascent,” said Shen Shishun (沈世順), senior researcher at the China Institute of International Studies under The Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The US is creating problems on China’s doorstep, so of course China will not step away from this,” Shen added.
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