At the Alaska Summit, Chinese Central Foreign Affairs Commission Director Yang Jiechi (楊潔篪) traded hostile rhetoric with US Secretary of State Antony Blinken, saying that the US has “no qualification to lecture China from a position of strength.”
Symbolizing China’s rejection of the rules-based global system that the US created after World War II, this diplomatic gesture opens up a new era of competition regarding the future of the international order. Gone are the days of confidence building and bilateral cooperation.
The administration of US President Joe Biden still has a long way to go to catch up geopolitically with China, which has been quick to occupy the world stage, despite its controversial policy imprisoning Uighurs and other Muslim minorities in camps across Xinjiang, its suppression of pro-democracy activists in Hong Kong, and its reluctance to share vital public health information during the COVID-19 pandemic.
Behind this contest for global leadership is a battle of ideas.
As former US president Barack Obama wrote in A Promised Land, which was published last year: “China’s economic success had made its brand of authoritarian capitalism a plausible alternative to Western-style liberalism in the minds of young people not just in Shanghai, but across the developing world. Which of those visions they ultimately embraced would help determine the geopolitics of the next century.”
Thus, “winning over this new generation [of young people] depended on my ability to show that America’s democratic, rights-based, pluralistic system could still deliver on the promise of a better life,” he wrote.
Theoretically, a well-structured one-party state is supposed to have clear bureaucratic protocols, ensuring that the autocratic rulers scrutinize all of the relevant data, and avoid hasty or risky actions. Career diplomats and international policy experts are to maintain professionalism, and resist any pressure to toe the party line at the expense of the nation’s wellbeing.
However, little is known about the decisionmaking process in China, especially as regards its policies toward the US and its allies. Proclaiming China to be on equal footing with the US, Yang displayed a deep sense of paranoia within the top leadership of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). There is an urgency to respond to internal and external pressures with more pressure, leaving diplomats to scramble to prepare.
Equally revealing is a renewed sentiment of national pride and confidence in the strength of China. The CCP leadership has demonstrated a capability to combine the transformative effects of a market economy with the super-stability of authoritarian rule. Welcoming foreign investment and building first-world infrastructure while imposing tight control over government, military and information, China has achieved an economic miracle and consolidated dictatorial rule.
However, accompanying authoritarianism has been misunderstanding about the anxieties of neighboring countries. The violent border conflicts with India last year suggest that Beijing underestimated the damaging consequences of its power projection abroad.
Worse still, China is acting on an assumption that the US would likely be averse to casualties in the event of a military crisis over Taiwan, even though the US has made clear its intention to defend allies in the Pacific region.
The US-Taiwan Coast Guard Cooperation Agreement is of great significance, as it brings closer collaboration on mutual maritime safety and security.
In an increasingly polarized world in which people are questioning basic values and norms, the embrace of nationalistic ideals and populist agendas on the global stage do not take place in a vacuum. The rising suspicion toward China owes much to the rapid expansion of the CCP’s dictatorial trends at home and abroad, jeopardizing the sustainability of a domestic environment for modernization, suffocating hope for liberalization and antagonizing neighbors over sovereignty disputes.
Many international clothing brands in China are facing a backlash over a ban on using cotton originating in Xinjiang. The controversy over Xinjiang cotton is the start of a broader campaign to engage with China over humanitarian issues.
Increasing numbers of human rights and non-governmental organizations are lobbying their respective governments to boycott next year’s Beijing Winter Olympics.
There is a serious trust deficit in the US-China relationship, because the adversarial powers have little room for dialogue and compromise. The challenge is how to replace the pessimistic view of US-China ties with an inclusive values-based understanding built on shared concerns and interests.
The rise of China on the Eurasian continent and in Asian waters has accelerated competitions for territorial resources and regional dominance. Steady recovery gave China a temporary reprieve, but the overall economy has weakened due to several years of a trade war with the US and the COVID-19 pandemic.
China has yet to recognize a stronger pro-independence sentiment in Taiwan, address demands for democratic change in Hong Kong or learn to coexist with regional competitors.
These political and diplomatic stalemates are narrowing the policy options for ending disputes peacefully. Without gaining trust and reimagining institutional mechanisms for conflict resolution, China is bound to trap itself in perpetual cycles of tension that benefit no one.
Joseph Tse-hei Lee is a professor of history at Pace University in New York City.
In September 2013, the armed wing of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) quietly released an internal document entitled, “Coursebook on the Military Geography of the Taiwan Strait.” This sensitive, “military-use-only” coursebook explains why it is strategically vital that China “reunify” (annex) Taiwan. It then methodically analyzes various locations of interest to People’s Liberation Army (PLA) war planners. The coursebook highlights one future battlefield in particular: Fulong Beach, in New Taipei City’s Gongliao District, which it describes as “3,000 meters long, flat, and straight,” and located at “the head of Taiwan.” A black and white picture of Fulong’s sandy coastline occupies the
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