A global backlash is brewing against the People’s Republic of China. In Australia, China’s efforts to use surrogates to funnel money into the Australian political system led one senator to quit last week and has prompted the government to unveil a series of laws to crack down on foreign influence. In Europe, alarm is growing at Chinese mercantilist practices and China’s desire to snap up European firms with innovative technologies. In the United States, the business community, long the ballast in America’s relations with China, is no longer united over the issue of how to pursue relations with Beijing. Many American firms have suffered losses in China. As a result, a slew of other issues — such as China’s industrial espionage, its demands for forced technology transfer, its use of Chinese state-run media to broadcast pro-Beijing propaganda in the US and its attempts to influence US educational institutions — is prompting calls for a response. Already, Chinese firms seeking to buy American high technology are facing more difficulties. And there’s talk in Congress of forcing China’s state-run TV and wire service operations in the US to register as agents of a foreign power.
This backlash is coming at a time when Beijing has expressed unprecedented confidence in its economic and political model, which combines the dictatorship of the Chinese Communist Party with an industrial policy that aims, through subsidies, massive government-backed research and development, and the acquisition of Western technology, to ensure that Chinese firms dominate the economy of tomorrow. Starting in July 2016 at a celebratory speech marking the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party, China’s President Xi Jinping began to use a term, the “China solution”, to assert that China had found what he called a “solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions”. The term has since gone viral in China and has been picked up by Chinese communist theoreticians as an idea to counter western influence around the world. As a writer for the party’s mouthpiece, the People’s Daily, put it on December 6, the China solution “transcends ‘Western centrism’ and greatly stimulates the development of the broad range of developing countries’ self-confidence in ‘going their own way’”.
The backlash is also building as many in the West worry that China is winning a global competition for resources, market share and ideological influence. Around the time of US President Donald Trump’s summit in China last month, the American press was full of hand-wringing that China was outpacing the US in the race for global leadership. ‘Why China won 2017 and how Donald Trump helped them do it,’ read the headline from CNN’s website on November 3. ‘China won’ was how Time magazine framed a cover piece by the political analyst Ian Bremmer. USA Today has piled on, too.
Interestingly, the growing negative reaction to China’s rise belies reports that the US under Trump is no longer capable of cooperating with America’s traditional allies. In recent weeks, the Trump administration has joined the European Union (EU) in rejecting China’s claim that, under the terms of its accession to the World Trade Organisation, it should be granted market-economy status, which would protect China from anti-dumping duties. At the World Trade Organisation ministerial meetings in Buenos Aires last week, the US, the EU and Japan confronted China over its unwillingness to scale back its industrial production and other questionable trade practices.
During his trip through Asia last month, Trump began using the term “Indo-Pacific”, and not the Asia-Pacific, as a way to signal the region of a US intention to include India in America’s attempts to balance China’s growing military and economic heft. On the sidelines of the East Asia Summit in Manila, US officials met counterparts from Australia, Japan and India, reviving what has come to be known as “the Quad”, a loose association of the four maritime democracies worried about China’s rise.
In addition, the widely perceived impression that Trump’s election has resulted in a weakening of US influence has also prompted countries in Asia to continue to hedge their bets against China without the United States. No sooner had he entered the Oval Office than Trump pulled the US from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade pact grouping 12 nations that border the Pacific. That move was supposed to spell the end of the TPP, but it did not. Concerned that the pact’s demise would allow China to dictate the terms of economic relations in Asia, the 11 remaining nations continue to move forward on a deal. In addition, bilateral relations between Asia’s democracies remain robust and are improving. Japan has played an important, if not the critical, role in encouraging India to increase its influence in Asia. Japan helped coordinate a summit in New Delhi between India and members of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations, which focused on how India could help those nations rely less on Beijing for trade and investment.
The pushback against China is not confined to democracies. Even nations with historically close ties to China have begun chafing at the high-handed treatment emanating from Beijing as part of China’s ‘One Belt, One Road’ infrastructure programme. While China has attempted to package the programme as a Chinese version of the Marshall Plan, increasingly it’s being perceived as something more akin to western colonialism than western largesse. Sri Lanka currently owes Chinese state-controlled firms more than $8 billion (Dh29.42 billion). As part of a plan to break free of its debt trap, last week, the government handed over the strategic port of Hambantota to China on a 99-year lease, in a move that critics said would threaten the country’s sovereignty. In India, pundits referred to China’s move as “debt-trap diplomacy”. Even Pakistan, perhaps China’s closest foreign partner, seems to be having second thoughts about taking Chinese money. Express Tribune, a Pakistani newspaper, reported that the government had cancelled a $14 billion dam project after Beijing made it clear that it wanted to own the dam after it built it. Nepal announced that it, too, was cancelling a deal on a Chinese-funded dam for similar reasons.
So far, China’s reaction to the growing concern about China’s power has tended towards the aggressive. In Australia, the Chinese Embassy warned Australian government officials not to damage “mutual trust” as they moved to pass laws aimed at protecting Australia’s political system from foreign money. After Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted “disturbing reports about Chinese influence”, the embassy cautioned Australian officials not to make “irresponsible remarks”. The embassy also accused Australian media outlets of fabricating news stories about “the so-called Chinese influence and infiltration in Australia”.
For decades, successive administrations in Washington have worked for a stronger China. But now that China is stronger, the US, along with many other countries around the world, is no longer so sure that’s what it wants.
— Washington Post
John Pomfret, a former Washington Post bureau chief in Beijing, is the author of The Beautiful Country and the Middle Kingdom: America and China, 1776 to the Present.