Despite China’s reputation as a self-declared non-interventionist state, Chinese influence over the domestic political affairs of other nations is being dealt with from Australia to Zimbabwe. The Parliament of Australia is passing legislation to limit foreign intervention in domestic politics after revelations of various efforts by the Chinese government and affiliated entities to assert influence over Australian media, universities and politicians, while the two main candidates in Zimbabwe’s recent presidential election heatedly debated the nature of Chinese investment as beneficial or exploitative, against a backdrop of suspicion that China played a role in the coup that removed long-time ruler Robert Mugabe from power and installed the current President in his place. Coupled with aggressive military and economic moves by China and challenges to international institutions, recent events suggest that China is positioning itself at the center of a new global empire.
Merely amassing an empire would be a return to form; the historic Chinese Empire controlled more territory than Rome did at their respective peaks, and the current People’s Republic is essentially the old Chinese Empire transformed into a nation-state. The global ambition of China, however, is new; as recently as last year, scholars reasonably considered China to be “a reluctant power,” but its recent actions highlight a new willingness, developed over the last decade and intensified since Xi Jinping assumed power in 2012, to use its size and political, economic and military might to assert power over other nations and regions of the world in ways unprecedented in Chinese history. This new assertion of power creates an unparalleled challenge for the West, but it also presents an important opportunity for the United States to strengthen its own commitments to democracy, human rights and bilateral and multilateral alliances, while engaging the rising Chinese superpower.
China’s Long History of Isolation
To understand how much of a departure China’s recent actions have been, it’s helpful to contrast them with the consistency of Chinese foreign policy over the vast majority of its long history. Isolated by seas, deserts, the Himalayan Mountains and a Great Wall of its own creation, the territory of modern-day China was mostly shielded from the rest of the world, allowing the Middle Kingdom to consolidate rule within these boundaries and manage foreign relations within strict parameters. Chinese emperors regarded nearby states like Korea, Nepal, Thailand and even Japan as tributaries of the empire, an ill-defined and often symbolic relationship (indeed, the empire considered all other peoples in the world to be tributaries) meant to facilitate trade and maintain peaceful relations rather than convey direct authority over most of these nations.
The Chinese portion of trade routes along the Silk Road, responsible for bringing everything from gold and warhorses to Buddhism and European travelers to China, were tightly controlled. The empire’s massive 15th century “Treasure Fleet,” which explored and traded with territories as far as the Horn of Africa, was destroyed on the orders of an emperor concerned about the destabilizing effect unrestricted free trade would have on his kingdom, assuring that Europe, rather than China, would colonize the world in the centuries to follow.
When China eventually opened up to these European powers in the latter part of the 18th century, the endeavor was as disastrous as past emperors had feared. Europeans, as well as Imperial Japan, eroded the empire’s sovereignty, utilizing warfare and gunboat diplomacy to acquire enclaves within China. The empire eventually collapsed in 1912, and in 1949 the Republican government that had taken its place was forced to flee to Taiwan by the Chinese Communist Party.
Mao Zedong’s new government espoused an official policy of non-interference in the internal affairs of other nation-states – material and ideological support for communist governments and revolutionary groups around the world notwithstanding – and China’s military engagements remained geographically concentrated. The People’s Liberation Army’s significant external conflicts were with states along China’s borders – Tibet, Korea, India, Vietnam, Taiwan and a brief undeclared conflict with the USSR – and Chairman Mao often utilized the PLA for domestic purposes instead, such as economic production during the Great Leap Forward and restoring order at the end of the Cultural Revolution. Deng Xiaoping, Mao’s successor, spent the 1980s introducing international trade and elements of free market economics to the volatile communist system in order to achieve double-digit economic growth. Deng diverted resources from the military to economic development, and the most pressing use of the PLA was internal repression during the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989.
Deng and his successors have generally maintained a policy of international trade coupled with fairly strict adherence to Mao’s non-interference principle, demonstrated by policies such as China’s frequent abstentions from UN Security Council votes, its traditional reluctance to contribute to peacekeeping operations despite having the world’s largest army, and opposition to the International Criminal Court. By promoting norms of trade and non-interventionism, China has sought to discourage other countries from using sanctions to pressure the CCP towards democratization or human rights and civil liberties reforms. As a practical matter, China has also used its stance to maintain beneficial relationships with international pariahs like oil rich Sudan, whose President, Omar al-Bashir, has been a state guest of China despite being under ICC indictment for genocide in the Darfur region.
A New Era of Global Engagement, or Domination
In the last decade, however, China has increased the scope and nature of its international involvement in ways that indicate a fundamental change from its policies of arms-length global engagement. The new strategy is multifaceted.
Militarily, the PLA is updating and expanding its Navy and Air Force (including an extensive drone program) through increased spending and the use of cyber-espionage against the US, and the Pentagon fears that PLA efforts to modernize pilot training includes preparations for bombing US targets. In 2017, China opened its first overseas military base, a naval facility in Djibouti, a small East African Nation that also hosts the only permanent US military base in Africa. The presence of the Chinese navy has led to worries that China is challenging US military presence in the region. The Pentagon asserted last year that China was likely to build a second base in ally Pakistan, although both countries have rejected that conclusion.
Since 2003, China has contributed ground forces to UN peacekeeping operations, primarily in Africa; in 2015 over 3,000 PLA troops were engaged in UN missions. President Xi significantly increased Chinese funding for UN missions, and his government has touted China’s leadership in UN peacekeeping. With this new UN involvement has come increasing Chinese assertiveness; of the 11 times that the People’s Republic of China has used its veto power in the Security Council since it took its seat in 1971 (the lowest number of any of the permanent members), 8 have occurred since 2007.
Dr. Obert Hodzi, author of the new book The End of China’s Non-intervention Policy in Africa, thinks that China’s increasingly active international presence was inevitable given its rising power, but that the particular approaches taken by the People’s Republic have been shaped by individual leaders. “Hu Jintao [Chinese President from 2003-2013] focused more on multilateral institutions,” Dr. Hodzi explained to me in a recent correspondence, while “Xi Jinping took it further – combining both multilateral and bilateral engagements aimed at bolstering China’s capacity to protect its interests abroad.” According to Dr. Hodzi, China will officially maintain its non-intervention policy, but “we are likely to see more of a mismatch between the official rhetoric and the actual practice.”
Economically, China has diversified its international trade and investments. China is now Africa’s largest trading partner and has pumped tens of billions of dollars into the continent, largely for infrastructure improvements, in exchange for access to oil and raw materials. Up to 1 million Chinese expats currently reside in Africa, many managing or staffing Chinese-funded projects and businesses. While this presence has created tensions between Chinese and local communities in a number of nations and led to accusations of Chinese neocolonialism on the continent, Chinese investment has overwhelmingly been welcomed by African leaders and citizens.
Shortly after taking office in 2013, President Xi Jinping announced the Belt and Road Initiative, aimed at investing trillions to build infrastructure across Eurasia and along the coasts of the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, following the historical paths of the Silk Road and the Treasure Fleet. The project would connect 60% of the world’s population and essentially re-center world trade around China. In 2014, a coalition of “emerging economies” founded the BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) Development Bank. The following year, China launched the multi-billion dollar Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, despite US objections that this new source of funding was meant to undermine OECD-dominated institutions like the World Bank and Asian Development Bank and create an alternative, China-centric international economic order.
Culturally, China has sought to increase its soft power as well. Since 2004, it has opened hundreds of state sponsored “Confucian Institutes” in dozens of countries around the world; over 100 operate in the United States. Often located on college campuses, these organizations teach Chinese language and culture, but have been accused of spreading Chinese propaganda and stifling critical discourse concerning the Communist Party. CCP-linked entities have cultivated relationships with many of America’s most prominent political think tanks. The Chinese Navy recently launched its Peace Ark, a giant floating hospital that has already provided medical services to thousands of patients around the world and, it’s assumed, grown goodwill towards China. Chinese investors and film companies have made inroads into Hollywood, leading to Chinese characters and China-friendly plot points showing up in major Hollywood films, a trend further supported by profit concerns: the Chinese box office has grown to be one of the world’s largest, and government censors can ban movies that are deemed offensive, subversive or insufficiently pro-China.
Taken in isolation, these moves could be seen as continuations of China’s longstanding policies of promoting trade, maximizing defensive capabilities, and using alliances and diplomacy to maintain relations with outside states and reduce potential threats. More concerning, however, is that these military, economic and cultural efforts have been coupled with a move away from China’s non-interventionist policy toward a strategy of actively subverting political institutions in a number of countries around the world.
Close to home, China is using its billions of dollars of investment funds to buy the support of authoritarian regimes in countries such as Cambodia, Malaysia, Myanmar, the Philippines and Thailand. Though denied by Chinese representatives, there have been persistent rumors that China signed off on the recent coup that overthrew Zimbabwean President Robert Mugabe, a long-time ally of China whose relationship with the People’s Republic had soured in recent years. General Constantino Chingewa, who led Zimbabwe’s Defense Forces and organized the uprising, met with his Chinese counterparts in Beijing days before the coup, and Emmerson Mnangagwa, another long-time Chinese ally within the Zimbabwean government, has been strongly pro-China, traveling to Beijing in his first state trip as Zimbabwe’s new President.
Meanwhile, Australia is reeling from revelations of a decade-long multi-pronged effort by the CCP to control and monitor Chinese language media and Chinese university students in Australia and bankroll politicians in the country in exchange for pro-China policy positions. The diversity of these targets of Chinese subversive influence – low, middle and high income countries, ranging from autocratic long-term Chinese allies to a stable democracy and OECD member – imply that China’s ambitions to assert political influence over other nations are extensive. Combined with growing Chinese military and economic power and an international environment in which support for democracy remains widespread but shallow and many citizens across the globe are open to oligarchic rule by experts (which is how CCP defenders like Shanghai venture capitalist Eric X Li describe the Party), China is discovering the means and opportunity to position itself at the center of a new world order.
China’s New Imperialism: Explanations and Responses
Why has a notoriously isolationist power like China decided to alter its centuries-old approach to international politics? Although the CCP’s decision-making structures are private and opaque, the answer seems to come down to a combination of current political security and future economics uncertainty. After Deng Xiaoping’s retirement in 1989, the CCP developed fairly routine leadership procedures. Deng’s successors, Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, respected the constitutional limit of two five-year terms for the office of president, stepping aside peacefully for their designated successors at the end of each leader’s decade in power and handing off the powerful roles of General Secretary of the CCP and chairman of the central military commission (i.e. commander-in-chief) as well. This system created stability within the top leadership of the CCP, allowing the Party to look outward toward the world.
Xi Jinping’s ascension to CCP leadership in 2012 was generally viewed as orderly, and the new leader as a bit boring, but Xi quickly took advantage of the stability he inherited to consolidate power in an already authoritarian system. Xi’s ongoing war on corruption has both endeared him to the public and eliminated many of his political rivals. In 2017, Xi declined to designate a successor within the CCP, as past General Secretaries had done. Earlier this year, he removed presidential term limits in a surprise move, and had “Xi Jinping Thought” officially added to the country’s constitution, making him the first sitting president to have that honor since Mao. These moves have signaled that Xi intends to stay in power indefinitely and believes he has the political clout to do so.
Xi’s domestic consolidation of power has been coupled with an increasing focus on enhancing China’s place in the world. According to Dr. Hodzi:
[President Xi’s] argument is that China is a major power with certain global responsibilities; therefore the Chinese army should be capable of fighting and winning battles as well as protecting Chinese investments globally. Xi is also more assertive and willing to show China’s strength – the case of the China Sea, naval confrontations with the US, the military base in Djibouti and introduction of Chinese combat troops under the UN Peacekeeping Operations. Hu Jintao camouflaged China’s strength, Xi Jinping is uncovering it and showing it off for the world to see and recognize China as a major power
Meanwhile, China’s GDP growth rate, which had peaked at over 14% in 2007, rivaling the heights of the early Deng era, has plateaued to a robust but not spectacular rate of just under 7%, leading to fears that the once rapidly-developing nation has settled into a “middle income trap” that might delay its ascent to high income status. Having solidified power within the CCP and government, Xi is no doubt concerned that an economic slowdown could have politically destabilizing bottom-up effects. Stimulating the economy through cheap energy and mineral imports, diversified foreign investment, and a remodeled international trading system with China as its centerpiece, would allow the country to revitalize its growth, raise Chinese standards of living, and further legitimize the leadership of Xi and the CCP in the eyes of the Chinese people. Throughout history, empires have ultimately served the economic and political interests of the center. Reshaping the world economic order is thus a strategy for Chinese domestic economic development and political consolidation, and extending China’s military, economic and political influence globally will give the country power to deter Western opposition to its ambitions.
So, how might the United States respond to all of this?
Across administrations, the US defense budget has continued to far exceed that of China or any other nation, but challenging the Chinese militarily is a necessary but insufficient response to Chinese imperialism. Though this imperialism is driven by domestic considerations, recent “nationalist” US foreign policy trends toward economic isolationism, weakening adherence to traditional alliances and backtracking on international commitments have lessened resistance to China’s new strategy. If the US and its allies want to counter China’s policies or at least mitigate the consequences of China’s ascendancy, they must also adopted a multi-pronged approach, which requires Western coordination and US leadership.
First, the US should make concrete efforts to strengthen its relationships with its traditional allies. Sharp divisions over the Iraq War, Brexit and other splits within the European Union, and tensions between President Trump and European leaders have all contributed to a weakening of the West’s influence in the world, with specific implications for its positions toward China. For example, despite United States objections to the AIIB, most of the US’ closest allies joined the Bank in 2015, including the UK, German, France, Canada and South Korea. Such disagreements threaten to leave the US isolated unless it counters them with robust cooperation in other areas, such as NATO and international trade.
Second, the US must reaffirm its commitments to its Asian allies. Despite its new global focus, China is still most concerned with developments in its immediate vicinity; its naval buildup is primarily focused on exerting control in the South China Sea, and much of the country’s diplomatic energy remains focused on managing its patronage of North Korea and its tense, complicated relationships with Taiwan and Japan. If the US withdraws its involvement in Asia, China gains leverage in these relationships and is free to assert its might in other regions. Recent signals such as decreased military cooperation between the US and South Korea have called into question the Trump administration’s commitment to its Asian allies. Japan, China’s historic rival and the most powerful US ally in Asia, was dealt a blow when the US withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a deal that was meant to both facilitate trade between the signatory countries and give the US and Japan leverage to counter China’s influence in the region. Even Taiwan, which has seen support increase under President Trump, remains unsure of the long-term commitment of the US. With this uncertainty, the US must take specific steps to reassure its allies on its defense and trade commitments; resuming robust military cooperation and renegotiating trade agreements would help signal to US allies and to China that America has not abandoned Asia.
On a more fundamental level, the US must reaffirm its commitment to democracy at home and add consistency to its promotion of democratic institutions and human and civil rights abroad. While promoting liberal democracy as a universal right, the US has long undermined its position by selectively intervening in other countries based on strategic or economic considerations and exempting important authoritarian allies like Saudi Arabia from criticism or consequences. Russian interference in US elections, a war of words between the Trump administration and the media, and President Trump’s embrace of authoritarian leaders such as Vladimir Putin, Rodrigo Duterte, Abdul Fattah al-Sisi and even Xi Jinping himself have all further eroded confidence in US democracy. The perceived hypocrisy and inconsistency of US foreign relations has left many countries to view China as a more honest ally that does not claim to promote any particular political system outside its own borders. Even though increased Chinese interventionism may change that perception in the long run, the US must overcome its own reputation by more forcefully and consistently promoting human rights and civil liberties while adopting a more judicious and multilateral approach to foreign interventions.
Democracy promotion is one of several areas in which the US would be wise to address the concerns of non-Western states. China’s attempts to reorder the international institutional order have found enthusiastic support among countries that feel that current international organizations serve Western interests while exploiting developing countries. Many African nations, for example, struggled for years with debts amassed from World Bank loans and the decline in social welfare associated with IMF structural adjustment programs, and a number of them have threatened to withdraw from the ICC, complaining that it selectively targets individuals from that region. Reforming these international institutions to give greater voices to African and other non-western nations, while supporting regional economic institutions and cooperating with political organizations like the African Union to develop capacities to handle crises locally, would lessen the appeal of China as an alternative to the West. A comprehensive policy of debt forgiveness, economic aid and trade with these countries, if handled properly, would be mutually beneficial, as well.
Finally, intensified engagement with China itself could help the Chinese government view relations with the US as a mutually beneficial relationship instead of a zero-sum game. The Trump administration has made deal-making with China, coupled with friendship with Xi Jinping, a top priority, which can work to the United States’ advantage if achieved with the proper provisions. Any deal with China should maintain the US vocal commitment to human rights and personal liberty. At the same time, rather than erect barriers to trade between the two nations, which harm both countries’ economies and may encourage China to accelerate its efforts to strengthen economic ties with other countries, free trade between the US and China can bolster both countries’ economies and lessen tensions through interdependence and cultural exchange.
The US can additionally encourage China to be a responsible world actor. For example, while Chinese participation in peacekeeping missions has largely been motivated by a desire to protect Chinese nationals and investments in African, it also represents a less strict interpretation of the non-interference principle, one that could allow for Chinese involvement in more peacekeeping missions. China’s indifference toward the domestic affairs of other states could make it an honest broker in regions like the Middle East, able to negotiate peace deals that Western states cannot credibly oversee.
Unlike the European empires that were motivated by spreading Christianity and Civilization in addition to Commerce, China has no inherent desire to install its political system or culture elsewhere; the nascent Chinese Empire is purely motivated by commerce and the beneficial economic and political effects it will have for the Chinese homeland and the CCP. Keeping these unambiguous motivations in mind, cooperating with China as it enacts its unprecedented engagement with the rest of the world is the best strategy for the US to steer China towards being an ally in a stable if reformed world order rather than an imperial rival.