Is China now on course to replace America as the world’s dominant superpower?
It’s a safe bet that the 21st century will be China’s. Its economy is expected to surpass that of the US by the 2030s and Beijing has made the credible claim that it will boast the most technologically advanced and well-trained military in the world by 2049.
As with every great power, China will want to rearrange the global order to its advantage. The crucial question for the West in the coming decades will be how to best manage China’s ascendency while avoiding an all-out conflict. But the West’s China policy is confused. A coherent and coordinated response is essential to prevent Xi Jinping’s Communist Party from doing as it pleases.
The international fallout following recent revelations of human rights abuses in China has highlighted the difficulty of countering its web of global influence. The Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong has been well-documented. But quieter atrocities are taking place on the mainland, in the province of Xinjiang. Since 2016, an estimated one million Uighurs and Kazakhs - Muslim, Turkic-speaking minorities with deep historic roots in north-west China - have been coerced into internment camps or imprisoned without trial.
The government in Beijing sees Xinjiang’s minorities as a threat to China’s geopolitical ambitions and domestic uniformity. The province is strategically crucial for China. Running through the region are two major road routes out west towards Afghanistan and the Indian subcontinent, crucial junctions which underpin its “Belt and Road Initiative” of global development. Beijing draws a direct link between the Uighur’s cultural independence and Islamic faith, and violent extremism and separatism.
To combat the perceived threat, a process of aggressive “sinification” has been taking place in Xinjiang. Turkic literature and language have been suppressed. Mosques and churches have been forced to shut. Protesters and journalists have been thrown in jail. Prominent academics and religious leaders have disappeared without trace. The full might of China’s surveillance state has been brought to bear harvesting personal data and screening Uighurs and Kazakhs to decide who to incarcerate.
Leaked documents have revealed the Orwellian nature of the camps or “re-education centres”. The “ideological education” and “psychological correction” of the “students” involves political indoctrination in Mandarin. Each inmate is given a score which determines the rewards or punishments meted out to them and their family. The documents implicate China’s highest-ranking party officials. Critics have labelled the treatment of the Uighur a “cultural genocide”.
Despite these appalling revelations, the global response to China has been mixed. In July 2019, 22 nations, including the UK, Canada, Japan and Australia signed a letter to the UN Human Rights Council condemning China’s actions and demanding that the camps be closed. But 38 nations, including Saudi Arabia, Russia and Pakistan, sent an opposing letter praising the regime’s work in Xinjiang. The Saudi Crown Prince, Mohammed bin Salman, said simply that “China has the right to carry out anti-terrorism and de-extremism work for its national security”.
America’s policy in response to the Chinese threat has been confused. There is no agreement among Washington’s policy-makerson whether to simply temper America’s economic reliance on China or launch a full-blown campaign of containment.”
This diplomatic support is a stark reminder of China’s global economic leverage. Over the past 20 years, China has sewn itself into the fabric of the world economy. Economic ties to Gulf states - reliant on China’s investment and domestic energy market - have bought it influence in the region. It has poured trillions of dollars of investments and loans into Asia and Africa, building and operating railways, roads, bridges, airports and seaports. This debt-trap diplomacy has been felt especially severely in Sri Lanka and Kenya which are unlikely to ever repay Chinese loans.
Europe is the most recent recipient of Chinese capital. China spent an estimated €300 billion on acquiring companies in Europe (the EU plus Norway and Switzerland) between 2008 and 2018. In Italy, China has taken advantage of political instability and a struggling economy, signing infrastructure contracts expected to be worth up to €20 billion. The UK has approved plans to allow Chinese telecoms giant Huawei to install its 5G network.
This leverage has complicated efforts to devise a unified European response to China. Smaller states, in particular, are prioritising the economic advantages of deeper engagement with Beijing. Hungary and Greece, both major benefactors of Chinese investment, have previously vetoed statements by the EU denouncing human rights abuses in China. In Hungary, a €2 billion high-speed Belgrade-to-Budapest railway has been financed by Chinese cash. Cosco, the state-owned Chinese shipping and logistics conglomerate, now controls the Greek port of Piraeus as well as container ports in Valencia and Bilbao in Spain.
China is pitching its mercantile imperialism as a win-win, providing much needed investment in exchange for returns in the long-run. But there is a belated realisation that unrestricted Chinese investment is leaving countries strategically compromised. In March last year, responding to the influx of Chinese money into Italy, France’s President, Emmanuel Macron, asserted that the “period of European naivety” towards China must end and that a “clear, unitary” policy was required.
The EU has introduced a new tool to screen foreign direct investment, a clear statement of intent that will allow it to scrutinise future Chinese takeovers. The UK faced pressure to ditch its Huawei venture from the US and Australia who are concerned about the national security threat it could pose to its Five Eyes intelligence partners. Critics of the Huawei deal rightly point to a history of Chinese cyber-attacks and intellectual property theft against the West. But more must be done. For instance, countries applying sanctions to China should adopt identical measures in order to ensure that it isn’t given a reason to pick on smaller, more amenable states when exacting economic revenge.
Alongside its economic offensive, China has been flexing its military muscles over the last decade. Its military spending rose by 83% in real terms between 2009 and 2018. The People’s Liberation Army is now the largest standing army in the world. And the deployment of precision missiles and the building of artificial islands in the South China Sea has challenged American supremacy in the Western Pacific.
However, America’s policy in response to the Chinese threat has been confused. There is no agreement among Washington’s policy-makers on whether to simply temper America’s economic reliance on China or launch a full-blown campaign of containment. America’s pressure campaign on Huawei has been so disjointed that the firm’s sales rose by nearly a fifth in 2019 to an all-time high of $122 billion. The bitterly fought three-year US-China trade war has been a blunt attempt to exercise unilateral power to force China’s hand and has yielded little. Instead, escalating tensions have left the world poorer and less secure.
European and US policy on China are also out of sync. In December 2019, the House of Representatives passed the Uighur Bill compelling President Trump to impose visa restrictions on officials and sanctions on 28 Chinese companies. But in Europe, strong words have not yet translated into concrete diplomatic and trade sanctions. Without transatlantic coordination, the US export bans on Chinese firms will simply prompt them to turn to the European market instead.
Principled resistance is essential to prevent China from acting with impunity at home and abroad. But America must realise that belligerence cannot prevent China’s rise. Both nations have vast rewards to reap from continued cooperation. Europe, for its part, must wean itself off Chinese capital and start prioritising security and moral duty over short-term economic gains. If it acts as a united front, the West has formidable economic, political and diplomatic clout that can be used to keep China in line over the coming years. But further division and muddled thinking will only strengthen Beijing’s hand.