In a country that is divided on almost everything, one area of bipartisanship in the United States is alive and growing — fear of China. “The Chinese are eating our lunch,” says President Biden. Republican Sen. Josh Hawley of Missouri says they “are well on their way” to achieving their goal of world “domination.” Experts warn that China’s Belt and Road Initiative and vaccine diplomacy are bolstering its soft power.
Let’s look at what is actually happening on the ground. China’s secrecy and deception about the origins of covid-19 have spurred increasing calls for thorough investigations, including now from Biden. Instead of being transparent and welcoming international efforts to figure out what went wrong, Beijing’s attitude has been defensive and obstructionist — fueling suspicions and conspiracy theories.
This is part of a pattern. Last week, China’s ambitious trade and investment treaty with the European Union ran aground, largely because of Chinese overreaction. In March, the E.U. chose not to endorse the U.S. characterization of China’s actions in Xinjiang as genocide but did announce a small set of sanctions against four local officials and the regional public security bureau.
As Stuart Lau notes in Politico, Beijing’s counterattack came as a shock to all. It placed broad sanctions on the entire E.U. Political and Security Committee, as well as the parliamentary subcommittee on human rights, five leading European parliamentarians and even academic experts who study China. As a result, Europe has all but pulled out of the deal.
Or take China’s relations with Australia, one of its main trading partners. Australia has become somewhat more assertive toward China on both trade and human rights but has always worked to maintain constructive relations. Last year, Canberra called for an independent inquiry into the origins of covid-19.
In response, China had what can only be called a freakout. Beijing hit Australia with all kinds of trade restrictions, and the Chinese Embassy in Australia issued an extraordinary charge sheet of 14 grievances, accusing Australia of “poisoning bilateral relations” and demanding, among other things, that the country’s media and think tanks stop writing negative reports about China. In April, the Australian government canceled Belt and Road agreements made with China.
Or consider China’s handling of its relations with India. Last year, Chinese troops clashed with Indian forces in skirmishes that netted China around 100 square miles of land along its frozen Himalayan border.
The result is that India, which has long been wary of signing on to an anti-Chinese coalition, is now much more willing. It has banned a slew of Chinese apps, excluded Chinese companies from building India’s 5G networks, and last year joined the United States, Australia and Japan in their largest naval exercises in over a decade.
Meanwhile, Taiwan, Japan and the countries around the South China Sea have plenty of their own stories to tell about China using aggressive military patrols and other forms of intimidation to assert its interests.
China’s current foreign policy is far removed from its patient, long-term and moderate approach during the Deng Xiaoping era and after. Back then, the central objective was to ensure that the country’s meteoric economic rise did not trigger resentment and counterbalancing from other nations. President Hu Jintao’s adviser Zheng Bijian coined the term “peaceful rise” to describe China’s aspirations and strategy. Now Chinese diplomats embrace conflict and hurl insults in what is known as “wolf warrior” diplomacy.
What is striking about China’s strategy is that it has produced a series of “own goals” — leading countries to adopt the very policies Beijing has long tried to stop. There have also been serious consequences for its global image, greatly diminishing its soft power. Negative views toward China among Americans soared from 47 percent in 2017 to a staggering 73 percent in 2020. If you think that’s a U.S. phenomenon, here are the numbers for some other countries: 40 percent to 73 percent in Canada, 37 percent to 74 percent in the United Kingdom, 32 percent to 81 percent in Australia, 61 percent to 75 percent in South Korea and 49 percent to 85 percent in Sweden. If there is a single theme in international life these days, it is rising public hostility toward China.
President Xi Jinping has transformed China’s approach, domestically and abroad. He has consolidated power for the party and himself. He has reasserted party control over economic policy, in recent months putting curbs on the most innovative parts of the Chinese economy (the technology sector) while lavishing benefits on its most unproductive one (the old state-owned enterprises). And he has pursued a combative, unpredictable and often emotional foreign policy.
In doing all this, he is dismantling China’s hard-earned reputation as a smart, stable and productive player on the world stage. It all brings to mind another period of centralized politics and aggressive foreign policy — the Mao era. That did not end so well for China.