The growth of Chinese economic power entails the rise of a new type of value system that is fundamentally different from that of the post-World War II liberal world order. While Western powers such as the United States and the EU often tie their aid and investment loans to strict conditions for socio-economic transformation, China has been generous with regimes that care little about human rights or democratic values. The latter is commonly known as the Beijing Consensus, whereby China has no attachments to its infrastructure development project loans. The so-called Washington Consensus sees Western governments place a series of conditions on their loans through the structural adjustment program by the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
For China, this kind of engagement has certain dividends in the short run as it gives a chance for Beijing to boost ties with strategically important countries. The question is: could the risks of embracing autocratic rulers harm Beijing’s long-term goal of solidifying its position as a responsible stakeholder in the international system?
Threat or Peaceful Rise?
China’s rise has long been in the cross-hairs of observers of international relations. One popular narrative is the “China Threat” theory, which argues that due to ideological, cultural, geopolitical, and various other aspects, the United States and China are heading toward conflict. There are more optimistic views as well. Many argue that given the Sino-U.S. interdependence and the non-imperialist nature of Chinese history, Beijing’s growth is going to be tranquil. In order to dispel fears of the Chinese juggernaut’s ascent, Beijing issued a white paper about its “Peaceful Development” in 2011 and Xi Jinping advocated a “new type of major power relations” between the United States and China. Also, China proposed the ambitious “Belt and Road” Initiative (BRI) that is supposed to enhance mutual development through “win-win” cooperation.
Nevertheless, there is still a considerable amount of suspicion among states when they engage with Beijing. China’s acquisition of two German companies — Aixtron and Osram — was suspended by the German government. The U.K.’s Hinkley Point C project, in which China participates as a foreign investor, also faced significant hurdles before getting approval. The Mexican government revoked a China-backed high-speed railway project. India, regardless of the promises of the BRI, remains lukewarm about Xi’s new Silk Road enterprise.
The present situation begs the question: why do China’s apparently benign efforts meet with mistrust and doubt? Naturally, there are various reasons causing this phenomenon, such as unbalanced investor relations when partnering with Beijing, the South China Sea disputes, and the unseen expenses of seemingly advantageous Chinese infrastructure projects.
In this piece, we focus on a different factor that is a source of suspicion: Beijing’s tacit support for maverick statesmanship. The support is tacit because China does not have an explicit preference for engaging with autocratic leaders. China’s post-1949 diplomacy is chiefly shaped by the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence,” one of which is not interfering with any country’s domestic affairs. In practice, this means that when initiating infrastructure projects or providing aid, Beijing does not discriminate against foreign leaders who have autocratic predilections or a poor human rights records. The following three cases of Sri Lanka, the Maldives, and the Philippines are illustrative of this behavior.
Sri Lanka’s Mahinda Rajapaksa
Until 2009, the Indian Ocean island nation of Sri Lanka was tormented by a bloody civil war that lasted nearly three decades. The brutal final stages of the conflict were led by Mahinda Rajapaksa, whose leadership was target of widespread Western criticism due to allegations of wartime atrocities, corruption, and human rights violations. Accordingly, Sri Lanka’s longstanding partners such as the United States and India were restrained in their engagement with Colombo.
China, however, has proven to be a “friend in need”: Chinese aid and credit accounted for $5 billion after the civil war. Moreover, China initiated large-scale infrastructure projects in the country, such as the Hambantota and Colombo ports. In these circumstances, Chinese support quickly became one of the underpinnings of Rajapaksa’s autocratic rule and Sri Lanka seemed to be inevitably and exclusively drifting toward China (until, as discussed later, Rajapaksa was voted out of office).
The Maldives’ Abdulla Yameen
The Maldives, another island nation in the Indian Ocean, appears to be on a similar trajectory to that of the Rajapaksa-led Sri Lanka. In 2015, the incumbent President Abdulla Yameen launched a crackdown on his political opponents, including Mohammed Nasheed, the first leader of the country elected by democratic means. The events led to protests and confrontation, further exacerbating the situation. Western powers watched these developments with unease, and India, a close partner of the Maldives, also opted to show discontent by canceling a prime ministerial visit to the island state.
China, on the other hand, has proven to be undisturbed by issues of political oppression and human rights. The Maldives is a participant of the BRI and two countries have embarked on the “China-Maldives Friendship Bridge” project, an ambitious initiative financed mainly by Beijing. In July 2015, the island state ratified a constitutional amendment that allows foreigners to buy Maldivian land, igniting fears of a prospective Chinese base on the archipelago.
The Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte
The Philippines’ outspoken Rodrigo Duterte was elected in 2016 and immediately embarked on the “War on Drugs,” which has resulted in more than 2,000 extra-judicial killings already. The course of events elicited worries in the UN and Western powers, and the United States opted to freeze its weapons sales to Manila. In addition, the island state’s president has proven to be abrasively outspoken against international standards on human rights: after the arms freeze, Duterte told Obama he can “go to hell” and suggested that the EU should go to purgatory (because hell is already occupied) for similar human rights reservations. Duterte has made no secret that he disregards the importance of human rights.
Against this backdrop, Duterte quickly ran out of support from Western powers and turned his gaze toward China. The Philippines’ president visited Beijing to mend bilateral ties that were strained because of the South China Sea disputes. Undisturbed by the questionable conduct of the Philippine president, Beijing welcomed Duterte and the two sides concluded bilateral agreements amounting more than $17 billion.
Ephemeral Advantages, Long -Term Harm
Indubitably, the current Chinese approach yields short-term benefits as Beijing is quick to gain strategic leverage in countries from which Western powers pull out due to concerns about human rights or democratic values. Engaging with the Rajapaksa regime allowed China to embark on crucial infrastructure development projects in Sri Lanka, a critical commercial hub of the Indian Ocean. Similarly, Sino-Maldivian ties are growing ever more intimate, allowing China to further boost its clout in the region. By embracing Duterte and his War on Drugs, Beijing seems to have neutralized one of its most vehement opponents in the South China Sea disputes.
Engaging with autocratic leaders, however, damages China’s long-term interests in two major ways.
First, democratic forces tend to overwrite autocratic agendas in the long run. Maithripala Sirisena, Rajapaksa’s opponent during the elections in early 2015, boosted his crusade for votes by denouncing the government’s heavy reliance on Beijing. Sirisena’s gambit proved successful when he triumphed over Rajapaksa. Subsequently, a balanced engagement with the United States, India, and China has become a hallmark of Sri Lanka’s reshuffled foreign policy, causing Beijing to lose some of its leverage and credibility in Colombo. Sri Lanka might not be a lone case, considering that there are recurrent protests against the incumbent Maldivian government and Duterte’s verbal assaults on the United States go against public sentiment in the Philippines.
Second, as Chinese power ascends to a level equal to that of the United States, Beijing needs to take care of its global image consciously and make friends to tackle threat perceptions. Close ties with ill-famed regimes generate suspicion in the United States and the EU, hindering Beijing’s cooperation with these powerful Western stakeholders.
Given its growing economic clout, China can no longer neglect the repercussions of its acts in the international arena. While engaging with infamous governments pays off in the short-run, it leads to the isolation of Beijing which is inimical to China’s long-term interests and sustainable relations.
Dániel Balázs is a graduate student in international relations at Tongji University in Shanghai, China. Patrick Mendis is an associate-in-research of the Fairbank Center for Chinese Studies at Harvard University and a former visiting professor of international affairs at Tongji University. The views expressed are personal and do not represent the views of the authors’ respective institutions.