For many years now, discussions about the future of the international system have revolved around the rise of China and a related shift of global attention to Asia. Yet, while it is true that the numbers point in that direction, this need not entail a change in global leadership. The United States and Europe will maintain vast reservoirs of power – particularly economic – far into the future. More importantly, their commitment to the values that undergird this power – rule of law, representative government, and liberal freedoms – is a strength that will continue to drive global trends. In brief, the world is not rushing into a China-led order.
Over the last several years, despite a slowdown, China’s economic growth remained strong. Internationally, its economic model and Belt and Road Initiative vehicle – enjoying seemingly unlimited investment capacities – looked set to overtake the world. Meanwhile, interpretations of the Trump administration’s America First foreign policy gave credence to those who equate U.S. power with Chinese and see in their contest only a rivalry between two self-interested great powers.
The COVID-19 crisis threw this analysis into question. This pandemic, which appeared in the People’s Republic of China for reasons related to the very nature of the system, revealed the regime’s internal limits, unsuited to the status of world leader.
The pandemic also revealed the external weaknesses of a system focused on the narrow objective of keeping the Communist Party in power by any means, including hyper-nationalism. As the crisis raged, China embarked on counter-productive provocations, from the Indian border to the East and South China Seas, from Hong Kong to Xinjiang. The “wolf warriors” of Chinese diplomacy amplified their country’s aggressive posture, shining a spotlight on it, and ruining China’s positive image abroad, even among its most loyal supporters.
As a result, the European Union and its member countries, although traditionally cautious, made numerous statements of mistrust toward a regime whose behavior they found incomprehensible. The U.S. reaction has been even stronger.
Even as its propaganda machine struggles through these many unforced errors, Beijing faces a more serious problem. Major economic and social tensions at home have begun to constrain its financial capacities – the only real source of soft power it has. Deep inequalities between the privileged, often members of the ruling Communist Party, and the rest of the country are becoming ever more apparent. At another level, it turns out the supposed “innovation superpower” remains – despite major investments – dependent on Western technologies, the source of which is drying up under pressure from the United States.
In the context of these challenges, Chinese rhetoric on “multilateralism” has lost all credibility. It is no longer enough for Beijing to promise progress on climate change to satisfy Paris, for instance. Generally, the messages brought to Paris in late August by Foreign Minister Wang Yi – beyond an unfortunate photo with an inexplicably cheerful President Emmanuel Macron that was immediately exploited in the Chinese official media – did not go over very well. Something similar occurred in Germany, where Foreign Minister Heiko Maas publicly called out Wang on Hong Kong and Xinjiang, as did his counterpart in France. Official readouts from the other capitals Wang visited point to similar criticisms.
Along the way, Wang even managed to offend the government of a country he did not visit, the Czech Republic, and by extension the European Union. His personal foray into wolf-warrior diplomacy, threatening the president of the Czech Senate for leading a 90-strong member delegation to Taiwan, elicited the exact opposite effect Wang must have sought. Not only did the delegation proceed according to plan, but Milos Vystrcil used the occasion to declare to Taiwan’s legislature, “I am Taiwanese.”
Certainly, other more positive issues were discussed during Wang’s European tour. European governments are not prepared to throw away their relationships with China. In fact, some still seem to lack an understanding that with a fundamentally Leninist regime, balance of power and hard diplomacy are indispensable.
But they are standing on principle, and that’s good for the global order. It’s also an inspiration to friends in Asia, where the Western model and democratic values continue to gain traction, including in the sphere of greatest Chinese cultural influence. The fact that Beijing is imposing its authority on the people of Hong Kong does not mean it is successfully imparting its values. Hong Kongers, like the people of Eastern Europe during the Soviet era, still have free minds. And they welcome the free world’s support.
The pandemic will leave its mark everywhere, but what it has revealed is that the shift of global leadership toward a China-centered Asia is neither inevitable nor desired. If there is to be a winner in this global struggle, Europe and the United States must lead, with faith in the values that have made them what they are.
Valérie Niquet is Head of the Asia Department at the Fondation pour la recherche stratégique in Paris.
Walter Lohman is Director of the Asian Studies Center of The Heritage Foundation in Washington, DC.