Despite insurmountable challenges, there is no stepping back in global efforts to fight the rising threats of an authoritarian and revisionist power.
The liberal democratic order has never been in such dire crisis in the past 70 years than it is today. However, its ongoing crisis has been greatly accentuated by the unstoppable rise of authoritarian powers, particularly China. Its breakneck economic growth and successful lifting of a record number of people out of absolute poverty in about four decades has vastly improved the attractiveness of its “state-controlled capitalism” model. Beyond this, China, under an ambitious Xi Jinping, is increasingly turning nationalistic and a revisionist power. Xi’s unprecedented consolidation of political and institutional levers of power marked by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) aggressive drives to launch ‘influence operations’ abroad have come as a warning signal for the votaries of the liberal democratic order. Even a rising global pandemic did not deter the current regime from marshalling economic and military resources to enforce territorial claims in the disputed South China Sea, Taiwan Straits, Eastern Ladakh (India) and put hundreds of thousands of Uighur Muslims in internment camps. Its all-out efforts to snatch political freedom in Hong Kong should alarm those who still hope the Middle Kingdom will embrace democracy one day. What is perhaps more concerning is that the current Chinese regime under Xi is smartly using the geopolitical vacuum, created by the relative decline of the West, to reorder global governance and the rules-based order. Its brazenness during the outbreak of the COVID-19 pandemic and its aftermath should act as a wake-up call regarding the nature and ambitions of the regime.
China’s authoritarian and hegemonic behaviour have prompted many leading democracy scholars and key thought leaders to demand urgent actions from the United States and the European Union (EU). They seek to check China’s soft and hard infrastructure building, including its influence operations and ambitious geopolitical projects like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). A number of scholars and thought leaders have also argued to strengthen the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or the Quad comprising India, Japan, Australia, and the US to prevail over China’s hegemonic ambition in the Indo-Pacific region. Yet, there are no easy ways to enforce these ideas and instruments.
For starters, the China challenge is an extremely complicated case to deal with using old containment strategies or even threats of trade sanctions for that matter. It is a US$ 12 trillion beast, much bigger than the former Soviet Union. The Western powers could successfully contain the Soviet Union because even though it was a giant military power, it had a much smaller economy that was least integrated globally. Whereas, today, China is the second largest economy (and likely to overtake the US in less than a decade) and remains at the centre of the current global trade and economic order. It is also a growing technology superpower whose military arsenals and forces are undergoing rapid modernisation. Thus, containing China would not be easy and may even create major chaos for the world economy.
Further, China cannot be so easily isolated either. The examples of fear of surveillance and banning of 5G network by Huawei can attest to this. While some advanced democracies such as Australia, Germany, New Zealand, and the US, UK and much later, India, took the decision to disallow Huawei from setting up 5G networks in their territories, there are many countries in Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America who are more than willing to invite Huawei into their telecommunications ecosystems. It is the same with the BRI: Many European countries have openly sought Chinese investment in critical infrastructure and the recent free trade agreement between China and the EU is a case in point.
However, the moot question is, who can check the Chinese juggernaut? The standard response is the Western liberal order led by the US and EU. Yet, if the trajectory of responses in the last few years are to be seen, the key promoters of democracy and liberal values are in sharp retreat. It needs to be reiterated that more than seven decades of dominance by the liberal order, which saw the steady expansion of free market principles and spread of universal principles of human rights, was largely funded and secured by the United States. The unprecedented spread of democracies in Third Wave was funded and facilitated by the US and its security architecture, especially the North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) and military alliances in multiple regions. While the US has acted as the magnate of democracy and liberal values since the end of the Second World War, its preoccupation with endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan has drained much of its resources and attention in the last two decades, which, in many ways, have shaped Chinese authoritarian behaviour. This received further acceleration under the Trump Presidency and his inward-looking policies. The United States did not only emphasise on the parochial policy of “America First” — pulling out of multilateral bodies that are critical to rules-based order and liberal democracies — the world’s richest and the torch-bearer for democracy is showing little enthusiasm to support democratic struggles around the world. While the new president Joe Biden has shown alacrity and sense of purpose to strengthen the efforts against China by building a democracy coalition and his recent lead on the Quad sounds very positive, one has to see how good intent is translated into concrete actions.
With regard to the EU, it is engaged in its own existential battle where populist leaders and xenophobic parties have taken centre stage. The recent signing of Comprehensive Investment Agreement with China despite the latter’s widespread human rights abuses in Xinjiang and snatching away of political freedoms in Hong Kong further exposes its own vulnerability.
Given this, China or for that matter any aspiring great power would find it easy to exploit the situation to its own advantage. China has already done it in Asia (in the context of the disputes in the South China Sea, and its growing clout with the ASEAN), as well as in Africa and in Europe, particularly the Central and Eastern European countries. The China-led initiatives, especially the 16+1 forum with European countries, and the loud defence by Greece and other EU member countries of China’s human rights record — are a clear reminder that it is not easy to isolate and check a rising super power.
Despite insurmountable challenges, there is no stepping back in global efforts to fight the rising threats of an authoritarian and revisionist power. While the Biden administration is showing determination and the EU is slowly waking up to the challenges with its recent sanctions against Chinese firms over rights abuses in Xinjiang, the real fight must come from Asia, the key theatre of Chinese influence. Recent movements — particularly Japan and India pushing for a proactive Quad, India standing up to Chinese aggression in Eastern Ladakh and countries like Australia and New Zealand fighting back aggressive Chinese trade blackmailing — are proof enough that the global efforts are on the right track. Yet, the best counter-measures liberal and open societies have at their disposal is to maintain strong vigil and counter China’s illiberal threats by exposing them. In this regard, the liberal democratic order can use the instruments of international laws, free and independent media, and counter-intelligence to expose the Chinese disinformation war and influence operations. The Chinese Communist Party suppresses free expression, open debate and independent thought to cement its control. Shedding light on its sharp tactics and shaming kowtowers would go a long way towards blunting them in the long run.
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Niranjan Sahoo PhD is a Senior Fellow with ORFsRead More +