The warning bell is ringing on China’s global effort to suppress Western values and undermine the freedoms enjoyed in the world’s democracies.
Beijing has baited some of America’s leading corporations with offers of access to its giant consumer market. In return, the likes of Apple and LinkedIn have agreed to play by China’s rules and submit to what amounts to censorship.
On American college campuses, accepting money from the Beijing-backed Confucius Institute has come at the price of academic freedom: There are mounting concerns that the language and cultural centers financed by the institute prohibit discussion on issues that place China in a critical light.
Elsewhere, Beijing has been accused of pulling the strings of Western democracies. In Australia, Chinese businessmen with ties to the Chinese Communist Party have donated millions of dollars to the country’s two leading political parties in an effort to shape domestic and foreign policy. A rising political star, Sam Dastyari of the opposition Labor Party, announced his resignation from the Senate in the face of allegations that he was peddling Beijing’s positions for financial support.
But what might first appear to be signs of Beijing’s rising power are proving to be strategic missteps for China. Beijing is overreaching and starting to burn bridges across the West and in the developing world.
After two decades of expanding engagement and economic ties with Australia, China is now watching as Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull is overhauling his country’s espionage and foreign interference laws in part to counter Chinese influence. Despite President Trump’s warm reception in Beijing last month during a state visit, the United States government has designated China as a competitor in its new national security strategy and is weighing an expansion of the Foreign Agents and Registration Act to curb propaganda and disinformation from Chinese state media and think tanks.
Even in the European Union, China’s largest trading partner, Beijing has caused anxieties to spike. Germany’s intelligence agency recently accused China of mining the personal data of German politicians and diplomats. Anders Fogh Rasmussen, the former Danish prime minister and NATO chief, as well as a free-trade-loving Scandinavian, asked the European Union to create measures to investigate and potentially restrict Chinese investments on the Continent.
This position echoes that of other European leaders who argue Beijing has kept the door closed to foreign investment in too many sectors of its economy while exploiting the openness of European markets and snatching up leading European technology companies over the past few years. Demands are growing that Beijing offer equal treatment to European companies in China.
China’s “One Belt, One Road” initiative, a grandiose trillion-dollar trade and investment strategy to reconnect Eurasia and position China at the center of the global economy, is also facing resistance. While the United States is only now waking up to the threat from Chinese money to its democracy, the developing world has long known the extent to which Beijing is willing to influence politics and societies abroad.
Pakistan, a pivotal country in the plan, has begun to question the extent and terms of its involvement, recently shelving a $14 billion hydropower dam project it felt was too costly. In Myanmar, a critical land link into China from the Indian Ocean, officials have been questioning the notion that the same large and expensive infrastructure projects that helped fuel China’s economic growth will serve as vehicles for its own development.
In Latin America, China’s global infrastructure drive has faced local demands to be more sensitive to environmental concerns, such as in Argentina, where President Mauricio Macri pushed Beijing to shrink the footprint of the hydropower dams it was building in that country. China also faced protests in Africa after Chinese construction firms have failed to conduct due diligence on land acquisition and local employment before pushing forward with new railway and road projects.
Backlash is likely in Sri Lanka as well. After accepting Beijing’s talk of “win-win development,” and amassing billions in Chinese loans, the Sri Lankan government recently ceded control of the strategic port of Hambantota to Beijing for a 99-year lease in return for debt forgiveness. But few tenants love their landlord, particularly one that is charging you rent to live on your own land. Prominent politicians have already accused the Sri Lankan government of selling the country’s sovereignty to Beijing.
In light of this resistance, 2018 may very well see new efforts to tackle the challenge from China. Beijing’s recent intrusions may prompt more security cooperation among the so-called Quad in the Asia-Pacific: the United States, India, Japan and Australia.
Japan and India are particularly keen to find new ways to counter China’s hegemony over Asia’s waterways. And looking to make its trade less dependent on China, Europe will put a stronger focus on other large economic partners. It has already signed a new free trade agreement with Japan that will account for 40 percent of global trade.
It should be no surprise that authoritarian powers are not good at making friends, particularly with democracies, which favor open markets and freedom of speech. If Beijing seeks to calm concerns in the West over its influence in politics and society, it may need to revamp its policy that prioritizes economic gains. Instead, China would be well served to consider its own history of resentment regarding outside intervention, and look to build new cooperation and compromise with the West.
Beijing is gradually building warmer relations with Tokyo based on economic and social cooperation. This may offer a path forward for Beijing to overcome its differences with Western democracies, to disengage from political interference, and to refocus on building partnerships that can expand the trade and investment that brought it to the heights of the global economy in the first place.
China leaves 2017 with frayed relations across much of the West. If it does not pull back from these intrusions on Western democracies, the overreach will ultimately reduce China’s global power.
Luke Patey is a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies and author of The New Kings of Crude: China, India, and the Global Struggle for oil in Sudan and South Sudan.