Future Shock Image Credit: Saad Salim, Unsplash

Future Shock

How to prepare for a China-led world

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This extract is featured in Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.

Natasha Kassam & Darren Lim on China’s ‘inducements and intimidation’

Much of China’s effort to reshape the order comes through its ties with individual countries. Beijing uses its wealth and power to induce and coerce support for its positions, regardless of the corrosive impact on existing rules and norms.

A key source of inducements is the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Xi’s signature foreign policy program. Aligning closely with the “right to development” China emphasised in its 2017 UN Human Rights Council resolution, the BRI deploys China’s wealth and expertise to build a cross-national network of physical and digital connections with Beijing at its centre. Chinese loans finance construction, largely by Chinese companies, of the types of projects that have powered China’s own economic success. A closer inspection of the countries supporting Hong Kong’s national security legislation at the Human Rights Council finds that at least forty-three have signed on to the BRI.

China has also secured the United Nations’ imprimatur for the BRI. In 2019, UN secretary-general António Guterres praised the BRI for its alignment with the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals, earlier enshrined in a deal between the United Nations’ development arm and Beijing.

Funding large infrastructure projects meets a legitimate demand in the developing world. It also offers political benefits for the partner governments, as Chinese loans can often help recipients defer painful economic reforms. But the risk is the accumulation of heavy debt burdens. A 2018 study by the think tank Center for Global Development identified at least eight countries where BRI projects had created issues of debt sustainability, including Laos, Pakistan and Mongolia.

The benefits of engaging with China’s large economy will naturally draw countries into its political orbit. The BRI can also promote ideological security for Beijing, allowing it to tout the success of the China model, promote the right to development and suppress criticism. In contrast to what are seen as burdensome Western standards, China operates quickly and at the recipient country’s discretion. As one senior Pacific bureaucrat put it: “We like China because they bring the red flags, not the red tape.” Some BRI projects have been discredited for creating waste, corruption and crippling debt. But Chinese money – and the promise of an infrastructure-fuelled economic surge – will remain appealing.

A further risk is that China’s economic engagement exacerbates illiberal pressures within other states and even bolsters dictators. Xi has said the China model offers “a new option for other countries and nations who want to speed up their development while preserving their independence”. It could encourage countries to adopt a state-dominated economy or a repressive security apparatus. As Beijing looks to export internet infrastructure – a “digital silk road” – foreign leaders may be tempted to import toolkits for monitoring and censorship to manage security and political instability. Malaysia, for instance, is already using Chinese facial recognition software in its armed services, and Ethiopian government security services use Chinese equipment to surveil opposition activists and journalists.

Intimidation and coercion are the flipside of inducement, demonstrating the costs of displeasing China. There are numerous examples of this behaviour, such as “wolf warrior diplomacy”, where PRC diplomats and officials defend Beijing’s policies in aggressive and confrontational ways. In November 2019, China’s ambassador to Sweden, Gui Congyou, said in a radio interview, “We treat our friends with fine wine, but for our enemies we have shotguns.”

Australia was a primary target of Chinese ire after it led a call for an independent investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic. Together with launching a torrent of criticism from Chinese state media and officials, Beijing placed tariffs or bans on multiple Australian export sectors. Such coercion may only have hardened Australia’s resolve, but, like wolf warrior diplomacy, it signals to the world that Beijing will not tolerate perceived threats to its ideological security.

China’s truculence can also encourage a pre-emptive deference to its perceived interests. Beijing has used a mix of carrots and sticks to discourage South China Sea claimant states from asserting their rights, after ignoring a 2016 UN ruling rejecting its claims. Muting international criticism and disregarding the rule of law mirrors the tactics the CCP wields at home and undermines the foundations of the broader system.

Beijing’s effort to exert influence over other countries is especially effective where combined with its “united front work”. These activities aim to promote a positive image of China and to stifle criticism by infiltrating domestic politics, the media and universities.

For Beijing, ideological challenges from “hostile forces at home and abroad” pose a threat, regardless of whether the forces are government actors. Its carrots and sticks serve to chill discourse among Chinese diasporas, dissidents and even businesses that value economic links with China. As professor of East Asian studies Perry Link wrote in 2002:

The Chinese government’s censorial authority in recent times has resembled not so much a man-eating tiger or fire-snorting dragon as a giant anaconda coiled in an overhead chandelier. Normally the great snake doesn’t move. It doesn’t have to. It feels no need to be clear about its prohibitions. Its constant silent message is “You yourself decide,” after which, more often than not, everyone in its shadow makes his or her large and small adjustments – all quite “naturally” … For years the intimidation was aimed only at Chinese citizens, but now it has been projected overseas.

This remains true nineteen years later. China aims to replicate its domestic playbook internationally and create an environment where not only governments, but also companies, groups and individuals defer to the Party’s interests without being instructed to do so.

This is a 921 word extract of a 4900 word essay by Darren Lim and Natasha Kassam. Get your copy of AFA11: The March of Autocracy to read the complete piece, along with contributions from John Keane, Sam Roggeveen and Linda Jaivin. 

AFA11 The March of Autocracy

This is an extract from Australian Foreign Affairs 11: The March of Autocracy. To read the full issue, log in, subscribe or buy the issue.