How to Push Back Against Beijing
The Chinese Communist Party’s initial mismanagement of the COVID-19 pandemic and its subsequent attempts to exploit the crisis have produced enduring problems for the rest of the world. But the CCP’s behavior has also helped clarify the threat that China poses to the security, prosperity, and well-being of other countries. Public opinion polls show that over 60 percent of Americans of both political parties now hold a negative view of Beijing’s leadership and intentions, and similar attitudes can be found across the democratic world. This heightened awareness of a shared danger creates an opportunity for the United States and its allies to formulate a new and more effective strategy for dealing with China.
For the past four decades, Western democracies have hoped that engagement with China would cause its leaders to abandon any revisionist ambitions they might harbor and accept their country’s place as a “responsible stakeholder” in the U.S.-led international order. Expanding flows of trade and investment would, it was thought, also encourage Beijing to proceed down the path toward greater economic and political openness. The policy of engagement was not absurd on its face; it was a gamble rather than an outright blunder. But as has become increasingly obvious, the West’s wager has failed to pay off.
Instead of opening up and mellowing out, with Xi Jinping at the helm, China is pursuing unusually brutal and oppressive policies at home and acting more aggressively abroad. China is trying to replace the United States as the world’s leading economic and technological nation and to displace it as the preponderant power in East Asia. Beijing has ratcheted up its efforts to exploit the openness of democratic societies in order to shape the perceptions and policies of their governments. It is working hard to establish itself as the leader of the developing nations and, with their support, to rewrite rules and reshape international norms, standards, and institutions in line with its own illiberal, authoritarian preferences. In the long run, China’s rulers evidently hope that they can divide, discredit, and weaken the democracies, lessening the appeal of their system, co-opting some, isolating others, and leaving the United States at the head of what will be, at best, a diminished and enfeebled coalition.
It is one thing to have such dreams, another to actually fulfill them. In addition to its impressive strengths, China has large and mounting liabilities, including a slowing economy, a rapidly aging population, and a system of governance that relies on costly coercion rather than the freely given consent of its people. These liabilities will complicate the regime’s plans and could eventually derail them. But it would be imprudent to assume that this will happen soon or of its own accord.
Deflecting Beijing from its present, revisionist path will naturally require defensive measures. In the face of China’s growing strength, the United States and its allies need to bolster their defenses against overt acts of military aggression or coercion. They must also do more to protect their economies from exploitation and their societies and political systems from penetration and subversion.