Interviews | Diplomacy

China’s Ambitions Generating Global Pushback – Though Unevenly, Scholar Argues

“America’s most strident decouplers are no longer in the White House, but China’s own are still hard at work,” Luke Patey warned The Diplomat.

Abhijnan Rej
China’s Ambitions Generating Global Pushback – Though Unevenly, Scholar Argues
Credit: Flickr/Joe Hsu

Perhaps no other topic agitates the contemporary strategic imagination more than the implications of China’s rise — not just for the future of the ruling regime in Beijing but also for Africa, Europe, and the Asia-Pacific. But in the recent past, nervous apprehension (mixed with considerable excitement) about Chinese President Xi Jinping’s ambitions has given way to another sentiment, that China may be inching toward overreach — both economic as well as geopolitical — as public opinion across many Western democracies coalesces into China skepticism, if not outright antagonism.

In a recent book, “How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions” (Oxford University Press, 2021) Luke Patey presents a tour d’horizon of China’s expanding global footprint as well as growing backlash against Beijing’s grand schemes and geostrategic jostling across continents. Drawing on research and travel across Africa, South America, and parts of the Asia-Pacific, Patey, a senior researcher at the Danish Institute for International Studies, presents a nuanced, detailed picture of how China seeks to win – and what could get in its way.

In an email interview with The Diplomat’s Security & Defense Editor Abhijnan Rej, Patey presented his prognoses on how China’s relationship with key geographies could shape up in the near future.

The scholar Howard French has argued that China, in face of a looming economic crisis, has a narrow temporal window to achieve its core external objectives. Assuming the Chinese Communist Party shares this assessment, do you think that China will seek to meet its key geopolitical goals – crucially, unification of Taiwan with the mainland by force, if necessary – soon? Does a China in face of a deep crisis at home present an international security threat?

Deciphering Beijing’s future moves on Taiwan is no easy task. Last spring, President Xi Jinping removed the rhetorical guardrails of China’s commitment to peaceful reunification. As American naval activity in the Taiwan Strait continues, Beijing carries on with sending its fighter jets into the Taiwanese air defense identification zone and even recently simulated an attack against an American aircraft carrier.

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Yet invasion is a risky prospect for Xi. Conflict across the Taiwan Strait may shatter stability in East Asia for years and have a deep impact on the global economy. China might be able to win a hard victory and take the island, but occupying Taiwan is another story. Reunification is intensely important to Chinese leadership, but the possible heavy losses suffered from an invasion and potential international isolation from such naked military aggression may still restrain Beijing from acting on this ambition anytime soon.

Visiting Taipei in early 2020, Taiwanese defense experts told me that they foresee China first engaging in a limited armed conflict elsewhere before any full-scale invasion of the self-ruled island. Such a battle, for example over maritime rights in the South China Sea or Taiwan’s islands close to the mainland, would allow Beijing to test its military and measure how the United States, Japan, and others respond.

If China does suffer from a deep crisis, the Communist Party will surely go looking for foreign scapegoats. This could also lead to new military adventurism to rally nationalist sentiment and divert attention from any governance failure at home. But barring such instability, I think Beijing will opt to continue its current salami-cutting strategy of small, incremental moves to gain de facto control over the Taiwan Strait. Xi won a considerable victory in clamping down on Hong Kong with limited international response. Moving militarily against Taiwan too soon could spoil this achievement for the Communist Party.

For many Africa scholars and analysts, the China threat – whether it be in the form of “debt traps” or a neocolonial approach to the continent’s vast natural resources – seems to be overblown or worse, a fiction propagated by Western voices. Do you share this assessment?

It is not solely Western voices that are critical of China’s approach to Africa and its broader Belt and Road Initiative. The Indian scholar, Brahma Chellaney, coined “debt trap diplomacy,” former Malaysian Prime Minister Mahathir bin Mohamad warned China not to engage in a “new version of colonialism,” and the next leader of the World Trade Organization, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, cautioned her fellow Africans that China’s state-led development model will not work for most countries on the continent. On the contrary, American and European scholars happen to be some of the strongest opponents to bellicose views of China expressed by political leaders in Washington D.C.

Africa-focused scholars and analysts are correct is assessing the China threat as overblown, but I imagine most will agree that the opposite view, that everything China in Africa amounts to a “win-win” for Beijing and its partner, is equally dogmatic. Unfortunately, however, the Trump administration’s obtuse, one-sided, and often discriminatory language towards China over the past four years made it difficult to have a sensible debate on whether or not Beijing’s approach to Africa will fuel sustained growth and development or not.

I do not think there is much doubt that China has joined the club of foreign powers harnessing finance to advance geopolitical and strategic aims in asymmetrical relations with developing countries. This is to be expected from an aspiring global superpower. But will the multi-billion-dollar port, railway, and hydropower deals agreed upon by Beijing and local governments generate significant economic activities that spur on development? Can African countries as diverse as Ghana, Ethiopia, and Kenya develop their manufacturing industries to take advantage of this new infrastructure or will their economies overheat on high debt levels and service payments? Will African companies be a large part of any new industrial activity or will Chinese and other foreign companies capture the lion’s share of these gains? African scholars and analysts are less concerned with whether Chinese loans are “good or bad” than they are with asking whether African leaders can make this debt work to fulfill their people’s needs.

Africa does need infrastructure, but not any project, at any cost, will do for governments with limited borrowing capacities. Without the legal and regulatory institutions in place to ensure sound project preparation and planning to ward off corruption and misspending that typically follows such mega-projects worldwide, new infrastructure will struggle to fuel growth. At the Forum on China-Africa Cooperation in 2018, Xi welcomed African countries “to step aboard the express train of China’s development.” Many African countries decided to get on, but it is still not clear where Xi’s train will take them.

How do you see the European Union’s approach to China shaping up in the near future? Is it too early to speak of an “EU Indo-Pacific strategy,” along the lines Germany and France have proposed? Can a divided EU be ever united on China?

The European Union’s approach to China will change dramatically in the coming years if European decision-makers can start to tell the difference between corporate interests and national interests. The two are not one and the same. What’s good for Volkswagen and Airbus in China does not necessarily advance the economic welfare of European citizens.

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If European parliament ratifies it, the new EU-China investment deal signed late last year may help expand market access in selected sectors in China. But European capitals need to stop measuring success in the total sales and number of factories of European companies in China and begin to design trade and investment policy to ensure such activity translates into growth, jobs, and prosperity back home. The German automaker Volkswagen openly states that it reinvests its China earnings back into the Chinese market — a legitimate move by a multinational corporation, but not one that broadly helps German welfare very much. Will incremental gains in market access change this approach? Working with the United States, Japan, and others on reform in World Trade Organization may offer greater opportunity for European economies in the long run.

Focusing on Indo-Pacific mega-region can also play a big part in advancing European welfare. When the COVID-19 pandemic subsides, India and Southeast Asia are poised to become new global growth engines. But engaging this wider Asia requires that the European Union work together to leverage its industrial competitiveness and innovation capacities so that it can offer growth and development opportunities to its partners abroad. If Germany’s neighbors got behind Chancellor Angela Merkel’s wish to see through the EU-China investment deal, then Berlin needs to support Sweden’s Ericsson and Finland’s Nokia to ensure European leadership in fifth-generation mobile networks.

The urgency could not be greater for the European Union to find a collective, competitive spirit. Two waves of COVID-19 lockdowns have severely dented economic growth, and the current costly vaccination debacle adds insult to injury. This all comes after two decades of trade integration with China coinciding with a steady fall of the EU’s share in the global economy and competitiveness in global value chains. The EU has demonstrated a defensive posture to China by introducing investment screening and other policies to counter what it views as unfair Chinese competition, but the regional body needs to think more about mounting an offense to advance its strategic interests overseas.

In your previous book you had analyzed the China-India competitive dynamics when it came to petroleum resources in Sudan and South Sudan. As the strategic rivalry between both countries now threatens to erupt into an openly hostile relationship, how do you see it playing out across South Asia as well as Africa? To what extent does New Delhi’s intention match its capabilities when it comes to pushing Chinese interests back?

It will be a brighter future for Asia and the world should India and China return to stable relations. But for now the days when former Indian petroleum minister Mani Shankar Aiyar sought to foster energy cooperation and joint investments with China in Africa appear long gone.

India and China are large trading partners and cooperation is still feasible across many economic sectors, but geopolitical hostilities with Beijing pose a significant challenge for New Delhi. For the time being, India’s capacities to match China globally are limited, but it can do much within the competitive space of its own neighborhood in South Asia.

New Delhi was a first-mover in summarily rejecting involvement in China’s Belt and Road Initiative while European diplomats initially fawned over the economic possibilities without giving proper attention to the geopolitical and strategic consequences. But saying no to China is easier than competing with it. New Delhi has moved to offer South Asian governments in the Maldives, Sri Lanka, and elsewhere alternative lines of finance and support, but it will need to sustain this engagement over the long run.

The COVID-19 pandemic has done considerable damage to the Indian economy, on top of a prolonged health crisis, but India’s role as a major vaccination manufacturer and its quick reaction to provide greatly needed doses to its neighbors can do much to advance its regional ambitions. New Delhi can also punch above its current economic and military weight by working more closely with the United States, Japan, and Australia on selective initiatives, such as further developing the Quadrilateral security dialogue and strengthening technology cooperation.

Given the obvious policy reaction (including calls for economic decoupling) that has recently followed China’s heavy-handed economic coercion – in the latest instance, against Australia – can we expect Beijing to recalibrate its approach in the near future?

The list of advanced democracies facing Chinese economic coercion as a consequence of foreign policy disputes with Beijing has grown over the past decade. It now includes Japan, Norway, South Korea, Canada, and Australia. When Beijing tries to intimidate other countries through trade and investment restrictions this is typically done to demonstrate to its domestic audience that China’s political redlines cannot be crossed. These moves are also taken as a warning for others to temper their behavior, or as the Chinese idiom goes, to kill the chicken to scare the monkey.

But Beijing may decide to temporary sheath its trade weapon in the coming years. As China’s list of redlines expands, the list of delinquents only gets longer. This puts into question the effectiveness of such economic intimidation, particularly if it rallies a collective response from targeted countries and undermines China’s position in negotiations over reform in international trade rules at the World Trade Organization.

At the same time, Xi is pushing through with his ambitious industrial policies to lower China’s dependencies in critical industries and promote domestic production and consumption. To date, most of China’s trade restrictions and bans on other countries have been quite limited. Beijing remains sensitive to upsetting China’s own economic growth in foreign policy disputes. But if Beijing becomes less constrained by foreign trade and technology dependencies in the future, it may decide to experiment with more severe sanctions for those countries that provoke its ire. America’s most strident decouplers are no longer in the White House, but China’s own are still hard at work.