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Foreign Policy

Tilting the World Towards China

Feb 20, 2022

The world has been tilting for some time now beginning with the Great Recession more than a decade ago. The most significant economic downturn since the Great Depression began in the U.S. in 2007 and brought on the ensuing global recession in 2009.

The 2010s proved emblematic of protests around the globe. Beginning with the Arab Spring and the Occupy protests – from Iran to Ukraine, South Korea, Zimbabwe and Greece – and ending with a swell of anti-government demonstrations in India, Iraq, Lebanon, Hong Kong, Latin America, parts of Europe and beyond.

The Me Too and Black Lives Matter movements shook up America, digging up old sexist and racist power struggles to its core – human foundations upon which our nation and many others around the world – were built. From the Brexit meltdown in the UK to former President Trump’s tumultuous presidency, the world has been topsy-turvy for some time.

Beginning with the 2020 COVID pandemic upsetting the global order and leading to a roiling economic tsunami that spread across the world, 2021 began with a U.S. insurrection spurred by a defeated U.S. President.

Is America’s civilization eroding? The U.S., once proclaimed by President Reagan as “a shining city upon a hill whose beacon light guides freedom-loving people everywhere,” is flickering at best and our own democracy appears as limp as a pot of boiled noodles. A new NPR/Ipsos Poll finds that 64% of Americans believe U.S. democracy is "in crisis and at risk of failing." 

Global Chaos

Out of chaos a new order is inevitable. The only question is, “What will it look like?”

There are two main powers in the world today: the U.S. and China. Many argue China is rising as the U.S. declines . Whichever way we measure it – economically, militarily, or politically – China is rising. Though not without issues of its own, China is emerging as a global superpower that could rival, if not eclipse, the United States.

The U.S. is perceived as being politically polarized, stumbling economically, printing money, and incurring massive debts, creating internal and external entangled missteps.  

Authoritarian Strongman

Is strongman Xi Jinping’s – now China’s leader for life – goal to rebuild the world in China’s image? Clearly Xi’s desire is to make China the most powerful country on earth and to eradicate poverty, creating common prosperity for its citizens while keeping an iron grip on the reins of power both internally and externally to its borders.

Xi Jinping is confident of policy continuity under his leadership into the foreseeable future. China is attempting to be a rule-maker rather than a rule-taker. President Xi sees and plans to seize the opportunity to promote China’s national interests more effectively.

China has been riding a rocket of accession since Deng Xiaoping jettisoned Mao’s rigid ideology and opened China to the world. Its manufacturing underpins the world's economy; its military is growing at the fastest rate of any nation (its naval capabilities have already surpassed the U.S.). Xi Jinping appears to be firmly in charge and willing to alter world affairs for decades.

One would think fears of decline might spur the U.S. to get its act together. Yet, political stalemate and dysfunction seem to rule the day in Washington.

The world senses a sea change. Pew Research Center’s Global Attitudes Project survey shows that China is seen as overtaking the U.S. as the global superpower. At the same time, another Pew survey indicates views of China have grown more negative across many advanced economies – unfavorable opinions towards China have soared. 

“Hide Your Strength, Bide Your Time” – No More

In her new book, “The World According to China,” Senior Fellow for China Studies, Council on Foreign Relations’ Dr. Elizabeth Economy argues persuasively that Xi’s efforts are laser focused on reclaiming China’s past glory, tilting the world in China’s direction. China has shaken off its earlier century of humiliation –– boldly and aggressively reasserting its sovereignty over Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the South China Sea. Becoming more like Zheng He, China's greatest navigator, in expanding its global political, economic, and security reach through its massive Belt and Road Initiative, China is using its leadership in the United Nations and other global institutions to re-align international norms and values – particularly around human rights – with those of China.

Deng Xiaoping famously said, "It doesn't matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice" – if the economy works, it is a good economy. Xi seems to have taken this old maxim to a new level and is willing to do whatever it takes for China to regain its wealth and power.

In his own ubiquitous way, President Trump woke America to the reality of China’s continued rise at the expense of America’s demise. Wisely, the Biden Administration has not tossed aside the Trump administration’s China initiatives. With slow and “careful review”, they are using solid negotiating tools with China, working with U.S. allies in the West and the East to tame China’s ambitions and aggression.

In his speech to U.S. Department of State employees early in his administration, President Biden made it clear how he views China: “… we will repair our alliances and engage with the world once again, not to meet yesterday’s challenges, but todays and tomorrow’s. American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States.”

While talking tough, President Biden has yet to create any critical plan needed to compete with China; investing in America and the American people was passed by Congress. But his signature “Build Back Better” plan has been watered down by members of his own party.

China’s defined goal is to achieve “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” by 2049. This includes expanding its national power and revising the international order. China has entered the ring to win, not to come in second or to fight to a tie.

America needs to do more than whine and complain about China. We need an all-hands-on deck action plan or risk being relegated to not only second place economically, but to the future authoritarian whims of Xi Jinping and a rising China.

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