China has been flexing its muscles for several decades now and threatening to play a compelling role in the international political battleground. The election of Donald Trump in the United States in 2016 only emboldened their aspirations. His shift from the traditional US approach of being an active global hegemon to a more withdrawn and subdued role left a political vacuum that an already ambitious China promptly embraced. The coronavirus pandemic has only emphasised Trump’s antipathy for global leadership and ergo accelerated China’s endeavours. However, just as the predicament in the US since Trump’s election was integral to China’s increased presence, it will again be front and centre because the 2020 Presidential election in November will have towering ramifications for the international order and thus precisely dictate which direction China will be heading.
Since the pandemic engendered threatening and unprecedented economic damage, the fundamental focus for a plethora of states has been to illustrate fiscal responsibility and weather the upcoming storm. That is music to the ears of Beijing, an economic powerhouse.
A central pillar of China’s ascendancy in recent years has been their economic prominence. Possessing one of the leading economies in the world has allowed it to posit itself as an inescapable and ever-present player on the world stage.
Its projects have been an instrumental part of their rise. The Belt and Road Initiative is a potent example. Introduced by President Xi Jinping in 2013, the plan involves connecting more than 70 countries in the continents of Asia, Africa and Europe via a series of rail, road and sea infrastructure projects. The aim is to create ‘a modern Silk Road’ which would stimulate economic growth in the world, in what China has labelled ‘a new era of globalisation’, thereby expanding its influence.
Seemingly, the strategy is working. China has a far-flung monopoly in several regions of the world. In Africa, China is the dominant and most important trading partner as Sino-African trade tops $200billion per year. There are also over 10,000 Chinese owned firms operating throughout the African continent and the value of Chinese businesses there amounts to more than $2trillion. Indeed, Africa’s biggest infrastructure projects in recent years – from the $12 billion Coastal Railway in Nigeria, the $4.5 billion Addis Ababa–Djibouti Railway, the $11 billion mega port and the economic zone at Bagamoyo – have mainly been developed by Chinese partnerships. As a result, Africa has witnessed sterling infrastructure-induced economic growth in recent years.
China is particularly prominent in North Africa too. According to the Egyptian Ministry of Trade and Industry, Egypt is China’s third largest trading partner in Africa. In 2017, the trade volume between the two countries reached $10.87 billion, while the value of Egypt’s imports from China was more than $8 billion, the highest in North Africa. In the first eight months of 2018, bilateral trade between Egypt and China jumped by around 26%. China’s trade with Morocco is more modest, but nonetheless gradually expanding; Morocco’s imports from China were worth $3.14 billion in 2017, behind only those from France and Spain.
In Europe the plight is the same, as the European Union is heavily reliant on Chinese commerce. China is the EU’s second biggest trading partner meanwhile the EU is China’s biggest trading partner.
Hence, China is aware that its ascendancy has placed it in a strategically critical position, which comes with a wealth of advantages. Even when states disapprove of China’s conduct, whilst there may be hints of disapproval, they stop short of outright denouncement or are usually outnumbered by those uniting behind China.
In 2019, when the United Nations issued a statement condemning China’s systematic oppression of the Uighur population – which includes suppressing Uighur births, sterilisations, mass detentions and the use of concentration camps – only a handful of countries backed the statement, whereas a multitude of states were quick to defend Beijing. This kind of selective and inconsequential criticism is something China is becoming accustomed to.
The issue of China’s Huawei 5G equipment is a notable example. At the heart of the debate is a simple question. Can countries trust Huawei or will using its equipment leave communication networks and mobile phones vulnerable and pave the way for Beijing to use corporate espionage to steal intellectual property?
The European Commission recently released a report which emphasised that it is paramount the continent diversifies its 5G networks. This exhibits a brazen apprehension towards the Chinese telecom giant. But there was no mention of them in the report. Seemingly, Europe wants to advertise a firmness towards China whilst simultaneously not alienating them. This was evident in the 2019 European Commission report which labelled China a ‘systematic rival’ whilst also referring to them as a ‘negotiating partner’. The same description was used during a EU-China summit in June 2020, with the official summit headline mentioning the ‘complex and vital partnership’.
Germany is also singing from the same hymn sheet. Chancellor Angela Merkel knows that Berlin could easily ban Huawei, which would represent a toughening stance and embolden other smaller European states to follow suit and increase the pressure on China. In fact, there has been a chorus of condemnation from activists, professors and political figures in Germany who are demanding a more tenacious approach.
But Merkel’s fear of upsetting her biggest trading partner remains overpowering, because of suspicions Beijing would not hesitate to retaliate against German exports. Thus, there is a desire to maintain harmonious relations built on economic ties, as opposed to provoking tension. The importance of economic ties has also intensified following the global pandemic amid the likelihood of a global recession. Business interests appear to be at the forefront, with Joe Kaeser, the chief of Siemens, the German industrial giant, underlining the importance of being ‘thoughtful and respectful’ towards China.
So, rather than Xi Jinping operating with caution amid serious pressure, he recognises his country has meaningful leverage. When the novel coronavirus first infiltrated Wuhan, China blocked domestic flights but bizarrely left international flights available. And even as the full scale of the crisis emerged China tightly controlled information. This converted a local plague into a harrowing global pandemic, and threatened to shatter China’s legitimacy completely.
Yet China managed to convert a global disaster into a political victory. At the height of the pandemic when Italy’s situation was uncontrollable, China was one of the first to send ventilators, masks, respirators and test kits. It also despatched medical teams and 250,000 masks to Iran and sent supplies to Serbia. 100,000 masks for each African country were also sent. It embarked on a sturdy diplomatic quest too and grappled for international leadership as it convened with several countries and hundreds of officials to share information about the pandemic and what lessons could be learnt from China’s own experiences.
This was all whilst Trump was demonstrating unimaginable impotence by downplaying the virus, refusing to promote safety measures, recklessly pushing for states to open, even when the number of infected cases and deaths remained stubbornly high, refusing to work with international allies and blaming China and the World Health Organization throughout.
In order for China to advance as a global leader, it requires a decline in American leadership. And a combination of American absence and international tentativeness towards Beijing recently has allowed China to act without restraint and capitalise to consolidate its superiority. Its actively aggressive attitude lately reinforces this.
Since March, China has stepped up its patrols near the Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea and doubled down on its maritime claims in the South China Sea, sending vessels to linger off the coasts of Indonesia, Malaysia, and Vietnam.
It then spurred a deadly border clash with India, in what was the first use of force abroad from the Chinese military in over 30 years. Beyond its immediate neighbourhood, the same hostility was discernible. When Australia called for an independent investigation into the origins of the pandemic, Beijing issued a harsh rebuke and imposed trade sanctions on them. There are suggestions the recent cyberattacks against Australian government servers and businesses were also engineered by China.
Even on a diplomatic level, the shackles are off. No longer are there international measures that must be adhered to. The US’ adversaries are no longer the worlds adversaries. And China is operating shrewdly with that in mind. The fact that Iran and China have quietly drafted a sweeping economic and security partnership that would clear the way for billions of dollars of Chinese investments in energy and other sectors, which flagrantly undercuts the Trump administration’s efforts to isolate the Iranian government, only fortifies this.
So, China has essentially gone from prudent and discreet to bold and domineering, in what is a marked shift, which observers state is a point in case that China is done biding its time. It sees a window of opportunity because of the lack of a global hegemon and wants to actively display to the world what Chinese dominance looks like.
But just how distinguished a role China will play could depend massively on what unfolds in the US election in November, which is why China will be meticulously observing who emerges victorious and enters the White House.
The Biden factor:
A close inspection of the Democratic nominee Joe Biden’s historical sentiments on China reflect a warm receptiveness. As a senator, Biden supported China’s 2001 entry into the World Trade Organization, which gave it permanent normal trade relations with the US. He also served as vice-president in the Obama administration that underscored cooperation and harmony with China, to the extent Biden praised China’s ‘absolutely remarkable transformation’, in the opening session of the U.S.-China Strategic & Economic Dialogue in 2011.
But the narrative has shifted slightly. One of the few policies Biden and Trump have in common is their desire to curb China’s influence. Biden recently emphasised the need to confront ‘China’s abusive behaviours and human rights violations’. But his strategy differs significantly from Trump’s one.
Biden has accentuated his desire to operate multilaterally, with the intention of re-joining the agreements and institutions that Trump has shown a disregard for in recent years. Some observers have stipulated Biden could restore some of the principles of the rules-based liberal international order that Trump’s populist modus operandi compounded.
This methodical and systematic way of operating has the potential to generate collective pressure on China and stifle their progress. For example, the EU and the US are both uneasy about China’s ambitions, but there is no consensus nor a working relationship between them to act on such suspicions. The transatlantic alliance has been a mainstay of the political terrain for decades because of the shared commitment to the rule of law, democracy and open trade.
But Trump did not stick to the script. He was openly Eurosceptic, dismissed and exited European agreements like the Paris Climate Accord and even encouraged Brexit, which threatens to be the catalyst for the demise of the EU. Consequently, relations between the pair have soured and the distrust has amplified. Rather than unite together behind a force they see as antagonistic; they are locked in a bitter row.
China is content with a president who behaves in this unconventional and erratic way. The unilateral, eccentric and isolated US approach under the Trump administration has provided China with an ecosystem that they can flourish in. The arrival of Biden would be a return to ‘normal’ American politics in which international alliances and standards are restored. ‘When we join together with fellow democracies, our strength more than doubles’, Biden has argued. From the Chinese perspective that is not good news.
Indeed, In May, Hu Xijin, the outspoken editor of the Communist Party–run newspaper Global Times, tweeted at Trump that the Chinese ‘wish for your re-election because you can make America eccentric and thus hateful for the world. You help promote unity in China.’
That is why Trump’s tweet recently that ‘The Chinese are desperate to have Sleepy Joe Biden win the presidential race so they can continue to rip-off the United States’, appears to be imprecise. In China’s national-security circles, Trump is seen as a symptom and agent of the collapse of the US led order. He is weakening democracy at home and abroad and concurrently repelling allies, both of which fall neatly in China’s favour.
The question of China’s pre-eminence was always going to surface sooner rather than later. But Trump’s endeavours in the last four years, which were embodied during the global pandemic, only accelerated China’s rise and provided them with a unique opportunity to exploit. A Biden victory has the potential to restore the alliances and partnerships Trump obliterated which subsequently allowed China to manoeuvre freely. Ultimately, the intricacies of the international system will change, and Xi Jinping and the Chinese elite privately recognise for it to be tilted in their favour, the next piece of the puzzle is another four turbulent years of Trump.