"Through all the changes in China and the changes in our perceptions of China, there has been one constant. We understand that America has a profound stake in what happens in China and how China relates to the rest of the world."
President Bill Clinton was exactly right when he said those words to support China's accession to the World Trade Organization in 2000. But he was exactly wrong in assuming – as were his predecessors and successors – that supporting China’s economic liberalization would lead to political liberalization.
The point was punctuated this week when we learned that all that remains between President Xi Jinping and total, dictatorial control over an increasingly assertive China is a single vote on a constitutional amendment in the National People's Congress — which is not only stacked with Xi loyalists, but has never voted down a proposal from its Communist Party leaders. Once adopted, the Chinese constitution will no longer limit its president to two terms. Xi Jinping will become "emperor for life," as his biographer Willy Lam put it.
This new political reality coincides with another new reality gaining traction in US policy circles. Namely, that China is increasingly a competitor and adversary, rather than a potential strategic partner, of the United States.
Beginning with President Nixon’s opening to China and continuing through the administration of Barack Obama, US policy rested on the hope that opening up China’s economy would open up its polity. Instead, China took the prosperity and left the human rights. When given global space, it secured geopolitical footholds. The Trump administration's National Security Strategy is the first such document to say so: "For decades, US policy was rooted in the belief that support for China’s rise and for its integration into the post-war international order would liberalize China. Contrary to our hopes, China expanded its power at the expense of the sovereignty of others."
Now, China is on course to become the United States' largest near-peer military rival since the Soviet Union. It gathers, steals, and exploits data on an unprecedented scale. Its massive investments in transnational infrastructure enlarge its global footprint while filling a vacuum left by a United States that increasingly abdicates its global leadership role. And, instead of using new technology to free its people, it uses it to surveil and control them. As FBI director Christopher Wray said, China is "not just a whole of government threat, but a whole of society threat."
What remains to be seen is where this new reality takes us. Do we fall into the Thucydides Trap of war between new and old powers Graham Allison warned about; enter a new era of Responsible Competition, as Thomas Wright suggests; or adopt our painfully familiar Middle East strategy and simply muddle through with waning influence?
One thing is clear: "The starting point for a better approach is a new degree of humility about the United States’ ability to change China," as Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner write in the latest issue in Foreign Affairs. They’re right. And US policy will need to adjust accordingly.
As always, I welcome your thoughts and comments.
Jane Perlez and Javier C. Hernández / The New York Times
“He will have no limits on his power,” Beijing analyst Wu Qiang said, referring to President Xi Jinping’s efforts to extend his rule to a third term. Xi has been the head of China’s Communist Party since 2013, and during the intervening years has pushed the country toward becoming a top global power at the expense of free speech coupled with dissident imprisonment and a vise-grip on economic reforms. The move comes as Xi has proclaimed an era of China’s greatness, when the country, he says, will take what he sees as its rightful place as a top global power. Already, it is establishing military bases in the Western Pacific and Africa, building infrastructure across Asia, parts of Europe and Africa, and running what Xi hopes will be the world’s No. 1 economy within two decades or sooner.
Erica Pandey / Axios
As the rest of the world, first and foremost the United States, has decreased its Foreign Direct Investment in Latin America and the Caribbean over the past decade, China has stepped in. The China Development Bank has surpassed lending from the World Bank and Inter-American Development Bank, from which US loans flow, to several South American countries, including Brazil. Based on these trends, China is well on its way to becoming the world’s largest investor, according to Brookings expert David Dollar.
James Goldgeier / War on the Rocks
With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the Brexit vote, the rise of authoritarianism in Central Europe, and the continuing challenges of maintaining the Eurozone, the vision of a Europe whole, free, and at peace no longer serves meaningfully as a framework for America's Europe policy. James Goldgeier believes the United States should reformulate its strategy for Europe along two tracks: Work with Europe to contain Russian aggression, and create a division of labor wherein America focuses on the rise of China while Europe takes on a larger role vis-à-vis Eastern Europe and the Middle East and North Africa.
Armed with the recent Special Prosecutor's indictment of 13 Kremlin-linked agents, the Economist delves deep into what is known of the tactics and effects of Russian influence campaigns, and what might be done to counter them. The indictment, it argues, “is an unprecedentedly thorough, forensic account of a scheme that was of a piece with the covert propaganda and influence operations Putin now wages against democracies around the world. Sometimes, these interventions seek to advance immediate foreign-policy goals. They also have a broader, long-term aim: weakening Western democracies by undermining trust in institutions and dividing their citizens against each other.”
Frederic C. Hof / The Atlantic
Frederic Hof states plainly that any discussion of “what to do” in response to Bashar al-Assad’s continuing slaughter in Syria’s Eastern Ghouta that doesn’t seriously consider military strikes is “empty.” The Assad regime has learned that it can get away with any atrocity short of using nerve agents, and recently has begun weaponizing chlorine gas. In April 2017, Hof urged the Trump administration to send a message to Russia – who bolsters Assad – that the US reserves the right to strike “when and where we choose if the mass murder continues.” Sadly, this message seems not to have been passed, Hof concludes.
Steven A. Cook / Foreign Policy
The overarching message of Rex Tillerson’s recent Middle Eastern tour was that the US will “privilege interests over values in the region.” This stance more closely resembles late 20th century Washington thinking than the policies of the previous two administrations. Instead of nation-building and refereeing between allies, Cook argues the Trump administration is taking the US policy back to Middle East basics: fighting terrorism, containing Iran, and supporting Israel.
Timothy Garton Ash / The Guardian
The March 4 referendum of the German Social Democrats will bring a turning point for Europe, writes Timothy Garton Ash. Conventional wisdom says a "yes" result, affirming a grand coalition government with Angela Merkel’s Christian Democrats, will be a good result for Europe. But Ash cautions that history shows a grand coalition of the main center-left and main center-right parties tends to strengthen the extremes. He argues that, while the experiment of a minority government would create some uncertainties in the short term, it could be better for German democracy, and Europe on the whole, in the long run.
George Parker and Alex Barker / The Financial Times
Theresa May’s cabinet compromise on Brexit has failed to convince European leaders outside of Chequers Court. Irish Prime Minister Leo Varadkar called it a “have cake and eat it” strategy while Donald Tusk, president of the European Council said, “I am afraid that the UK position on the debate is based on pure illusion.” The primary issue for British politicians lies in keeping access to the EU’s single market without remaining under its legal jurisdiction or paying into its budget. This is perceived in Brussels as an unworkable “pick-and-mix” approach, but up to this point, negative feedback from EU officials hasn’t deterred Britain from pursuing a bespoke trade deal.
Charles Grant / The Financial Times
The time has come for Theresa May to soften her “red lines” on issues such as immigration restrictions, budget contributions, the European Court of Justice, and the customs union to realistically reach a Brexit deal, argues Charles Grant, director of the Centre for European Reform. May could aspire to a “Canada plus” model, composed of more provisions on services and some industrial sectors ending up close to the single market, but she must acknowledge that painful trade-offs cannot be avoided.
Kevin Sieff / The Washington Post
Cape Town is running out of water, and the crisis has highlighted the vast divide between rich and poor. For the wealthy, it means hiring companies to dig boreholes and wells. For the poor, it means waiting to see what the government comes up with, and contemplating whether you can afford to cut back on food to buy water. This piece of excellent reporting from the Washington Post shares the stories and voices of those affected by inequality in Cape Town, and of the public officials in charge of responding to the city's water crisis.