I intended this column to focus on Elizabeth Economy’s important new book, The World According to China, which describes Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s future dominance in the world.
This book is important because it illuminates the ways in which Xi’s China aims to shape a “radically transformed” international order — by force and by other means.
But I have to take a short detour to comment on President Joe Biden’s disturbing slip of the tongue on Wednesday when speaking about a possible Russian invasion of Ukraine – because what happens between Moscow and Kyiv is bound to affect Xi Jinping’s future moves.
Biden appeared to give a green light to Russia to attack Ukraine so long as it wasn’t a full-scale invasion, saying that if it was “a minor incursion,” the allies might disagree over how to respond. The White House later tried to walk back his comments, saying any invasion would be met with a swift, united allied response.
Yet it is highly unlikely that Vladimir Putin would mount a full-scale invasion of Ukraine, since he wants to avoid heavy Russian casualties. Far more likely is a short, sharp strike to degrade Ukraine’s military followed by a swift Russian withdrawal. Or even a massive cyber and offshore missile attack on military targets with no invasion. The goal would be to show that a disunited West can’t or won’t prevent Ukraine from being forced back into the Russian orbit.
Yet, as Economy writes, this is exactly Xi’s modus operandi, an effort to establish a dominant Chinese sphere of influence across Asia, while undermining U.S. alliances in the region. A Putin success in coercing Ukraine will reverberate in Beijing.
Indeed, Beijing has accelerated its efforts to seize what it claims are its sovereign lands. Many Americans are familiar with Beijing’s designs on democratic Taiwan. But fewer Americans are aware of China’s designs on islands claimed by Japan, undersea gas and oil claimed by Indonesia, territorial waters claimed by five countries bordering the South China Sea, and on border territories in India and Bhutan.
China has nibbled bit by bit to restore its “sovereignty” to these territories, taking land and seizing South China Sea atolls that it turns into military bases — without any serious pushback from Washington or its Asian allies. Beijing has shown utter disregard for international legal judgments not in its favor.
So if Putin can smash Ukraine via cyber attacks and missiles without a fierce united NATO response, why shouldn’t Xi imagine he can soon do the same to Taiwan?
China seeks to become the supreme power in East and Southeast Asia, writes Economy. Xi also aims to expand China’s sphere of influence far beyond Asia by using economic power to “induce and coerce compliance with his vision.”
“In Xi’s vision,” she adds, in Foreign Affairs magazine, “a unified China would be on par with or would surpass” the United States, become “the preeminent power” in East and South Asia. It would also control the East and South China Seas and send the United States retreating back across the Pacific. Note: That vision is unlikely to happen anytime soon, but it can’t be discounted.
But what is even more scary is Xi’s use of China’s massive economic heft and technological advances for coercion. “Xi ably uses China’s economic power to induce compliance with his vision,” Economy says.
Through Xi’s Belt and Road initiative (known as BRI), China has spread its influence through Africa, South America, Central Asia, and, yes, Europe via massive infrastructure projects. These range from ports to railways and bases, to fiber-optic cables, e-payment systems, and satellites.
Yes, as Economy notes, many developing countries complain about corrupt Chinese behavior and have trouble paying back their debts to Beijing. But numerous security experts believe China will ultimately convert delinquent loans for ports into taking ownership of potential military bases in strategic locations across the globe.
Moreover, Beijing has massive investments in ports and other infrastructure around the Mediterranean (including a majority stake in Piraeus port in Greece), which gives it political leverage when the European Union considers penalties for Chinese aggression.
Case in point: China has exerted severe economic pressure on Lithuania because it opened a Taiwan office (not an embassy) in Vilnius, the Lithuanian capital, even warning large multinational companies not to invest in Lithuania lest they also be punished. The European Union has still not fully backed up Lithuania against Chinese blackmail.
If you read only one chapter in Economy’s book, read “From Bricks to Bits.” When it comes to technology, China is in hot competition to build “the world’s new technological backbone,” from satellites to global 5G systems for super-fast internet.
And China is trying hard to promote new rules in multilateral institutions for global internet and satellites that endorse its approach of state controls of information flows.
If Xi’s dreams come true, Economy contends, “the system of U.S. alliances that have underpinned the international system for more than 70 years” would be dissolved “in favor of a proposed Chinese framework that favored state controls and repression over individual freedoms, including rules for the global internet, cyber, and safety in space.”
None of this is preordained. But so much depends on whether Americans can grasp how our disunity encourages adversaries abroad by crippling our democracy. As The World According to China makes clear, Xi Jinping is eagerly feasting on America’s disarray.