If Xi Jinping stays on his present path, open conflict with the West, and with India and Japan, will become inevitable
Brahma Chellaney Brahma Chellaney | 03 Dec, 2021
(Illustration: Saurabh Singh)
Under President Xi Jinping, China has emerged as an angry, expansionist power that pursues “wolf-warrior” tactics and debt-trap diplomacy and flouts international law at will. For example, by riding roughshod over a 1998 bilateral treaty committing China “not to resort to unilateral action to alter the status quo of the border,” Xi’s expansionism has not spared Bhutan, one of the world’s smallest and least-populated nations, with just 778,000 people.
Meanwhile, the international costs of Xi’s despotism are apparent from the devastating consequences of the China-originating Covid-19 pandemic. Two years later, we still do not know whether the pandemic began as a natural spillover from wildlife or was triggered by the accidental leak of a lab-enhanced virus. What is apparent, though, is that Xi’s regime lied about the initial spread of the disease, hid evidence of human-to-human transmission, and silenced doctors who sought to warn about the emergence of a novel coronavirus.
More ominously, there has been a massive cover-up in China to obscure the truth on the genesis of the Covid-19 virus. With Xi’s regime having meticulously covered up the origins of the virus, the world may never know the full truth.
Today, calls are growing in the democratic world to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics from February 4th, with critics labelling them the “Genocide Games”. US President Joe Biden has said the White House is considering a diplomatic boycott of the Beijing Winter Olympics—that is, not sending officials to the games but allowing athletes to compete.
The parallels between Xi’s China and Hitler’s Germany appear unmistakable. Xi’s expansionism, like Hitler’s, may be unstoppable without military defeat. Xi’s gulag in Xinjiang represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period. Just as appeasement emboldened Hitler’s expansionism, leading to his invasion of Poland and the start of World War II, the international failure to impose tangible costs on Xi’s China for aggression is likely to beget more aggression
The issue at stake concerning the forthcoming Winter Olympics is straightforward: Should Xi and the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) be put on notice for aggressive actions in breach of international law at home and abroad? These actions include swallowing Hong Kong, redrawing the geopolitical map of the South China Sea by force, changing the territorial status quo in the Himalayan borderlands with India, Nepal and Bhutan, and establishing a Muslim gulag in Xinjiang.
The gulag in Xinjiang, which holds more than one million detainees, constitutes a direct attack on Islam. Yet, like their other despotic or expansionist actions, Xi and his inner circle have remained untouched by the Western sanctions over the Xinjiang gulag (which Washington acknowledges constitutes genocide), even though the 1948 Genocide Convention requires its parties, which include the US, to “prevent and punish” acts of genocide.
Should China’s rogue actions not only go unpunished but also the international community avoid taking any step, however modest, to register its protest? Beijing is about to become the first city to host both a Summer and Winter Olympics. But the human-rights situation in China today is worse than it was in 2008, when the Beijing Summer Olympics were held.
It cannot be anybody’s case that the world should turn a blind eye to such worsening of internal conditions and to China’s overseas onslaught, including territorial aggression against its neighbours and trapping small states in debt through largely one-sided loan contracts designed to wrest political and economic concessions. The latest success of China’s debt-trap diplomacy relates to Uganda’s sole international airport.
In this light, if the Beijing Winter Olympics were held without any censure of the Xi regime’s conduct, it would be an insult to every Uighur, every Tibetan, every jailed Hong Kong democracy activist, and every imprisoned Chinese political dissident. In fact, once the Winter Olympics are over, Xi could embark on fresh repressive or expansionist actions, including against Taiwan.
Make no mistake: If Xi and the CCP stay on their present path, open conflict with the West and with China’s neighbours, including India and Japan, would become inevitable. China is already locked in military standoffs with India since May 2020, when India, to its shock, discovered that Chinese forces had stealthily encroached on areas in Ladakh. These standoffs carry the seeds of the world’s next big conflict.
Against this background, the question is: Should steps be taken now by important democracies to put Xi and the CCP on notice and perhaps even hold them accountable? If the world remained in fear of Xi’s dictatorship and did nothing, it would ensure the rise of a rampaging monster.
HOW THE US AIDED THE RISE OF AN EXPANSIONIST CHINA
An impoverished, backward state in 1949, China has risen dramatically and now commands respect and awe in the world. In September 2018, China’s communist system marked a milestone, surpassing the Soviet Union in longevity. China is the world’s longest-surviving autocracy.
But such success of the CCP has come at great cost to the Chinese people. China’s blood-soaked history under the CCP stands out starkly. Thought control, censorship and propaganda remain central to the CCP’s continued hold on power. Despite China’s transformative economic change, the iron underpinnings of a repressive, one-party state have only grown stronger.
At the same time, the future of CCP rule has become more uncertain than ever. After all, China faces a worrisome paradox: Because of its opaque, repressive system, the more it globalises, the more vulnerable it becomes internally.
It was on December 29th, 1978 that the CCP, under its new paramount leader Deng Xiaoping, decided to subordinate ideology to wealth creation, spawning a new aphorism, “To get rich is glorious”. The party’s central committee, disavowing Mao Zedong’s thought as dogma, released the official communiqué from its third plenary session to announce the launch of “socialist modernization” from 1979 onward. The party embraced a principle that became Deng’s oft-quoted dictum, “Seek truth from facts”.
Mao’s death earlier in 1976 had triggered a vicious and protracted power struggle. When the diminutive Deng—once described by Mao as a “needle inside a ball of cotton”—finally emerged victorious at the age of 74, he hardly looked like an agent of reform.
But having been purged twice from the party during the Mao years—including once for proclaiming during the 1960s that “it doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice”—Deng seized the opportunity to usher in transformative change. The Four Modernizations programme under Deng drastically transformed China, including spurring its phenomenal economic rise.
When history is written, the Trump-initiated paradigm shift in China policy will be seen as his administration’s most lasting legacy. While thus far hewing largely to the Trump administration’s China policy, Biden’s approach, however, is softer. Whereas Trump launched an ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy, Biden has assured Xi that the US will not seek to change China’s political system. No wonder Xi has referred to Biden as his ‘old friend’
However, one key factor is often overlooked internationally: China’s rise as the global export juggernaut was greatly aided by US policy. Once Deng unveiled his “socialist modernization” plan, then-US President Jimmy Carter sent a memo to various American government departments instructing them to assist in China’s rise. In the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalise economically and politically, that policy approach remained in effect for decades.
Yet, no sooner had Deng embarked on reshaping China’s economic trajectory than he set out to “teach a lesson” to Vietnam, in the way Mao sought to teach India a lesson in 1962. The February-March 1979 military attack occurred just days after Deng—the “nasty little man”, as Henry Kissinger once called him—became the first Chinese communist leader to visit Washington.
A decade after his Vietnam invasion, Deng brutally crushed a student-led, pro-democracy movement at home. He ordered the tank and machine-gun assault that came to be known as the Tiananmen Square massacre, in which hundreds, perhaps thousands, of demonstrators and bystanders perished. According to a British government estimate, at least 10,000 people were massacred.
Still, the US continued to assist China’s economic modernisation. Aiding China’s economic rise became integral to US foreign policy under successive presidents. For example, rather than sustain trade sanctions against China after the Tiananmen Square massacre, the US decided instead to effectively condone the killings and integrate the country into global institutions.
America’s policy towards communist China has actually traversed four stages. In the first phase, the US courted Mao’s regime, despite the Korean War, China’s annexation of Tibet, and domestic witch hunts, such as the Hundred Flowers Campaign. Courtship gave way to estrangement during the second phase, as US policy for much of the 1960s sought to isolate China.
The third phase began immediately after the 1969 Sino-Soviet military clashes, with the US actively working to exploit the rift in the communist world by aligning China with its anti-Soviet strategy. Although China clearly instigated the bloody border clashes, America sided with Mao’s regime. That helped to lay the groundwork for the China “opening” of 1970-71, engineered by US National Security Advisor (NSA) Henry Kissinger, who until then had no knowledge of China.
This third phase lasted 45 years during which the US not only actively aided China’s rise but also embraced a “one-China” policy, including loosening its once-close links with Taiwan, with no US cabinet member visiting that island democracy for decades. In this period, the US also condoned China’s other provocative actions, including firing of missiles into the Taiwan Strait in 1996.
Although Deng still gets the sole credit in Western commentaries, China’s spectacular economic success, including raking up the world’s largest trade surplus and foreign-currency reserves, owed much to US policy from the 1970s on. Without the significant expansion in US-Chinese trade and financial relations, China’s growth would have been much slower and more difficult to sustain.
In this lengthy period, the US and China first became allies of convenience during the second half of the Cold War before emerging as partners tied by interdependence. America depended on China’s trade surpluses and savings to finance its outsize budget deficits, while China relied on its huge exports to the US to sustain its economic growth and finance its military modernisation. By ploughing more than two-thirds of its mammoth foreign-currency reserves into US dollar-denominated assets, China also gained significant political leverage over America.
Ironically, China’s growing might in this period aided American interests beyond the economic realm. It helped America to validate its forward military deployments in Asia, maintain existing allies in the region, and win new strategic partners. Indeed, an increasingly assertive China became a diplomatic boon for the US in strengthening and expanding its Asian security relationships.
For example, South Korea beefed up its military alliance with the US; Japan backed away from an effort to persuade the US to move its Marine base out of Okinawa; Singapore allowed the US Navy to station ships; Australia agreed to host US Marine and other deployments; and India, Vietnam, Indonesia and the Philippines, among others, drew closer to the US. In this period, the US sought to maintain a balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region with the help of strategic allies and partners, while continuing to accommodate a rising China.
The fourth phase in US policy began under President Donald Trump. In the words of then-Vice President Mike Pence, “the previous administrations all but ignored China’s actions. And in many cases, they abetted them. But those days are over.” When history is written, the Trump-initiated paradigm shift in China policy will be seen as his administration’s most lasting legacy.
Washington is more polarised and divided than ever before. Yet, in this environment, a bipartisan consensus has emerged since the Trump years that the decades-old US policy of “constructive engagement” with China has failed and must be replaced with active and concrete counteraction.
Ash Carter, who served as President Barack Obama’s last defence secretary, underlined the bipartisan consensus in a 2018 Harvard University essay, saying: “Washington since the end of the Cold War has often backed down in the face of Chinese bullying… China has violated core international norms time and again with little repercussions beyond scolding American speeches.” Carter recommended that “when China behaves inappropriately on the international stage, the US must firmly push back and stand up for the principles of international order.”
THE ESSENCE OF THE new policy approach since the Trump presidency is that the US will no longer enable China’s rise. In fact, China’s rapid rise has helped dispel two major US-perpetuated myths.
The first myth is that sustained economic growth, by unleashing market forces, would help engender political liberalism. The Nixon-Kissinger policy approach was founded on this myth. The CCP indeed sees liberalism as a mortal threat to its existence and has actually gone in the opposite direction—towards greater centralisation and control, including building a massive security apparatus. Capitalism with Chinese characteristics, with its arbitrary and brutal exercise of power, epitomises heartless illiberalism.
China’s rise as the global export juggernaut was greatly aided by US policy. Once Deng unveiled his ‘socialist modernization’ plan, then-US President Jimmy Carter sent a memo to American government departments instructing them to assist in China’s rise. In the naïve hope that a more prosperous China would liberalise economically and politically, that policy approach remained in effect for decades
The second myth is that sustained economic growth reduces inequality. Rapid economic growth has reduced absolute poverty in China but made the country one of the world’s most unequal nations, as highlighted by data from the World Inequality Database.
Today, all eyes are on the policy approach of US President Joe Biden. Biden’s administration inherited a coherent, comprehensive and realistic strategy on China, as enunciated in the US Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific—a policy document declassified by the Trump administration just before leaving office.
The policy document emphasised the imperative to contain China within the “first island chain” that runs from the Japanese archipelago, through Taiwan, the Philippines, and on to Borneo, enclosing China’s coastal seas. It gave India pride of place in US strategy, saying a “strong India” will serve as a “counterbalance to China”. It thus committed to “accelerate India’s rise and capacity to serve as a net provider of security”.
It is unclear when Biden will make his long-delayed China strategy speech laying out his approach to a country that is a military, economic and technological challenge on a scale the US has not faced before. While thus far hewing largely to the Trump administration’s China policy, Biden’s approach, however, is softer.
For example, whereas the Trump administration launched an ideological offensive against China as a predatory communist state without political legitimacy or the rule of law, Biden has assured Xi that the US will not seek to change China’s political system. No wonder Xi has referred to Biden as his “old friend”.
In fact, by repeatedly stressing the importance of establishing “guardrails” to avoid US-China conflict, Biden presents the US—the stronger power—as more anxious than the weaker power to avert conflict.
Biden has said he welcomes “stiff competition” with China. But China sees the US as a foe, not as a mere competitor, with the top Chinese diplomat, Yang Jiechi, saying after a recent meeting with Jake Sullivan, Biden’s NSA, that he objected to any description of the US-China relationship as “competitive”. Team Biden has claimed that the US-China relationship is based on “competitive coexistence”.
If gross domestic product (GDP) is measured in terms of purchasing power parity (PPP), China’s economy is already larger than America’s, according to the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and the World Bank. Yet, more than four decades after it initiated economic reform and started opening up to foreign capital and influence, China finds itself at a crossroads.
With its global image badly dented, China appears largely friendless, forcing it to rely on its brute power. A mid-2021 Pew survey found that unfavourable international views of China are at or near historic highs. Large majorities in most of the advanced economies have broadly negative views of China.
Add to the picture another fact: Many economies have learned hard lessons since last year about China-dependent supply chains. Meanwhile, in China, the spectre of international isolation and supply disruptions has prompted Beijing to embark on plans to hoard mammoth state reserves of crude oil, strategic metals and farm goods under its new five-year plan that began this year.
Xi’s muscular revisionism, for its part, has counterproductively set in motion greater strategic cooperation among democratic powers. This includes the growing strategic collaboration among the Indo-Pacific region’s four key democratic powers—the US, Japan, Australia and India—that constitute the Quad grouping. Even the European Union is seeking to play a bigger role in the Indo-Pacific.
IS XI CHINA’S HITLER?
Mao led the CCP to power, Deng opened the path to making the country prosperous, and Xi seems determined to help China achieve global hegemony. In seeking China’s global primacy by the 2049 centenary of communist rule, Xi has already set out to upend the present US-designed international system through a parallel order of Chinese making, with his regime aiming to set the rules and terms of engagement.
Robert C O’Brien, while serving as NSA to Trump, had said, “Xi sees himself as Joseph Stalin’s successor.” Many others have compared Xi to Adolf Hitler, even coining the nickname “Xitler”. But it is Mao—the People’s Republic of China’s founding father, and the 20th century’s most prolific butcher—to whom Xi bears the closest resemblance.
For starters, Xi has cultivated a Mao-style personality cult. In 2017, the CCP enshrined in its constitution a new political doctrine: “Xi Jinping Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era”. The ideology is inspired by Lenin, Stalin and Mao, but its inclusion in the CCP’s constitution makes Xi the third Chinese leader—after Mao and Deng—to be mentioned in the document.
Now, Xi is working to complete the expansionist agenda that Mao left unfinished. Mao’s China annexed Xinjiang and Tibet, more than doubling the country’s territory and making it the world’s fourth-largest nation by area. Its annexation of resource-rich Tibet, in particular, represented one of the most far-reaching geopolitical developments in post-World War II history, not least because it gave China common borders with India, Nepal, Bhutan and northernmost Myanmar.
Xi actually seems to be a triad (“trimurti”) of Hitler, Stalin and Mao, embodying the personalities of the 20th century’s three most brutal rulers. With Xi’s new CCP-conferred title—renmin lingxiu, or “people’s leader”, a designation associated with Mao—China now has one Führer and one ideology.
Machiavelli famously wrote: “It is better to be feared than loved”. But Xi seems to believe that it is better to be hated than loved. Xi’s actions have alienated many of China’s neighbours and invited an international pushback. But as long as the costs remain manageable, Xi will stay on his present course, with his regime employing influence operations to help exploit internal divisions in important democracies.
Xi’s techno-authoritarian state is increasingly oriented to the CCP’s primacy. Its overriding focus on domestic order explains one little-noticed fact: China’s budget for internal security is larger than even its official military budget, which has grown rapidly to eclipse the defence spending of all other powers except the US.
Key democracies must get their act together before it is too late, including reconciling their strategies and devising ways to stem Xi’s expansionism. Their vision needs to be concretised and translated into a concerted approach backed with strategic heft. Otherwise, Xi will continue employing China’s brute might to advance his expansionism. A coordinated boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics by important democracies will put Xi and the CCP on notice that they must halt their roguish actions
Xi’s increasingly repressive internal machinery, aided by a creeping Orwellian surveillance system, has fostered an overt state strategy to culturally smother ethnic minorities in their traditional homelands, including through demographic change and harsh policing. Xi is ramping up his campaign to assimilate China’s population of 6.3 million Tibetans.
Indeed, emboldened by the muted international response, Xi is now replicating his Xinjiang-style crackdown, including on cultural and religious practices, in other areas populated by ethnic minorities. Untrammelled repression, even if effective in achieving short-term political objectives, could sow the seeds of violent insurgencies and upheavals.
More broadly, Xi’s regime, by showing little regard for the rights of smaller countries as it does for Chinese citizens’ rights, is driving instability in the vast Indo-Pacific region. Nothing better illustrates Xi’s expansionism than his South China Sea grab. No sooner had Xi consolidated his power at home than his regime began pushing China’s borders far out into international waters by pressing dredgers into service for building artificial islands in the South China Sea. The islands, created on top of shallow reefs, have now become forward military bases.
But thanks to Xi’s increasingly aggressive international posture, the global factors that aided China’s rise have eroded. In fact, then-Japanese Defence Minister Taro Kono declared last year that the “consensus in the international community” is that China must be “made to pay a high price” for its muscular revisionism in the South and East China Seas, the Himalayas and Hong Kong. The changing international environment also holds important implications for China domestically, including the CCP’s monopoly on power.
Xi, despite ending the party-led collective leadership system to crown himself China’s new emperor, no longer looks invincible. This is apparent from the fact that he has not set foot outside China for nearly two years and skipped even the recent G20 summit in Rome. Biden sought an in-person bilateral summit with Xi, but Xi agreed to just an online meeting.
Is it the fear of a coup in his absence that is dissuading Xi from leaving China? There are some reports of an intensifying power struggle within the CCP. If true, this would suggest that—despite China’s return to an era of one-man rule—Xi may not be omnipotent and unassailable, especially given the number of enemies he has made at home.
Nevertheless, the parallels between Xi’s China and Hitler’s Germany appear unmistakable. Xi’s expansionism, like Hitler’s, may be unstoppable without military defeat. Xi’s gulag in Xinjiang indeed represents the largest mass incarceration of people on religious grounds since the Nazi period.
Instead of learning from Hitler’s mistakes, Xi may be making similar blunders. For example, Xi is sapping China’s strength by opening too many fronts in his aggressive quest for Chinese dominance. Vaulting or uncontrolled ambitions tend to be self-destructive.
However—just as appeasement by other powers emboldened Hitler’s expansionism, leading to his invasion of Poland and the start of World War II—the international failure to impose tangible costs on Xi’s China for aggression is likely to beget more aggression. China may be facing a less-friendly global environment today but the international rhetoric has not translated into action. Indeed, the present business-as-usual approach to China is tantamount to appeasement.
There is real danger that, encouraged by Biden’s shift towards a more conciliatory approach towards China, Xi could move against Taiwan, whose incorporation he recently called a “historic mission”.
If Xi perceives that China has a window of opportunity to act during the Biden presidency without inviting a major blowback, he will likely employ military force. Indeed, the probability of a surprise Chinese invasion will be greater if Biden is seen as lacking the strategic vision and political will to defend Taiwan against an attack.
If the US were to put up with a Chinese conquest of Taiwan, it would make the same fatal mistake as the participants of the 1938 Munich Conference who, yielding to Hitler, transferred the predominantly German-speaking Sudetenland from Czechoslovakia to Germany. That concession paved the way for World War II.
Against this background, the key democracies must get their act together before it is too late, including reconciling their strategies and devising ways to stem Xi’s expansionism. Their vision needs to be concretised and translated into a concerted approach backed with strategic heft. Otherwise, Xi will continue employing China’s brute might to advance his expansionism.
China remains essentially a lonely rising power. It has no strategic allies other than a quasi-failed Pakistan. Another failing state, North Korea, is an estranged ally of China. By contrast, democracies can employ a joint, concerted response as a weapon against China. The US already leads the largest alliance of countries the world has ever known. The US needs to co-opt all important democracies outside its alliance system, including India, South Africa and Brazil.
A coordinated boycott of the forthcoming Beijing Winter Olympics by important democracies will put Xi and the CCP on notice that they must halt their roguish actions. A boycott will clearly convey to the Chinese people that the CCP’s scofflaw actions at home and abroad risk isolating China.
But if the response of democracies is largely symbolic, it will only highlight a lack of resolve. Indeed, a symbolic response will be a victory for Xi because the public attention will be on the athletic competition, not on the participation of foreign officials in ceremonies. That, in turn, will further embolden Xi’s renegade actions at home and abroad.
Let us be clear: The CCP has long mixed sport and politics. It boycotted the 1956 Summer Olympics in Melbourne, Australia. As America’s de facto ally in the second half of the Cold War, China joined the US-led boycott of the 1980 Summer Olympics in Moscow—an action that led the Soviet Union and its Eastern Bloc allies to boycott the 1984 Los Angeles Olympic Games in a tit-for-tat retribution.
Beijing, defeating Almaty, won the bid in 2015 to host the 2022 Winter Olympics. Since then, Xi’s regime has, among other things, changed the facts in the South China Sea, established a Muslim gulag, militarised the Himalayan borderlands, weaponised debt and gobbled up Hong Kong. The least democratic powers can do is to boycott the Beijing Winter Olympics.
Such action could help galvanise a larger international movement against Xi’s regime, if not trigger a “boycott China” movement along the lines of the sustained global boycott that helped end the Apartheid system in South Africa.
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