Does Beijing now prefer to be feared rather than loved?

October 07, 2021 06:00
Photo: Reuters

In October 2017, Chinese leader Xi Jinping delivered an hourslong address at a Communist party congress in which he made a key prediction: that China would move “closer to center stage” in the world.

Today, China is close to dominating the world stage.

Recent global matters – the Taliban triumph in Afghanistan, the AUKUS nuclear submarine deal, the Quad summit in the White House and the virtually simultaneous release of Huawei executive Meng Wanzhou in Canada and two Canadians in China – all see China deeply involved, even when its name isn’t mentioned.

When the United States withdrew from Afghanistan after 20 years of war, who did the Taliban think of as their likely supporter? Why China, of course.

The Taliban spokesman, Suhail Shaheen, hailed China as Afghanistan’s “great neighbor.” The South China Morning Post quoted Shaheen as saying that the Taliban was “ready to exchange views with China” on “mutual relations, establishing peace in the region, and its assistance in the reconstruction of Afghanistan.”

In mid-September, Australia, the United Kingdom and the United States announced an agreement under which Australia would acquire nuclear powered submarines. The joint announcement did not mention any other country, but there was an assumption that it was designed to counter China’s growing influence, an assumption China evidently shared.

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian denounced the accord. Among other things, he said that a regional mechanism should not target a third party.

His boss, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, has coined the term “Anglo-Saxon clique” to describe the three countries.

Australia has been targeted by China ever since it proposed an independent investigation into the origins of the Covid-19 virus. China accounts for 40 percent of Australia’s exports, so Canberra is vulnerable to economic pressure.

China doesn’t seem to appreciate that AUKUS and other groupings such as the Quad are reactions to its rising military power and aggressive diplomacy. Instead, it depicts itself as the victim.

The Quad – Australia, Japan, India and the United States – held a summit in Washington little more than a week after the AUKUS deal.

These countries have been talking at various levels on and off since 2007. What drew them together was concern over what China was doing and what it might do in future.

After their White House summit September 24, a joint statement was issued that cited issues discussed, including distribution of Covid-19 vaccines, the climate crisis, mapping the region’s infrastructure needs and regional security, which “has become ever more complex.”

China did not feature in the statement. Nonetheless, Foreign Ministry spokesperson Hua Chunying denounced the four for “insinuating China with the so-called ‘rules-based order,’ playing up and inciting the so-called ‘China threat’ theory, and driving a wedge between regional countries and China.”

The following day, Meng Wanzhou, the Huawei executive who had been held in Canada since December 2018 pending extradition to the United States, made a deal with the U.S. Justice Department. She admitted to misleading HSBC about the nature of Huawei’s relationship with a company that did business in Iran and admitted that Huawei’s business dealings violated US sanctions against Tehran. She was then freed.

Meng returned to a tumultuous welcome in China. Official media used her to fan nationalistic flames, saying that the Communist party and government looked after Chinese citizens who were bullied overseas.

“It is China’s national power that shaped this final result,” the China Daily editorialized. “A country will be surrounded with more troubles as it gets stronger, but only a strong country can enable us to deal with those troubles with dignity.”

Chinese media was largely silent on the plight of two Canadians, Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who were arrested within days of Meng’s detention and held on espionage charges. Widely regarded as hostages, they were released as soon as Meng was homeward bound.

Chinese officials wouldn’t say that the timing was coincidental. Instead, they are implying a prisoner swap, pointing out that the Meng case was discussed by the Chinese and American presidents in their phone conversation September 9.

By doing so, China undermines the American-Canadian position that they were operating under legal procedures.

In mid-2021, the Pew Research Center reported that China’s image in 17 advanced economies, including Canada, remained broadly negative.

This failure of Chinese soft power may well have pushed Beijing to focus on national power where the West is concerned.

This is in a way confirmed by the French military institution IRSEM, the Military School Strategic Research Institute. The key finding in a recent study on China’s influence operations was that China has, in a “self-defeating Machiavellian turn,” adopted the 16th century political philosopher’s admonition that “it is preferable to be feared than to be loved.”

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Frank Ching opened The Wall Street Journal’s Bureau in China in 1979. He is now a Hong Kong-based writer on Chinese affairs.