The China threat: Theory or reality?

February 26, 2018 15:39
China's forceful campaign to convince other countries that they have nothing to worry about has only caused more suspicions. Photo: Reuters

China's rapid growth and increasingly assertive behavior are causing alarm in many parts of the world, but Beijing continues to ridicule what it calls "the China threat theory," telling the rest of the world that it has nothing to worry about.

But the way China is sending that message is in itself worrying. With Japan, for instance, Beijing is indicating that improved bilateral relations would only come about if the Japanese stopped considering China a possible threat.

The latest Japanese defense white paper, published last August, said that China, "while advocating 'peaceful development,' continues to act in an assertive manner, including attempts at changing the status quo by coercion based on its own assertions incompatible with the existing international order." The official state newspaper China Daily responded that relations between the two countries cannot improve if Japan regards China as a threat and continues to hold military exercises with the United States.

In February, after Daniel Coats, Director of National Intelligence, at a Senate Intelligence Committee hearing, listed Russia and China as sources of threats to the United States. A Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, Geng Shuang, dismissed his remarks, saying, "I don’t know why the United States has such a strong sense of insecurity."

The China Daily followed up with a condemnation of "the comeback of McCarthyism" in the U.S.

Even Angela Merkel has been targeted in Beijing's forceful campaign to convince other countries that there is no China threat.

The German chancellor said at a press conference that China mustn't link its investments in the western Balkans to political demands.

"I have no objections to the fact that China wants to trade and to invest," Merkel said. "We are committed to free trade, but it must be reciprocal." She added that openness must come "not just from one side but from all sides."

For insisting on reciprocity – China faces no restraints on its investments in Europe while it keeps many sectors of its own economy closed to foreigners – Merkel was accused by a China Daily editorial of "China threat rhetoric," "cold war mentality," “alarmist talk" and "political bias and prejudice against China."

China is certainly right that there is an increase in suspicions of China and its motives.

In Europe, a recently released report, "Authoritarian Advance: Responding to China’s Growing Political Influence in Europe," is a wake-up call for many regarding China’s pervasive influencing efforts within the continent. It was published by the Mercator Institute for China Studies, the largest European think tank with an exclusive focus on China.

"China’s rapidly increasing political influencing efforts in Europe and the self-confident promotion of its authoritarian ideals pose a significant challenge to liberal democracy as well as Europe’s values and interests," it warned. "China takes advantage of the one-sided openness of Europe. Europe’s gates are wide open whereas China seeks to tightly restrict access of foreign ideas, actors and capital.”

Another study, "China at the Gates: a New Power Audit of EU-China relations," by the European Council on Foreign Relations, pointed to the asymmetry in EU-China relations, with China claiming developing economy status "even as it reaches the first rank among global economies."

The problem for China is global. Australia recently proposed new legislation to crack down on foreign interference in political activity. Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull noted "disturbing reports" of Chinese influence when his government proposed the new rules which, among other things, would ban foreign political donations and identify lobbyists for foreign governments.

Even in tiny New Zealand, there is growing concern over China. Anne-Marie Brady, a China specialist at the University of Canberra, published a report last year on Chinese efforts to infiltrate New Zealand party politics, media and education. Her office on campus was broken into in December and, in February, her home was burglarized with computers, phones ad USB storage devices stolen while other valuables were left untouched. The New Zealand Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, voiced alarm and promised to look into the matter.

It matters little that the Communist Party of China is raising the volume of its propaganda campaign, asserting over and over that China is "dedicated to promoting lasting peace, universal security and common prosperity and building a community with a shared future for mankind."

The message is not the problem. The problem is what China actually does in practice. And clearly, many countries are concluding, on the basis of observing Chinese actions, that the "China threat" is much more than a theory. The latest news out of China, that the President can serve for life, is likely to exacerbate such fears.

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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.