China’s rise is not peaceful and its aggressive actions are hurting the stability of Asia. By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade
Asia has to keep in mind that the Communist Party of China (CCP) under the reign of General Secretary Xi Jinping is a Maoist regime that believes in a totalitarian ideology. A strongman in the mold of Mao Zedong, Xi’s control is not only limited to Chinese citizens but also extends to Asian countries as well. His goal is to remake the world according to the CCP through economic coercion, propaganda and influence operations. He is expanding his power at the expense of others.
A likely motivation for Xi to embark on this destructive path is that he is using Maoism to shore up his political achievement for him to continue his rule indefinitely beyond the mandated term limit which will end next year. In the absence of electoral legitimacy and having put the Chinese economy at risk, he can only play this card to whip up nationalistic fervor and portray himself as leading the “revolution” against the world.
There is no doubt that China is a superpower now and given this status, the CCP has created a perfect storm in Asia where most of the countries’ economy are so closely interconnected with that of China that there exists a symbiotic relationship. The weaker countries depend on China for financial aids, loans, market access and investment while on the other hand, the CCP coerces them into toeing the party’s line. Even private companies are expected to show sufficient loyalty to the party. No criticism is allowed from both foreign governments and the private sector.
Xi’s Maoist ideology is at odds with the open and free values espoused by many Asian countries. Universal values like democracy, human rights, pro-market forces, media independence and civic participation are threats to Xi’s control and hence, he dispatches his wolf warriors to attack, insult and tear down all forms of dissent, in defiance of civil diplomatic norms. To Xi, words are not to convey reason and persuasion but are bullets to destroy opponents.
Turning his back on economic prosperity
The previous party’s leadership starting with Deng Xiaoping in the 1980s had downplayed Mao’s red politics, was willing to play nice with the rest of the world and had therefore steered the country to economic prosperity. Back then, the world had accepted and actively engaged with China as they felt safe with its peaceful rise.
But now, Xi, since taking power in 2012, is openly challenging the established world order that has made China rich in the first place. He increases the risk of conflict by using the military to bully neighbors, threaten maritime shipping lanes, and destabilize borders. This is a disconcerting development especially in Asia where Xi’s aggressive actions have increased the tempo of military confrontation in the hotspots of South China Sea, East China Sea and Taiwan Strait.
Another issue to note is that the cost of doing business with and in China is getting higher while the returns are diminishing. The many political minefields, overarching control by the party, submission to the dictates of the party, and the risk of being perceived as losing sovereign rights added to the conventional business costs.
On the other hand, China’s economy is not doing as well as before because of the ongoing trade war with the US and other western countries. So, Asian governments and companies must look with clear eyes at all the facts in front of them and assess whether it is still in their national interest to pay a higher price while getting less economic returns.
A threat to free trade
Xi uses trade to coerce compliance with his dictates, sometimes to the detriment of the Chinese economy. When Australia requested for an independent investigation into COVID-19’s origins, the CCP banned the import of Australian coal, leading to shortages and higher prices for domestic consumers.
Critics claim Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) fosters corruption, undercuts sustainable development and creates onerous debt burdens on host countries while benefitting Chinese workers and companies. The military is using the BRI to establish more overseas bases and cooperation agreements to project power. The BRI also provides an economic leverage to bully foreign governments on unrelated political and strategic issues.
China is one of the world’s worst perpetrators of illegal, unreported, and unregulated fishing. The CCP subsidizes the world’s largest fishing fleet, including one of the largest distant-water fishing fleets operating on the high seas and in other countries’ waters. Chinese vessels routinely violate the sovereign rights and jurisdiction of other coastal countries, which is especially rampant in the South China Sea, fish without permission, and overfish licensing agreements.
Propaganda machine in overdrive
In the decade that he is in power, Xi has spent billions of dollars in overseas propaganda operations to condition public opinion to accept Beijing’s narratives. He has targeted foreign governments, multilateral political establishments, media organizations, businesses, academic institutions and think tanks, among others. Often, he pressures foreign officials, the Chinese diaspora and business interests to voice support for the CCP’s false narratives and avoid topics that are embarrassing.
A case in point is the COVID-19 pandemic that is still raging around the world right now, causing millions of death and immeasurable sufferings. Amid the surge of infections worldwide, China is engaging in vaccine diplomacy and touting its ability to control the pandemic rapidly and effectively to the extent that now, the authority has eased restrictions in the country. Xi also points to this success as evidence of the superiority of his authoritarian system.
Despite Xi’s propaganda of revisionist history, the fact remains that instead of being open and cooperate with other countries during the initial outbreak of the virus at the city of Wuhan, Xi suppressed critical information and persecuted whistleblowers and thereby amplified the transmission of the virus. Xi also spread disinformation about its origins and associated risk.
There is still hope
In Asia, there is a void of leadership among governments and companies willing or able to stand up to Xi as he views the region as naturally falling under his sphere of control. If left unchallenged, Xi’s actions will portend a dysfunctional future in which no one is beyond the reach of Chinese censors and Beijing’s influence will infiltrate into the highest levels of governments and management of private companies.
Awareness as a first step is key to countering Xi’s belligerence. As awareness spreads, more Asian countries are going to know about the true nature of Xi’s Maoist regime and hopefully, they will be more cautious and push back when the terms of engagement become too unfavorable.
Therefore, while it is perfectly alright to have business dealing with China, it is necessary to recognize the threats Xi poses and to restrict undue Chinese influence to infiltrate into strategic areas. Lastly but importantly, no one should equate Xi Jinping with the people of China. He does not represent the 1.4 billion Chinese citizens who have no say in choosing him as the leader.
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