Want to prevail against China? Prioritize democracy assistance

Want to prevail against China? Prioritize democracy assistance
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The United States is reshaping how it uses foreign aid in order to compete with China. The executive branch and Congress are exploring efforts — some controversial and still few on details — to better leverage foreign aid as a tool to prevail in an era of great power competition.

This competition is one over resources, influence and nothing short of the world order’s future contours — or, as the 2017 National Security Strategy aptly proclaims, “between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity.” 

The strength of democracy in places where the United States and China are competing will be a key determinant of the competition’s result. Authoritarian countries are more vulnerable to Beijing’s coercion or cooptation because their regimes are less constrained by independent media, free elections, and other institutional checks that would otherwise control against such subversion. The numbers are not in America’s favor. Over the last decade, democracy has declined globally while the ranks of authoritarian states have swelled.

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Recent research from the International Republican Institute confirms that China is exploiting — and exacerbating — democratic weaknesses in target states to advance its interests. This includes signing opaque deals through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) that saddle countries with debt and invite massive corruption. 

Further, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) regularly coopts local civic groups or journalists to stymie negative portrayals of its engagement and thereby protect growing investments and ties to corrupt elites in target countries. At a macro level, China is projecting its authoritarian model as a viable alternative to the West’s liberal democratic variant. 

If left unchecked, the potential cost of these Chinese initiatives to U.S. interests is clear: increased instability in regions where democracy is decaying, more countries in Beijing’s grip and less inclined to align with America, and an illiberal Chinese sphere of influence. 

Regardless of the final contours of policy changes under consideration, it is clear that the United States should make democracy assistance a central component of its strategy for prevailing against China. This should involve using foreign aid to help make countries more resilient to CCP coercion and, hand in hand with diplomacy, champion the superiority of U.S. liberal democracy to China’s authoritarian option. 

To chart this path forward, the United States can look to the past for effective democracy assistance approaches.  

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Two examples stand out:  

First, from Ukraine to Zimbabwe, U.S. foreign aid programs have strengthened the capacity of civil society actors to uncover corruption, increase transparency and hold leaders accountable. Similar programs could serve as a check against China’s malign influence if the United States deploys them in countries vulnerable to CCP coercion. It must tailor support to equip recipients with the resources necessary to uncover and publicize opaque deals between their leaders and Beijing. 

Second, U.S.-funded trainings can enhance foreign journalists’ understanding of critical journalism skills and inculcate a belief in them that reporters play a critical watchdog role in society. If the United States expands and targets these programs in countries vulnerable to Chinese coercion, they could help increase transparency as a check against opaque BRI deals and the associated expansion of CCP influence.

Our competitor clearly sees the benefit of this type of initiative. China is expanding the trainings or free graduate programs in communications it offers to media professionals where participants learn about the Chinese model of “constructive” journalism, which is antithetical to independent media, and Beijing’s governance model. 

The United States has used initiatives such as journalist and civil society trainings to help countries thwart corruption and shore up their democratic institutions. In Africa, for instance, the International Republican Institute has provided civil society actors and journalists with the knowledge and skills to provide oversight of budget processes.

Programs such as this support countries’ capacity to practice sound, transparent, and responsive governance and financial management — and to rebuff foreign investment that comes with opaque strings attached. Like the citizen diplomacy exchange programs the United States supports, these initiatives also demonstrate the strengths of participatory governance and how it is superior to China’s authoritarian approach. Spending foreign aid on these ventures is critical at a time when China is ramping up its own efforts to train the next generation of developing country officials on the CCP’s authoritarian approach to governance.

Supporting democracy abroad is not only essential to winning the competition with Beijing. It also has strong domestic support. Seventy-one percent of Americans favor the U.S. “taking steps to support democracy and human rights in other countries,” according to a 2018 survey. The United States need not reverse democratic deficits in all nations vulnerable to CCP coercion, but shoring up critical governance gaps in priority countries will complicate Beijing’s efforts to expand its influence and undermine U.S. interests around the globe.   

Patrick Quirk is the senior director of the Center for Global Impact at the International Republican Institute (IRI) and a non-resident fellow in the Foreign Policy Program of the Brookings Institution. Previously, he served as a member of the U.S. Secretary of State’s Policy Planning Staff. David Shullman is a senior advisor at IRI and an adjunct senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security (CNAS). Previously, he served as Deputy National Intelligence Officer for East Asia on the National Intelligence Council.