Can a united front deal with China?

Can a united front deal with China?
© Getty Images

Far from correcting course after the revelations of its global propaganda campaign over the coronavirus pandemic that had started in Wuhan, the Chinese Communist Party is doubling down in its attempts to squash any criticism of Beijing. The latest victim of this Chinese government bullying is Brussels, where the European Union planned to release a report calling out the both overt and covert Chinese disinformation campaign.

That was enough to force Chinese censors into action, threatening the European Union that relations between the bloc and Beijing may suffer harm if the report were to be published as drafted. In response, senior European Union officials rewrote passages calling out official Chinese propaganda actions. One analyst who assisted with writing the report proclaimed that the European Union, with a population of 446 million people, had censored itself in the face of Chinese intimidation.

A different story is playing out in Australia, where its government calls for an international inquiry into the origins of the coronavirus and the role of the World Health Organization. The Chinese ambassador threatens trade relations, hinting at a boycott of Australian goods, while the editor of the Global Times says that Australia was “chewing gum” stuck to the bottom of the Chinese shoe. Beijing halted imports from the top Australian meat processors, representing a third of the $2 billion bilateral trade. Chinese officials also proposed an 80 percent tariff on Australian barley.


Similar Chinese outbursts have been directed at France and the United States. All the threats and insults, redolent of the worst Soviet diatribes during the Cold War, illuminate the adversarial attitude that the Chinese Communist Party has adopted toward leading democracies in this crisis. For many decades, Beijing has watched international institutions, liberal nations, and Western businesses overlook its predatory and subversive behavior, instead further committing themselves to more engagement regardless of any negative actions by the Chinese government.

Now with the international economy buckling amid the coronavirus, and billions of people locked down in countries across the world, criticism of the misleading statements by Beijing are causing anger among Chinese leaders accustomed to flattery and accommodation. If it tries to impose costs on countries with whom it is engaged in diplomatic pyrotechnics, Beijing risks weakening itself further than the nearly 10 percent drop in gross domestic product the country experienced last quarter.

Democracies grasp leverage against Beijing, more if they work together, presenting a united front in the face of Chinese intimidation tactics. This goes as much for protecting global governance, ensuring that debacles like that of the World Health Organization are not repeated. A handbook for democratic nations in dealing with China is needed so a standard set of policies can be reinforced. Calls in Congress for greater coordination with allies reflect this mindset. International organizations have already started on such a project, seeking consensus among the democracies, along with a toolkit so states do not have to face China alone.

The point is not to punish China but instead achieve what liberal nations have avowed as their goal since Deng Xiaoping began modernization by bringing China into the international community so it adopts norms and practices. Unfortunately, the opposite has happened as China has grown stronger with intellectual property theft, endemic espionage operations, and global influence campaigns. Now as intelligence agencies chart the degree of its culpability for the coronavirus, the danger of relying on the intentions of the Chinese government are becoming clearer.

“All countries benefit from international organizations that work. But the result of us integrating China on largely its own terms has been that the international organizations designed to protect us instead protected the Chinese regime,” said the president of the Halifax International Security Forum. Beijing has also become adept at picking off the needier nations with aid or intimidation tactics. Its One Belt One Road initiative seeks to bind nations into the Chinese trade and investment network. However, democracies still have enormous power, wealth, and appeal.

If there is to be a united front, it should tackle the pervasive presence of China inside liberal nations, where it uses social media, supportive elites, and Confucius Institutes on university campuses to spread a message of one way cooperation. Part of this toolkit could be demanding reciprocity from China for similar Western access, as well as closing the vulnerability gaps in critical medicine, technology, and the like. Forging a united front with a handbook of common policies is the first step toward rebalancing the international system in favor of transparency and equality.

Michael Auslin is a fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and is the senior Asia adviser at the Halifax International Security Forum.