We need a democratic common market

We need a democratic common market
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The rise of China as a global power has arguably been one of the most worrying geopolitical trends of the 21st century thus far. In just the past few years, China has demonstrated that it is more than willing to flout international law, violently suppress protests, and even commit genocide against its own minority populations.

As China has grown more repressive domestically, it has simultaneously pursued greater economic expansionism abroad. Projects like the Belt and Road Initiative have enabled China to gain economic footholds throughout the globe, and it has not been shy about leveraging its economic heft to achieve its foreign policy goals, such as convincing countries to de-recognize Taiwan. However, perhaps the real danger in China’s global influence is not the policy outcomes it achieves, but its promotion of an authoritarian model of economic and political development that autocrats around the world can emulate.

Many of the world’s democracies have appeared flatfooted in response to China’s growing authoritarian influence. Even Germany, one of the world’s most stable and influential liberal democracies, has hesitated to confront China over its human rights violations for fear of losing access to Beijing’s domestic market of nearly 1.4 billion consumers. This acquiescence is a huge mistake. Any hopes that China would eventually grow into a responsible stakeholder in the liberal international order have been dashed — China does not want to be a stakeholder in a liberal world order, but to create a new one in its own image.


The extent of Beijing’s ambitions is on full display, the only question that remains is how the world’s democratic nations should respond. There has been renewed discussion of a D-10 summit of leading democracies that would coordinate over specific policy areas, such as 5G technology and supply chains. This idea has a lot of merit, and has notably been supported by British Prime Minister Boris Johnson. However, while such initiatives are sorely needed, they risk providing only stopgap measures and failing to comprehensively counter China’s influence. Such a pervasive problem requires an equally bold solution: a common market of democracies.

China’s geopolitical might is rooted in its economic stature. In addition to leveraging investments from its state-owned enterprises to achieve its foreign policy goals, China has also made access to its domestic market conditional upon abiding by the Chinese Communist Party’s standards of censorship, as both Hollywood and the NBA can attest. Leaders like U.S. President Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpHillary Clinton responds to Chrissy Teigen tweet: 'I love you back' Police called after Florida moms refuse to wear face masks at school board meeting about mask policy Supreme Court rejects Trump effort to shorten North Carolina mail-ballot deadline MORE recognize this, and yet responses such as costly trade wars that leave both sides worse off are completely misguided. The answer to China’s pernicious economic influence is not to look inward, but rather to look outward elsewhere.

Creating a common market of democratic states modeled after the European Union’s four freedoms — free movement of goods, services, labor, and capital — would strike at the heart of China’s global influence in two main ways. First, it would create an economic incentive for states outside of the common market to abide by democratic norms and values. In the same way that China has made access to its investments and market conditional upon furthering its foreign policy agenda and self-censorship, the states in the democratic common market could make their investments and market access conditional upon metrics involving transparent governance and respect for the rule of law.

Second, a democratic common market would make it so states within the common market would no longer be susceptible — or at least be significantly less susceptible — to Chinese malign influence. A common market that includes, non-exhaustively, the U.S., EU, UK, India, South Korea, Japan, Australia, and New Zealand would be a market of roughly 2.4 billion people. By being fully integrated into this market, countries like Germany would feel more unencumbered to call out China for its human rights violations, since it would be less reliant on access to China’s market and could redirect those investments to its fellow democratic states without any barriers.

The existence of a democratic common market would not imply that the states within the bloc would cease to have an economic relationship with China. Even in a world where a democratic common market exists, China would still likely be the single largest nation-state on the planet and thus be a major player in the global marketplace. What it does mean is that China’s ability to impose its norms and values upon the world through economic leverage would be significantly weakened. The democratic bloc and China could, and should, still have an economic relationship, but it would be one on at least equal terms. If anything, China would now be the one to curb its behavior in order to gain access to and investments from the democratic market.


While the democratic common market might initially be conceptualized as a geopolitical tool to counter Chinese malign influence, the benefits that it would bring to citizens of the states within the bloc would be enormous.

The history of deepening economic integration is one of greater peace and prosperity across the board. There are undoubtedly some who would be concerned by the prospect of, for example, citizens of India being able to move to the U.S. and potentially take up the lion’s share of computer programming jobs. However, such trends would not happen in a vacuum, and whatever economic displacement that might happen would ultimately be offset by the new jobs created in virtually every sector through greater market access and ease of investment.

Of course, there are significant obstacles within several democratic states that would prevent this project from becoming a reality anytime soon, such as the rise of authoritarian populism in the U.S. and India and democratic backsliding in multiple EU member states.

The world’s democracies need to get their houses in order, and soon, or else the new world order will in fact be one made in China’s image.

Austin Doehler is a visiting scholar at the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement.