China eclipses Russia as the world’s ‘biggest bad’ actor
While the July 1 hundred-year anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party headlined in major media houses within and outside China, a second anniversary quietly flew by several days later. It was 50 years ago on July 9, 1971, that Henry Kissinger, then President Nixon’s national security adviser, made a secret visit to meet with Zhou Enlai, the first premier of the People’s Republic of China. In the middle of the Cold War with the Soviet Union, Nixon and Kissinger courted Communist China, an event that ultimately led to normalization of relations between the countries in 1979.
Today the United States and China are vastly different from the way they were in the 1970s, and their bonhomie has been dying a slow death in the intervening years. In his recent address on the drawdown of troops in Afghanistan, President Biden pronounced that the U.S. must “focus on shoring up America’s core strengths to meet the strategic competition with China and other nations that is really going to determine our future.” This is an important cue, indicating that the U.S. no longer seeks to engage with China in ways that it did for the past 40 years.
The partnership with the U.S. afforded China the “peace” in its peaceful rise, letting China grow from a cooperative nation and economic partner into a nation that has become a genuine threat to U.S. security. The relationship change has not been sudden; cracks began to be visible during the Obama administration, and former President Trump’s confrontational approach led to a trade war and 2020 trade agreement that China has not lived up to. Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) recently recognized the gravity of the China threat, saying China “is doing a lot of very bad things” and has become a far greater challenge to the United States than Russia, according to the New York Daily News.
China’s antagonism appears to have ratcheted up recently. Its influence on major international bodies, such as the World Health Organization (WHO), creates concern, especially since China can exploit multilateral organizations for its own purposes. An example is the WHO’s delayed reaction to warning the world about the first COVID-19 cases in Wuhan, and its lackluster push later to get more information from China regarding the origin of the virus.
Under both Trump and Biden, China has ignored criticism of its human rights abuses such as the mistreatment of Uyghurs, Tibetans and other ethnic minorities. Its restrictions on democracy and dissent in Hong Kong and its aggression against Taiwan have further sounded alarms. China brushes off these violations as “internal matters,” and has regained its position on the United Nations Human Rights Council to ensure that international scrutiny is not cast upon it. China recently mocked the United States for talking about human rights issues, saying the U.S. should focus on its own problems brought to light by the Black Lives Matter movement.
China has been building its military might and has become a major cybersecurity threat, with growing cyber attacks on the U.S. and allies. In April, many U.S. government agencies, private companies and critical infrastructure using Pulse Secure for remote connection of offices were hacked. A month before the Pulse hack, there was an attack on Microsoft’s email system; both attacks were blamed on China.
Of course, the U.S. has weathered many cyber attacks and cyber-espionage by Russia, as well as Iran and North Korea. Although Russia denies participation in some hacking events, such as the recent Kaseya ransomware attack on the supply chain, China has skirted around the issue but never outright denied its culpability on attacks attributed to them. This has raised concern that China may be putting forth “warning shots” to show the U.S. its capability of attacking America’s most critical infrastructure.
In the decades since Nixon and Kissinger opened the door, China has transformed from an isolated, estranged nation to an openly hostile enemy of the United States. Although Russia remains a major threat to the U.S. and its allies, Russia’s ability to act is somewhat blunted by the economic downturn it has endured since the pandemic hit. China, however, has started giving its ambitions a tangible shape, and in so doing is challenging the U.S. for the global superpower position.
As the rivalry with China grows, and U.S. allies begin to recognize the threat that China poses, it’s essential to realize that China’s threat to the United States has begun to penetrate even within the country, making them indeed the world’s greatest security threat today.
Jianli Yang is the founder and president of Citizen Power Initiatives for China. He was an eyewitness to the Tiananmen Square massacre and imprisoned in China for more than five years. Committed to pursuing democracy in China, he is the author of “For Us, the Living: A Journey to Shine the Light on Truth.”