Jabin T Jacob
An idea seems to be going around that somehow, the COVID-19 pandemic is a turning point for the international order — that Pax Sinica will soon replace Pax Americana.
Such belief is premature to say the least, but it provides an occasion, nevertheless, to consider exactly what the world can expect under Chinese leadership.
Even before the pandemic, the rise of China had provided despots around the world with the confidence to seek centralisation of power and to retain power by whatever means possible. The pandemic now provides an opportunity for such leaders as well as others potentially, to fast-forward such agenda.
At least one commentator has declared that ‘Creeping Authoritarianism Has Finally Prevailed’ citing the example of Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán who pushed a law through his country’s parliament suspending elections and giving him the authority to rule by decree indefinitely. In this sense, the damage to China's reputation from the pandemic is of little import.
Aiding the spread of the ‘Chinese model’ of political and economic development is the use of technology as a tool of political consolidation by the Communist Party of China (CPC). Chinese enterprises are already involved in setting up biometric databases and surveillance technologies — often without proper local legal safeguards for civil and political rights — from Africa to Russia and from Iran to Latin America. Such surveillance is a threat to democratic institutions and allows for the cover-up of regime incompetence as well as for pre-emptively striking against dissenters and the organisation of civil opposition.
As far as foreign and security policies are concerned, it is unlikely that China’s current behaviour will change. If anything, this could possibly worsen in a world order that Beijing leads. The record of China’s behaviour as it has slowly increased its economic and military capacities in recent decades bears this out.
Consider, for instance, the Panchsheel Principles or the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence, the promotion of which is a staple claim of China’s ties with other countries. Among these are included such lofty ones as mutual respect for each other’s territorial integrity and sovereignty and mutual non-interference in each other’s internal affairs.
Beijing’s extensive propaganda campaign to cover up its role in the spread of the novel coronavirus across the globe has, however, unabashedly included frequent criticism of governments, media and other institutions in foreign countries.
For instance, a Chinese diplomat in an unsigned posting on his embassy website in Paris, alleged that employees at French nursing homes had abandoned their charges and left them to die. He said this specifically in the context of defending his government’s actions in the wake of the outbreak attempting thus, to show his own country in a better light vis-à-vis Western ones.
In another egregious example, the Chinese consulate-general in Chicago in the United States sent an email to the head of the senate in Wisconsin to sponsor a Bill praising China’s response to coronavirus. He was even helpfully provided with a draft resolution for ‘reference’. While both instances invited furious backlash, Chinese embassies and consulates seem impervious to the criticism and have repeated variations of these exercises elsewhere in the world.
So much for China’s claim of non-interference in the internal affairs of other countries.
More importantly, if even Chinese diplomats can engage in this sort of obnoxious or tone-deaf behaviour so widely at odds with their government’s rhetoric, it suggests that China lacks the ability to carry everyone along in a world order that it seeks to lead.
Similarly, examples of China’s lack of respect for the territorial integrity and sovereignty of other nations are by now well-known. However, it speaks to the Chinese focus on their self-interest above all else that they have continued even during the pandemic to press their unlawful territorial claims in the South China Sea. In April, a Chinese coastguard vessel rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat off the Paracel Islands while another was deployed to the Scarborough Shoal claimed by the Philippines. A Chinese survey vessel also followed around another owned by Malaysia’s Petronas in waters claimed by both Vietnam and Malaysia.
Another case in point from mid-April is China’s establishment of two new districts to administer disputed features in the South China Sea. This was followed a day later by China’s Ministry of Civil Affairs and Ministry of Natural Resources announcing the standardisation of names for features in the South China Sea it claims. All of these efforts suggest that a world order China leads will not be based on respect for international law but on its own writ.
It should be clear by now that for China, global leadership is not going to be about replacing the United States at the top and then letting the world continue as it has under norms and principles set by the West. On the contrary, because the principal goal of the CPC is to maintain itself in power at home, it also sees democratic and open societies as posing threats to its survival. All Chinese foreign policy is, therefore, a means to promote regime survival.
This zero-sum worldview implies that China will want the world to be run according to its own rules and for other countries to take after its own image. Thus, it becomes necessary for Beijing to undermine both individual democracies as well as the liberal international order, or the aspiration for it that the US has at least seemed to promote since the end of the Cold War.
China seems to believe that it will over the next couple of decades have the economic and military capacity to pre-empt competition or opposition to its will and that this will itself lead to global order on its terms. However, such a world order is actually likely to be an unstable one based as it is on the principle of ‘might is right’. What a Chinese-led world order also promises is a descent into a dystopian future of political authoritarianism and technology-based surveillance in the name of ‘global goods’ or a ‘community of common destiny’ — terms left suitably vague or whose definition and articulation will be China’s prerogative.Jabin T Jacob is Associate Professor, Department of International Relations and Governance Studies, Shiv Nadar University, Uttar Pradesh and Adjunct Research Fellow at the National Maritime Foundation, New Delhi. He tweets @jabinjacobt. Views are personal.