Short-term US policy imperatives risk ceding global leadership to Chinese long-termism

Short-term US policy imperatives risk ceding global leadership to Chinese long-termism

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The bold, would-be hegemon that is China today is unrecognizable compared with the nation it was 40 years ago, when it was struggling with a very poor, stagnant, isolated economy.

A transformation the World Bank has described as “the fastest expansion of an economy in history” is by no means an accident. With China’s economic growth now matched by an ever-more muscular foreign policy, the new US president would do well to understand the long-termism of Chinese policy formulation.

Four decades ago, Deng Xiao Ping encouraged his people to “hide your strength, bide your time” — and the international community is only now realizing the impact of the policy.

While the Trump administration effectively reduced America’s influence in the world, it did succeed in one area, which was to raise the alarm about China’s growing might and recognize the threat posed by its authoritarian world view. It is unsurprising, therefore, that President-elect Joe Biden has already indicated that his future administration’s foreign policy imperative will be Beijing.

Though all efforts in this regard are undoubtedly admirable, the glaringly obvious point is that while the West has only just woken up to the threat posed by China, policymakers in Beijing have had the dismantling of the post-1945 global status quo in their sights for decades.

If the Trump administration succeeded in highlighting the threat, the objective of the Biden administration will be to decide how best to contain it. Trump attempted to shoot from the hip, pursuing a policy of “America First” but in the long term, Washington will have to seek more multilateral solutions to contain Chinese ambitions.

International policymakers have long sought to integrate the world’s economies through interdependence, extending America’s writ over global leadership in a process that seemed unstoppable. The hurried exportation of free market capitalism did not, however, account for Chinese leaders agreeing to adopt this model only so that it could undermine it.

When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 it was hailed as a fait accompli in integrating the nation into the international system. In reality, Chinese policymakers merely treated it as one step on their path to superpower status as they played a long game, the ultimate prize of which is domination of international supply lines.

Now the world’s largest exporter, China not only has a world economy addicted to its cheap consumer products but, more importantly, the nation is taking such great strides in the realm of technology that a new era of competition is well underway.

In the long term, Washington will have to seek more multilateral solutions to contain Chinese ambitions.

Zaid M. Belbagi

China’s subscription to free-market economics is a convenience, not an ideological attachment. Its tech giants are neither fully capitalist nor state owned; rather they operate as “guandu shangban” enterprises, meaning that they are government-supervised but merchant-managed. These gargantuan state-sponsored companies can only be contained through a joint international commitment.

What is essentially a new cold war is being fought through information technology. Rows over internet standards, privacy, artificial intelligence and 5G are the front lines that will determine whether a rules-based international order or an unregulated Chinese system will prevail.

The Chinese Communist Party understood in the late 1990s that technology would be the path to power. The technological advantage that China is building for itself will not only support its economic expansion but, importantly, also give it a military edge in an era when a state’s ability to deploy hard power is determined by the constant renewal of its technological capabilities.

Where the previous Cold War between East and West pitted a connected world against an isolated one, this new cold war involves two sides that are hugely dependent on one another. China understood long ago that the best way to restructure the system was to do so from inside, a fact that policy experts in the West are only now understanding. Similarly, despite the national self-reliance the Chinese premier calls for, the nation’s future is inextricably linked to its access to global markets.

The Biden presidency will focus on technology, which will be high on the “Summit of Democracies” agenda it has promised to convene. Europeans and Americans need to take a long-term view, just like the Chinese, and they need to force a bargain in which China’s access to international markets is regulated by technical standards such as Open RAN (which aims to improve the quality of telecommunication networks through the adoption of open architecture) and Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation.

The US can choose to remain an isolated technology superpower, but a connected America can write the rules of the international technology space if it works in partnership with its allies. What the Trump administration, which was at war with the tech industry, failed to understand was that only through working with the EU, India, Japan and indigenous tech giants such as Alphabet, Apple and Microsoft did it have any chance of containing the Chinese and ensuring they operate to acceptable international standards.

Where the Chinese government once restricted freedoms through arrest and balked at the international system through pugnacious foreign policy stunts, nowadays the transgressions that pose the greatest assault upon the postwar order are the hacking of other countries’ computer systems, state-sponsored piracy and the widespread theft of intellectual property.

It is essential that the US seeks coordinated responses to this challenge, or else it risks losing ground to initiatives such as “the Digital Silk Road” or, indeed, the International Telecommunication Union, which China is actively seeking to influence in an attempt to write the new rules of the digital realm in its own image.

During an era in which a divided America must seek to repair itself, in which its citizens are still signing checks while their Chinese competitors are part of the largest online economy in the world, the new US president must seek to assemble a grand coalition to deliver a China-proof “technosphere.” The US must stop focusing on supremacy and rather concede that, as in 1945, the world’s greatest challenges can only be resolved through cooperation.

The irony of the Chinese adage “if you want to go fast, go alone; if you want to go far, hold hands” will not be lost on a Biden administration faced with the greatest challenge to American world dominance.

  • Zaid M. Belbagi is a political commentator, and an adviser to private clients between London and the Gulf Cooperation Council. Twitter: @Moulay_Zaid
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