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China-centric 21st century


Illustration of a hand painting a globe red.

Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

With the U.S. paralyzed by political gridlock and western institutions stagnating, China is positioning itself as the primary architect of new power structures in the 21st century.

Why it matters: If the U.S. continues to anger allies, withdraw from global institutions, and ignore much of the developing world, in 20 years it may wake up to find itself resigned to a small corner in a world defined and dominated by China.

Chinese President Xi Jinping's sweeping vision — the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) — puts China at the commanding center of global economic and geopolitical relationships.

  • Individual countries — from Cambodia to Italy to Angola and in between — are now heavily reliant upon China for economic growth through BRI investments in infrastructure, trade, science, technology, and military projects.
  • Beijing is using that lever of power to influence their foreign policy and domestic decision-making.
  • The result: Chinese-led, largely opaque alternatives to Western-led institutions and global norms are emerging and drawing country after country into the new global framework.

Between the lines: The BRI is strengthened by Beijing's efforts to co-opt the World Bank and other institutions and to interfere in the politics of democratic countries like Taiwan and Australia. Its ultimate goal is the "creation of an alternative world order," says Nadège Rolland of the National Bureau of Asian Research.

Details: Beijing's strategy is readily apparent in...

1. The global economy: As the world's top exporter, Beijing economic heft is acutely felt.

  • Chinese state media stopped broadcasting NBA games after the Houston Rockets' manager tweeted in support of Hong Kong pro-democracy protesters, temporarily cutting off access to a massive market for the NBA.
  • On the flip side, the coronavirus outbreak has led companies and countries to hastily cut ties with the world's second largest economy, straining the global economy.

2. Tech and telecommunications: The global showdown over the future of 5G has only just begun, but it's clear Beijing views Huawei's position as global 5G leader as a key geopolitical strategy.

  • Britain just permitted the use of Huawei's equipment, the first key ally to defy U.S. efforts to block the company.
  • The concern is that the Chinese government, which has close ties to Huawei, will have access to critical telecommunications infrastructure — useful not just for leverage over states but also mass data collection.
  • "Data is oil for artificial intelligence," said former National Security Council adviser and retired Brig. Gen. Robert Spalding.
  • Meanwhile, Chinese tech companies — including Huawei and facial recognition company Hikvision — are waging a steady campaign to set next-generation global tech standards, a feat likely to translate into market dominance and massive profits.

3. Scientific research: The Chinese government has poured hundreds of billions of dollars into research and development, with the aim of becoming a global tech superpower.

  • But China is also engaging in intellectual property theft, targeting U.S. research institutions and corporations.
  • And Chinese government-funded programs such as Thousand Talents have sought to harness foreign expertise by paying sometimes lavish sums for researchers abroad to moonlight for Chinese research institutions, often without revealing these conflicting commitments to their home institutions.

4. Military: Chinese military power in East Asia is approaching parity with the U.S., and China is constructing or leasing military bases for its own use around the Indo-Pacific.

  • In October 2019, the U.S. House of Representatives created a bipartisan task force to assess America's ability to counter emerging threats. Much of the group’s work has ended up focusing on China, Rep. Jim Banks (R-Ind.) told Axios in an interview.
  • “We could rename this the China task force,” Banks said.
  • China's military spending is on par with the U.S. but the country's military doesn't yet have the global reach of the United States.

The bottom line: China's power and leverage with nations around the world is at a new level. Some of the Chinese-led power structures are obvious, some are hidden from view, but all are shaping the world on a grand and long-lasting scale.

Go deeper: The global economic threat of coronavirus (Axios)

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