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Risks from reputational damage mount for China


China has antagonised numerous foreign governments at once and faces more open criticism and resistance than ever before

China’s increasingly forthright pursuit of its strategic aims on multiple fronts has provoked elevated international hostility. Unlike in the past, when Beijing typically focused on disputes with particular countries while trying to stabilise relations with others, it has now antagonised numerous foreign governments at once. China’s conduct now faces more open criticism and resistance than ever before.

What next

Beijing will not compromise where it believes it has the upper hand tactically. Its foreign relations will deteriorate further. Its attempts to rally support abroad will intensify, but will make few inroads in the West and have mixed results in the Global South.

Subsidiary Impacts

  • International tensions may rise as the Communist Party tries to demonstrate its nationalist credentials ahead of its centenary next year.
  • The Party’s push to strengthen its influence outside mainland China creates problems not just for rivals but for partners too.
  • Beijing will present setbacks to Chinese citizens as victimisation and interference by foreign powers; many will be convinced, perhaps most.

Analysis

Persistent and corrosive areas of alleged misconduct by China include the following:

Economic policy

China's trade and industrial policies routinely face criticism from major trading partners, in particular about lack of 'fairness' and reciprocal market access, intellectual property theft and 'forced' transfer, and economic cyberespionage.

Beijing has repeatedly used trade to punish behaviour it objects to, such as recent restrictions on imports from Australia (see AUSTRALIA/CHINA: Frictions will last for now - May 28, 2020).

Military

Beijing's defence policy and military activities raise alarm in neighbouring and Western capitals. China is rapidly building stronger military capabilities, testing anti-satellite weapons, intimidating Taiwan through airspace intrusions and simulated invasions, harassing the vessels of rival claimants in the South China Sea and upgrading its island outposts.

Last year China's intrusions into Japanese-claimed waters almost doubled. This year clashes with India in the Himalayas became deadly for the first time in decades.

Human rights

Repression, propaganda and censorship have increased under President Xi Jinping. So have harassment, detention and public humiliation of activists and critics. China is breaking new ground in technology-enhanced surveillance, particularly in Tibet and Xinjiang. Repression of non-state religious activities has increased (see CHINA: Beijing will promote Party-friendly religion - April 8, 2019).

Foreign nationals too have been harassed or detained to punish or put pressure on their home governments (see CHINA: Canada spat will damage ties with rest of West - January 18, 2019 and see AUSTRALIA/CHINA: More tit-for-tat escalation is likely - September 9, 2020).

Beijing's violation of its international commitments to preserve Hong Kong's autonomy provoked US sanctions and criticism from various Western democracies and even the usually circumspect Japan.

Politicians overseas have blamed China's repressive political system for its failure to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in the crucial early stage.

Influence

Suspicion that Beijing exploits the cultural openness or economic weakness of other countries to spread covert political influence overseas has become acute, particularly in the United States and Australia.

Beijing is accused of:

  • conducting influence operations within foreign universities and political circles, and multilateral institutions;
  • using foreign social media to spread disinformation;
  • mobilising Chinese citizens overseas and foreign nationals of Chinese descent to promote Beijing's views and interests;
  • putting pressure on foreign firms and organisations to self-censor; and
  • setting 'debt traps' to compromise the national sovereignty of borrower countries.

Previously ambivalent partners are becoming more firmly hostile

US pushback

Under President Donald Trump, the United States has shifted decisively from suspicion of China to open confrontation. The current administration has done more than any previous one to:

  • damage China's short-term economic growth through tariffs;
  • damage China's long-term industrial policies by restricting access to US technology and markets;
  • limit the freedom of Chinese organisations and individuals to operate in the United States;
  • penalise human rights violations in Xinjiang and Hong Kong;
  • support Taiwan's autonomy;
  • publicly criticise other countries for cooperating with China; and
  • contest China's maritime claims in the South China Sea.

Though Trump's own statements on China have been inconsistent, Vice President Mike Pence and Secretary of State Mike Pompeo have publicly declared the Chinese Communist Party an enemy.

Support for a tough line on China spans the political spectrum in Congress. Democrat presidential hopeful Joe Biden will inherit the build-up of momentum if he wins in November.

China-US relations will never revert to the pre-Trump status quo

Europe

European governments are shifting from treating China as an economic opportunity to treating it as an economic threat.

Long-standing complaints about market barriers, subsidies and human rights violations are getting louder. New concerns about digital security and online disinformation are prompting countermeasures (see EU: Security ‘toolbox’ leaves room for Huawei bans - January 30, 2020).

Chinese investment in Europe is to be more closely vetted under tighter rules (see EU/CHINA: Economic relations look set to suffer - July 15, 2020).

London has shifted from active encouragement of Chinese investment to confrontation, banning Huawei and offering residency to 3 million Hongkongers (see CHINA/UK: Future of engagement lies in Beijing’s hands - August 7, 2020).

Asia-Pacific

Canberra has been at the sharp end of Beijing's irritation at calls by Australia for an independent investigation into the origins of COVID-19 and moves to counter Chinese covert influence operations.

Japan under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe sought rapprochement with Beijing, but upgraded its military in ways clearly intended to counter China, while Chinese ships continued frequent intrusions into disputed waters (see CHINA/JAPAN: Relations set for new downturn - June 26, 2020).

Indians generally regard China as a threat and hostility is higher than ever in Delhi following this year's deadly clash on their disputed Himalayan border (see CHINA/INDIA: Chinese business in India may be set back - July 27, 2020).

Fragile friendships

Beijing can count on some international support in multilateral fora:

  • Last year, 37 countries, some with Muslim-majority populations, took Beijing's side on Xinjiang following a critical letter to the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights signed by Western countries and Japan.
  • This year, 53 countries expressed support for the Hong Kong national security law.

China's supporters generally consist of:

  • small, poor countries in which relatively little Chinese investment can make a major difference;
  • small or medium-sized countries that court China as a tactic, to bargain harder with Western partners; and
  • authoritarian stalwarts such as Cuba, Egypt, Iran, North Korea, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria and Venezuela.

However, money diplomacy and alliances of convenience only go so far.

Complaints from African leaders over mistreatment of their citizens in China this year, and occasional rebukes more generally from the continent, contradict Beijing's portrayal of the relationship as a paragon of friendship and solidarity.

Citizens of Muslim-majority countries will be less tolerant than their governments of Beijing's treatment of Muslims in Xinjiang.

Friendly relations built on financial largesse are at risk when Beijing disappoints expectations.

Pro-China policies are often associated with particular leaders and can be abandoned rapidly when governments change, particularly when they are unpopular.

Domestic concerns

In the approach to the Communist Party's centenary next year and confirmation of a third five-year term in office the year after, Xi must convince the Party and the public that Western hostility is inevitable and the gains from his foreign policies outweigh the costs. Chinese policymakers are divided over the wisdom of Xi's foreign policy assertiveness, but most still appear to support it.

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