Addressing the United Nations General Assembly this week, Xi Jinping gave a masterclass in Orwellian absurdity. Like the Big Brother leader from the dystopian empire of Oceania in George Orwell’s novel 1984, Xi inverted reality to offer a template of lies.
Claiming that China offers only mutually beneficial engagement with the world, Xi launched a veiled attack on the United States. A “Cold War mentality, ideological lines or zero-sum game are no solution to a country’s own problem,” Xi said, “still less an answer to mankind’s common challenges.”
This is an interesting choice of words from the most powerful Chinese leader since Mao Zedong.
After all, Xi’s foreign policy is most certainly a zero-sum venture. While Xi talks the talk of mutual respect, he tramples over the most basic rights of other nations. In Africa, Xi’s economic deals extract political obedience and submission in return for often shoddy workmanship. In the South China Sea, Xi is seizing exclusive economic areas belonging to Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. Each year, all around the world, Xi’s cyberspies are stealing hundreds of billions of dollars of intellectual property. Oh, and Xi’s voracious fishing fleets are depleting the world’s oceans of marine wildlife.
But Xi’s fake presentation of global virtue wasn’t over.
The Chairman continued, “Relations among countries and coordination of their interests must only be based on rules and institutions; they must not be lorded over by those who wave a strong fist at others….”
I agree. But I’m less clear on how Xi believes he can make that argument while he simultaneously shreds the rules of international order?
Consider the situation in Hong Kong, for example. Here, Xi has slashed both the intrinsic natural rights of Hongkongers to live under democracy, and along with that his responsibility as stated in the Sino-British Joint Declaration to retain Hong Kong’s unique political identity until at least the year 2047. The distinction between what Xi says and what he actually does is a striking one. Indeed, it is astonishing. So why does the world put up with this obvious deception? Why do other nations tolerate the Chinese Communist Party’s devotion to trample on their basic rights and interests? Why are they willing to listen politely and even applaud Xi as he lies so blatantly and unapologetically, as he did at the United Nations this week?
The answer is twofold.
First, many nations are weaker than China in either economic, diplomatic, or military terms. Whether at the United Nations, or summits such as the G-20 or ASEAN groupings, smaller nations find it hard to resist Xi’s pressure. Considering that Beijing is increasingly comfortable using blatant bullying to get its way, foreign leaders know that if they upset Xi, even for a moment, he may retaliate against their interests or economy. Xi has used economic leverage and even kidnapping against powerful nations such as Canada and Australia, so nations with far smaller economies fear that they must kowtow to Xi. An excellent example of this dynamic can be seen in the long-running Chinese pilfering of the Mekong River. While farmers from Cambodia, Thailand, Laos, and Vietnam have all lost big as a result of relentless Chinese damming and pollution, China keeps doing so anyway.
The challenge goes beyond bullying, however.
In the absence of a compelling global counterforce to China, at least until now, it has been hard for nations to do anything other than “play ball” with Xi on his terms. The Obama administration was reluctant to exert serious pressure on China in relation to its territorial claims and unfair trade practices. And for the first two years of his presidency, Donald Trump was obsessed with the delusion that Xi was his friend.
Fortunately, new efforts to establish a broader security architecture in the South China Sea are gathering steam. This effort proves the world that China can be challenged. India, the world’s most populous democracy is also moving towards far closer alignment with the U.S.-led liberal international order. That means China faces constriction from all sides. And whoever wins the November U.S. presidential election, we should expect both Biden and Trump to bolster their support for nations like Vietnam. Assuming that President Rodrigo Duterte ever wakes up to his idiotic supplication to Xi, the Philippines is also likely to benefit from new American investments to secure a Pacific alliance against Beijing. On that count, the U.S. is likely to recommence efforts to secure a Trans-Pacific Trade partnership across the region. Put simply, a new architecture is forming against Xi.
Xi’s lies aren’t going to meet a harder reality unless the international community forces so. But if nations are willing to join together in demanding remedy for how badly they’ve been treated by Xi, they’ll find a new impetus to prevent his future abuses. For all its flaws, the post Second World War U.S.-led international order has brought unparalleled peace and prosperity to much of the world. Expanding that order to embrace those previously subsumed by China, Xi will find himself facing a big problem.
(Tom Rogan, Washington Examiner foreign policy writer)
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