Skip to content

China’s Global Ambitions Take Shape

The contrast between the Chinese Communist Party and the Biden Administration came into full clarity on March 20th. On that Monday, reminiscent of the Cold War, Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin met in person to discuss the alliance between their two countries. Meanwhile, Joe Biden met with Hollywood actor Jason Sudeikis, who used his White House visit to host a press conference as the character Ted Lasso of the eponymous TV show.

It was the perfect contrast of serious versus unserious. And it also explains the very different global trajectory our two countries are on.

A recent Wall Street Journal article notes that “China now sees itself as a global power—and it is starting to act like one”:

Mr. Xi’s sharpened rhetoric reflects a belief that China can serve as a counterpoint to the West and its framing of a showdown between democracy and autocracy. Rather than an authoritarian country, as President Biden would have it, Mr. Xi wants nations around the world, particularly in the Global South, to regard China as a voice of reason, an economic model and a benign power that can stand up to a U.S.-led Western order that it sees as hectoring and bullying.

Of course, China still has a major “brand” problem, so to speak. It simply isn’t trusted by many Western countries following COVID.

Then-President Donald Trump was largely alone in taking a more confrontational approach to Beijing. But a post-Covid China can now look out around and find a ring of countries, including South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Australia and India, that are far more suspicious of China’s intentions and more inclined to align themselves with Washington—a development Mr. Xi attributes to Mr. Biden’s efforts at “containment, encirclement and suppression,” a charge that Washington denies.

Farther afield, China’s perceived alignment with Russia has sapped any momentum that Beijing had enjoyed in Western European capitals, and even in the far more favorable Eastern European countries that, before the Ukraine war, had appeared to be falling more closely into Beijing’s orbit.

The picture that is developing is a bipolar world, similar to what existed during the Cold War. Countries in the West–the US and Europe–versus competing authoritarian regimes.

One key difference in this new bipolar world is closer alignment between Russia and China, who were not friendly neighbors during the Cold War despite both being communist. This should Not be underestimated.

In this developing bipolar world, China will jockey with the West for influence and power. Ultimately, its success or failure will depend on whether China can reduce its reliance on other countries. If China needs things from the West, the West may have enough leverage to deter or curb China. If it doesn’t, we will not be able to constrain China’s global ambitions.

That’s one reason its close alliance with Russia–a country full of natural resources–is such a big deal.

Consider also:

  • Xi has consolidated power, “winning” an unprecedented third term last month as president;
  • China maintains control of significant supply chains such as rare earth minerals needed to make modern technology work.
  • China continues to march forward on its “Made in China 2025” plan, to have key technologies and industries take root domestically;
  • China has experimented with digital currency tied to its central bank–while the U.S. dollar’s status as a global reserve currency is in doubt;
  • China has spent trillions building infrastructure projects in developing countries, buying political goodwill and increasing its global reach.

All these are signs of the direction China is going in: Strengthening and self-reliance.

China’s rise is not inevitable. China has faced problems with its Belt and Road Initiative, where Chinese-funded infrastructure is falling apart. Domestically, China is a net importer of food, although dystopian creations like a 26-story pig farm show that China, as ever, is looking for solutions for self-sufficiency. China also relies on oil imports.

There are plenty of pressure points on China–at least, today. But will they exist in 5-10 years?

It’s hard to answer that question because it’s hard to see what the United States’ own ability is to have a coherent China policy. Our government and the Biden Administration can’t even get their act together to ban TikTok. TikTok is viewed by critics as both potential spyware for collecting data, and also a propaganda vehicle to show psychologically harmful material to young Americans.

The most recent news is that federal legislation to ban TikTok is on the ropes. Why? Because skeptics say the legislation goes way overboard, giving the federal government huge powers far beyond what’s needed to ban TikTok. A cynic might wonder if the bill was purposely written to be unpalatable so that nothing gets done.

Similarly, advocates have been sounding the alarm bell about China’s control of the manufacture of medicine. This was an issue even before COVID. And yet, despite a pandemic that started in China, the CCP still controls our medical supply.

Can we get our act together to challenge China and keep our own country secure and independent?  Warren Buffet’s adage of never bet against America is compelling. Then again, history is full of investments that were touted as sure things–until they weren’t.

But if we judge based on actions, then the combination of Congressional fecklessness and the White House’s obsession with celebrities doesn’t bode well.

Will Coggin

Will Coggin

Will Coggin is vice president of a public affairs firm in Northern Virginia. He previously lived in Beijing and Hubei Province, China.