China is playing a zero-sum game internationally and willing to win at all costs. That certainly won’t be Chinese President Xi Jinping’s message to world leaders at the second Belt and Road Initiative Forum in Beijing this week, but that is the reality.
For the last two decades, China fooled the world into believing it would embrace the rules-based international order and become a responsible stakeholder.
Instead, China has used its membership in the World Trade Organization as an instrument for its economic advancement aimed directly at the expense of other more developed member states. Moreover, it has tightened its one-party authoritarian rule, increased repression of domestic dissent, and escalated human rights abuses within its borders. And it is building up its military’s might—including new capabilities to menace Taiwan, Japan, and other neighbors to threaten U.S. forces in the Indo-Pacific region, and to project power globally.
China now is trying to fool the world again by luring foreign governments to join its Belt and Road Initiative with extravagant promises of Chinese investment for their infrastructure projects.
Some countries have already learned hard lessons from Beijing’s debt-trap diplomacy. For example, Sri Lanka was forced to give a Chinese state-owned company majority control of its $1.3 billion Hambantota port for 99 years after it defaulted on a Chinese loan, and Pakistan is now seeking to drastically curb borrowing from China as it faces a mounting debt crisis.
Yet these and other cautionary tales aren’t deterring everyone. Last March, Italy became the first G7 nation to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative. Alarmingly, the United Kingdom appears willing to allow some Chinese hardware into the development of their 5G network. More countries in Europe and other regions may soon follow.
This is stunningly naive.
China’s mercantilist goal is simple—undermine foreign competition by stealing intellectual property and trade secrets, and artificially propping up Chinese state-directed actors at the expense of its trading “partners.”
In addition to debt-trap diplomacy, Beijing’s long list of aggressive tactics also includes targeting U.S. and other foreign industries for eventual displacement, violating foreign sanctions laws and export controls, and working through state-directed actors, like Huawei and ZTE, to steal trade secrets and gain unfair advantages. Indeed, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative reports that China’s intellectual property theft costs the U.S. as much as $600 billion annually—an amount that exceeds the collective profits of the top 50 companies on last year’s Fortune 500 list. Chinese state-directed theft of American ingenuity amounts to the greatest transfer of wealth in human history.
China’s actions are not just part of an unprecedented effort to supplant America’s role as the leading economic and military power. Rather, they are in direct contradiction to the most deeply held values by the U.S. and fellow democracies.
They are also deeply rooted in Chinese Communist Party’s view of history—that it is China’s rightful place to be the most powerful nation on earth, and that the last hundred years are an aberration. Look no further than the target date set by President Xi for China to cement its global dominance: 2049, the 100th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China.
As we in the U.S. are learning—sometimes more slowly than we should—China’s long-term threats to national security and economic security far outweigh the short-term benefits from Chinese foreign investment or increased exports to China. Unfortunately, it seems many countries around the world are either unaware of China’s long-term threats or else willfully ignoring the real risks in exchange for access to Chinese markets, loans, and other short-term economic benefits.
China’s rise poses this century’s most significant threat not only to the security and economic interests of America and other democracies, but also to the values of freedom and openness that we hold dear. Beijing’s upcoming Belt and Road Initiative Forum and other efforts to woo the world do not change this. So long as China remains under the Communist Party’s totalitarian rule, the free world must remain clear-eyed about China’s challenge to our hard-won international order.