G7 Meeting Focuses on China and Taiwan

The agenda of this past week’s Group of Seven summit—a meeting of top officials from Canada, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, the United Kingdom, and the United States—more or less revolved around a single question: what to do with a problem like China? In the words of Ash Jain, a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council, “The broader context for these meetings is […] the authoritarian challenge that China presents to the democratic world.” At Bloomberg News, Alberto Nardelli and Nick Wadhams wrote about back-stage maneuvering aimed at forging consensus on dealing with China:

A paper was circulated before a two-day meeting of G-7 foreign ministers in London, according to officials, who were granted anonymity to discuss private talks. Officials meeting on Tuesday spent some 90 minutes discussing ways in which China tries to get nations and individuals to do what it wants via the Belt and Road initiative or by leveling economic threats, according to a senior State Department official who spoke on condition of anonymity.

The U.S. wants a consultation mechanism that would involve the G-7 — as well as other stakeholders — to ensure a coordinated response to China’s moves and with the aim of bolstering the resilience of G-7 nations, according to another diplomat.

[…] Also discussed was a proposal to set up a group called “Friends of Hong Kong” to share information and concerns about the former British colony, according to a diplomat familiar with the matter. China last year imposed a sweeping national security law on Hong Kong last year in the wake of anti-government protests in 2019. [Source]

The summit concluded with a communique criticizing China’s actions in Hong Kong, Xinjiang, and the Taiwan Strait. For the Financial Times, Christian Shepherd and Demetri Sevastopulo detailed the G7’s position and China’s response:

In a communique released after the G7 foreign ministers held two days of talks in London, all seven countries for the first time voiced unified support for Taiwan participating in the WHO forums and the World Health Assembly, the organisation’s policymaking body.

[…] “The G7 foreign ministers’ baseless accusations against China . . . [are] bloc politics trying to turn back the wheel of history,” it said.

[…] The G7 also criticised Beijing over alleged human rights abuses in Xinjiang and Tibet and its erosion of democratic elections in Hong Kong, and warned against its role in cyber-enabled intellectual property theft. [Source]

Despite Taiwan’s excellent response to the COVID-19 crisis, its entreaties to rejoin the World Health Organization have been consistently rejected since it was first blocked from the organization in 1997. Recent escalations in the ever-present tensions in the Taiwan Strait—The Economist recently labeled it, perhaps hyperbolically, “the most dangerous place on earth”—placed Taiwan at the center of discussions. The G7 ministers also called for “independent and unfettered access” to Xinjiang. The current lack of this was underscored by a virtual meeting, “Xinjiang is a Wonderful Land,” hosted by the Chinese Embassy in the United States, which called critical reporting on mass internment there “the lie of the century.”

Secretary of State Antony Blinken rejected framing of the G7’s coordination on China policy as part of a new “Cold War,” but told CBS’ 60 Minutes, “Anyone who poses a challenge to that [rules-based] order, we’re going to stand up and–and defend it.” He also cautioned Western countries about Chinese investment, intimating that it came with significant political and strategic strings attached. Blinken’s comments were a window into Biden’s China policy, which promises “extreme competition” in some sectors, co-operation on others (notably climate change), and conflict on human rights.

The Biden administration hopes to forge a multinational coalition to guide global policy making. The results of a recent poll of 53 democratic countries’ citizens do not indicate a fierce global appetite for a United States-led international order, however. 44% of respondents identified the United States as a threat to democracy in their countries. By comparison, only 38% viewed China as a threat, and only 28% implicated Russia. At Foreign Policy, Stephen M. Walt suggested why China’s vision for the global order might be compelling to some states around the globe:

At the risk of oversimplifying, China’s preferred world order is essentially Westphalian. It emphasizes territorial sovereignty and noninterference, embraces a world where many different political orders exist, and privileges the (supposed) needs of the collective (such as economic security) over the rights or freedoms of the individual. As political scientist Jessica Chen Weiss recently put it, China seeks a world order that is “safe for autocracy,” where universalist claims about individual rights do not jeopardize the authority of the Chinese Communist Party or inspire criticism of its internal policies.

[…] For starters, nondemocratic leaders—and that still means most governments around the world—may prefer a world order that gives each state the right to determine its own system of government and where it is considered illegitimate for outsiders to pressure them over what is taking place within their borders. Not surprisingly, China’s willingness to provide development assistance without conditioning it on domestic reforms (as U.S. and Western aid programs generally do), has proven to be especially appealing in some countries. Right off the bat, therefore, China’s defense of noninterference and its rejection of liberal norms is going to win support from a lot of autocrats.

[…] Third, China’s position is less vulnerable to the charge of hypocrisy. Proclaiming that all states should be permitted to develop as they see fit leaves it free to do business with democracies, military dictatorships, and monarchies and to tailor its relations with each to local conditions. The United States looks two-faced when it proclaims liberal principles but continues to support close allies that routinely violate these ideals, but China can trade, invest, and cooperate with anyone without being inconsistent. [Source]

A viral spoof of the G7 group photo captured the zeitgeist in China’s diplomatic corps—that the current international order is an anachronism destined to crumble. In a speech at the Boao forum, Xi Jinping said, “The world wants justice, not hegemony,” alluding to the United States and implicitly proposing a fundamentally different global order. In The Economist’s Chaguan column, David Rennie wrote that China fears a United States-led global order, but has confidence that it will not re-materialize:

Leaders of china and America share an obsession: the notion that a large enough coalition of Western democracies might have the heft to confront a rising China about its authoritarian, state-capitalist ways, and demand that it follow a new trajectory, one that does less damage to norms and universal values that have governed the rich world since 1945.

[…] In fact, these two rival powers are obsessing about something that is not likely to happen. For one thing, America’s allies have few illusions that any group of outsiders, even one led from Washington, can tell today’s China what will and will not stand. As a Western diplomat in Beijing glumly notes, such countries as Britain, France and Germany “are close to accepting the inevitability of China’s rise”, and so are out of alignment with America. For another, lots of Western democracies are fractious and mistrustful, especially after four years of Trumpian bridge-burning. European and Asian democracies alike are wary of joining America in anything resembling a cold-war effort to check China’s aggression—especially if it jeopardises profitable trade relationships.

[…] Such words do not frighten China. Confident in the power offered by its vast market, it hopes that foreign governments will hurry up and realise that resistance to its rise is futile. If resistance means forming blocs to contain China, then America’s allies already agree. But those same democracies are also channelling a growing distrust into defences that will introduce new frictions into relations with China. Friction is a form of resistance, too. [Source]

China’s barely concealed triumphalism might yet be premature as a spate of diplomatic spats have harmed its international standing. The Philippines’ Secretary of Foreign Affairs, normally friendly if not downright chummy with Chinese diplomats, instructed China to leave the South China Sea in a series of profanity laced tweets. The European Union shelved a long-awaited investment deal with China after the latter sanctioned a number of diplomats, academics, and politicians for their commentary on Xinjiang. In Foreign Policy’s China Brief, James Palmer explained how the diplomatic kerfuffles highlighted above are symptomatic of an authoritarian bureaucracy that promotes ideologues instead of professionals:

The intense political mood in China explains some of this behavior, with posts aimed at bosses at home rather than a foreign audience. Junior bureaucrats often see jingoistic rhetoric online as a way to get noticed. But many of the incidents are outright blunders that reflect an underlying problem: In periods of heightened political tension, the bombastic—and sometimes the mediocre—are more likely to be promoted than the careful bureaucrats diplomacy usually requires.

These types of officials can be more willing to acquiesce with the political mood as a useful route to prominence and success. In an atmosphere of political paranoia, in which bureaucrats fear betrayal by underlings, higher-level officials are more likely to act as patrons to lower-ranking officials they know to be pliable because they pose less of a threat.

This trend toward relative mediocrity isn’t a uniquely Chinese phenomenon. The best description of it comes from this paper by the researchers Diego Gambetta and Gloria Origgi on the preference for low-quality work within public and private institutions in Italy. What is dangerous in China is the combination of officials adapted for domestic survival with a challenging external environment in which mistakes can wreck international relationships. [Source]


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