• The Star Staff

China says it remains open to the world, but wants to dictate terms

By Stephen Lee and Keith Bradsher

After Australia dared last spring to call for an investigation into the origins of the coronavirus, China began quietly blocking one import after another from Australia — coal, wine, barley and cotton — in violation of free trade norms. Then this month, with no clear explanation, China left $3 million worth of Australian rock lobsters dying in Shanghai customs.

Australia nonetheless joined 14 Asian nations and just signed a new regional free trade deal brokered by China. The agreement covers nearly a third of the world’s population and output, reinforcing China’s position as the dominant economic and diplomatic power in Asia.

It’s globalization with communist characteristics: The Chinese government promotes the country’s openness to the world, even as it adopts increasingly aggressive and at times punitive policies that force countries to play by its rules.

With the United States and others wary of its growing dominance in areas like technology, China wants to become less dependent on the world for its own needs, while making the world as dependent as possible on China.

“China wants what other great powers do,” Yun Jiang, a researcher and editor of the China Story at the Australian National University. “It wants to follow international rules and norms when it is in its interest, and disregard rules and norms when the circumstances suit it.”

China’s strategy is born out of strength. The coronavirus has practically disappeared within its borders. The country’s economy is growing strongly. And China’s manufacturing sector has become the world’s largest by a wide margin, leaving other nations heavily dependent on it for everything from medical gear to advanced electronics.

China’s government is also pushing back against President Donald Trump and his administration, taking advantage of the political disarray that has followed his electoral defeat. Beijing’s confidence on the global stage now compounds the challenge China will pose for the incoming administration of Joe Biden.

In a flurry of speeches over the last week, Xi Jinping, China’s ambitious, authoritarian leader, laid out his vision for this new world order, while making clear his terms for global engagement.

He reiterated at the annual Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit, an important regional forum, that the country had no intention of going it alone and “decoupling” its economy from the world. Appearing by videoconference, he said China remained committed to opening up and would “play its part” to make the global economy “fairer and more equitable.”

“Openness is a prerequisite for national progress, and closure will inevitably lead to backwardness,” Xi said in remarks that seemed to take a swipe at Trump’s America-first agenda.

At the same time, Xi is aggressively pushing for greater economic self-reliance at home — in other words, at least a partial decoupling. Xi has called for protectionist policies that would “comprehensively increase technological innovation and import substitution.”

During a meeting with leaders of the Group of 20 nations this past weekend, he defended his new strategy to build greater self-sufficiency as a benefit to the global economy.

“While making the Chinese economy more resilient and competitive, it also aims to build a new system of open economy with higher standards,” he said. “This will create more opportunities for the world to benefit from China’s high-quality development.”

Xi wants to tether other countries ever more tightly into China’s economic and thus geopolitical orbit. In a speech to other Chinese leaders, recently published by a Communist Party journal, he called for Beijing to make sure that other countries remained dependent on China for key goods, as a way to ensure that they would not try to halt their own shipments to China.

Xi’s own economic and political policies this year have been the mirror opposite. China’s plan, Xi has said, is to lessen dependence on imports, insulating the country from rising external risks, including the threat of a long, pandemic-induced global economic downturn and the severing of Chinese access to American high-tech know-how.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo said recently that countries now faced a choice between “barbarism on one side and freedom on the other.”

“We’ve woken them up to the threat posed by this Marxist-Leninist monster,” he said.

In the Asia-Pacific region, few governments view the choice so starkly. With many of them more dependent on trade with China now than with the U.S., they cannot easily turn away. China, by far, is the largest market for Australia’s goods, buying nearly 38% of its exports; the U.S. accounts for 4%.

“The world as it exists today cannot be reduced to the rivalry of superpowers,” Laurent Bili, the French ambassador to China, said at a conference organized last week by the Center for China and Globalization, a Beijing research group.

Trump’s go-it-alone approach has given China an opening to portray itself as the champion of globalization. In Beijing’s argument, it is the U.S. that has now retreated by trying to restrict Chinese investments.

China is not only trying to capitalize on American political disarray but also to repair the damage that the pandemic has caused to China’s image, especially in Europe.

“The United States is still in electoral chaos, while China is forming the world’s largest trade agreement,” the Ministry of Commerce in Beijing wrote on its official website recently.

State media has struck a similar chord, trumpeting China as the defender of the global order. An opinion article by state broadcaster CGTN was blunt, warning that those who would cut off links with China “are likely to end up on the outside of the world’s economic gravity.”

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