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China in ‘global contest’ with US for power, influence: report

Vehicles carry DF-5B intercontinental ballistic missiles during a Chinese military parade. (Voice of America/Released)
December 05, 2020

This article was originally published by Radio Free Asia and is reprinted with permission.

China under the leadership of President Xi Jinping is increasing its efforts to replace the United States as a major world power, strengthening its military for greater force projection and seeking ways to present its one-party, authoritarian style of government as an alternative to Western models of liberal democracy, according to a new report.

China’s ruling Communist Party now sees itself engaged “in a systemic struggle with the United States and other democratic countries over the future of the world order,” the U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission (USCC) said in its annual report released on Tuesday.

“Beijing seeks to use its growing power to transform the international order, ultimately legitimizing its repressive governance system; expanding its economic, security, and political interests and restoring China to what it views as its rightful place in the world.”

Military modernization programs are now pushing China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) toward new capabilities as a “world-class military,” the report by the USCC, established in 2000 to report each year to the U.S. Congress, says.

“Authoritative sources suggest Chinese leaders aspire to project force and be capable of fighting limited wars around the globe by the middle of the century,” especially in defense of Beijing’s foreign investments, with nearly 100 civilian ports operated or partly owned by Chinese companies in other countries easily converted to military use.

China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), under which Beijing invests in major infrastructure projects around the world, has meanwhile become a platform for establishing “a Sinocentric world order,” the USCC said.

“The initiative has no membership protocols or formal rules but is based on informal agreements and a network of bilateral deals with China as the hub and other countries as the spokes. This framework lets Beijing act arbitrarily and dictate terms as the stronger party.”

‘Systemic flaws’ in governance

China’s efforts to promote itself as a responsible world leader “superior” to democratic Western countries in its handling of the spread of COVID-19 have had less success, though, the report says, adding that countries already suspicious of the CCP say “it failed to contain the virus where it originated and withheld information until it was too late to avoid a global pandemic.”

“The rapid spread of COVID-19 from Wuhan across China and beyond its borders revealed a range of systemic flaws in the Chinese governance system,” including an active suppression of information, concern for political image, and bureaucratic paralysis that “combined to severely delay any meaningful policy response.”

China’s takeover this year of Hong Kong under a draconian national security law, bringing it “under full and direct authoritarian rule,” has also resulted in new international scrutiny of Beijing’s intentions around the world, the USCC report says.

“This action was one of many in 2020—including border skirmishes with India, military exercises to intimidate Taiwan, and pressure on Australia, Canada, and the United Kingdom, among others—that demonstrated the Chinese government’s indifference to its reputation abroad.”

Beijing’s final move on Hong Kong, silencing of criticism and dissent at home, and abusive campaigns of cultural assimilation against the Tibetans, ethnic Mongolians, and mostly Muslim Uyghurs living under its rule have also caught the world’s attention, according to the report.

The self-governing island of Taiwan, recently facing growing calls from China to unify with the mainland under a “one country, two systems” model now shown to be flawed, has meanwhile take note of Hong Kong’s fate and has firmly rejected Beijing’s demands.

“President Tsai Ing-wen’s reelection in Taiwan and public support for the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong [has] underscored the island’s resolve to remain free in the face of escalating Chinese coercion,” the report says.

US pushes back

The administration of U.S. President Donald Trump has pushed back hard at China in recent months, implementing visa restrictions and other measures in October against top officials in Hong Kong’s government and police deemed responsible for curtailing the city’s freedoms, and has warned of sanctions for international banks and other institutions found doing business with them.

And in July, the U.S. Treasury Department sanctioned a key paramilitary group in China’s Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region (XUAR) and two of its current and former officials deemed responsible for rights violations against Uyghurs, over a million of whom are believed to have been held under harsh conditions in a vast network of political internment and reeducation camps in the region.

The Trump administration has also called on the U.S. higher education sector to reconsider their partnerships with the Confucius Institutes—cultural and language-teaching institutes run and partly funded by the Chinese Communist Party—saying the institutes provide Beijing with a foothold to exert political influence on American campuses and pose a threat to free speech.

Confucius Institutes are currently embedded in more than 60 U.S. universities, offering Mandarin-language teachings, cultural activities, and other events to students. A recent State Department report has called the programs a “foreign mission” of the Chinese Communist Party.

At least 39 U.S. universities have announced plans since early 2019 to end agreements allowing Confucius Institutes to operate, according to a conservative non-profit group, the National Association of Scholars.