By Kellen McCullum
“The trend of global multipolarity, economic globalization, IT application, and cultural diversity are surging forward; changes in the global governance system and the international order are speeding up.” – Xi Jinping, work report to the 19th National Congress of the CPC[i]
Where We Stand
Anxiety within the transatlantic community is rising over the emergence of the People’s Republic of China (PRC) as a pivotal player in geopolitics and global security, with its newfound structural capacities to shape outcomes favorable to its interests. As General Secretary of the Communist Party of China (CPC) Xi Jinping has repeatedly touched on, contemporary China is finding its footing as a major country and forging the tools of statecraft necessary to shape global outcomes in support of socialist modernization and the ‘Great Rejuvenation of the Chinese Nation.’[ii] As the Chinese nation gathers its strength, Party leadership continues to direct dual campaigns to shape international opinion on China’s benevolent rise and, in certain respects, lobby within other political systems for policies acceptable to the party-state in ways that undermine democratic institutions.
The West has been both an enabler and beneficiary of China’s rise, as much of Europe and North America tethered their economic fortunes to China’s period of reform and opening. China’s gradual integration into the global economy, culminating in its 2001 accession to the World Trade Organization (WTO), was to be a symbol of the tangible benefits of bringing ideological adversaries in from the shadows. Beijing, leveraging its labor pool and with full agency over its selective economic opening, made good use of an export-oriented economic model. China has made important strides in what Deng Xiaoping declared as the ‘primary stage of socialism’.[iii] Decades later, China is still in that primary stage,[iv] albeit with advanced productive forces and a modernized economic base. China’s central role in the global political economy has become evident as Xi steers the nation out of a period of laying low on the world stage,[v] stepping out with confidence in the path, guiding theories, political system, and culture the CPC has sought to nurture. Though this marks a departure from the primary emphasis placed on the development of productive forces and improving the material livelihoods of the Chinese people during the Deng era, Beijing never truly abandoned its vision of a potent state able to showcase China’s cultural vitality and demonstrate the prowess of the one-party state.
The world must now sort through the implications of China’s rise, and the anchors of the liberal, rules-based international system find themselves contending with Beijing’s structural power dynamics that rival those of the post-war order.[vi] One key feature of Chinese power confronting NATO allies is the willingness of Beijing to leverage soft power capacities to achieve strategic objectives. The successes of its influence operations illustrate a glaring pitfall of the West’s engagement with China as we have come to know it, in that our comparatively open political systems provide strategic windows of opportunity for state actors to take advantage of legitimate political processes and freedoms in support of their own nefarious ends. As NATO and its members gain a full picture of the breadth and depth of Chinese influence within their spheres of influence, they will discover just how damaging its worldwide influence operations are to other relatively open political systems. I argue that formulating a coherent policy response at both the national level and within NATO to counter and punish such subversive behavior requires that policymakers steer clear of strategies that would reduce official contacts with Beijing and work to maintain and reinvigorate the very democratic systems of governance China’s polity would argue are ill-equipped to compete in the new era.
Why NATO should care about the view from Zhongnanhai
The challenges posed by Beijing to the interests of NATO as an institution and its individual members are formidable. Before a nascent China policy entrenches itself within the Alliance – China was labeled a ‘systemic challenge’ for the first time during this year’s NATO Summit[vii] – a comprehensive understanding of the values and beliefs that undergird state efforts to exercise influence abroad is a prerequisite to knowing how and at what point Chinese influence operations should be checked. Not only must policymakers within the Alliance identify these variables, but they must seek to understand the political sensitivities that underpin Chinese influence operations and treat top decisionmakers in Zhongnanhai as rational actors.
Reorienting the way we think about how Beijing pursues its national interests in foreign affairs and why it does so is no easy task, due in part to inherent biases. Some elements of our political discourse in recent years have been poisoned by racism and broad anti-Asian violence. These developments must also be countered with vigor, as they weaken our approach to formulating coherent policy responses. Attaining an understanding of what motivates Beijing would not only enable decision makers to know what they are up against but would also empower them to distinguish between standing up to authoritarianism and violations of sovereignty, and hateful vitriol disguised as ‘tough on China’ policy. The latter would play into a narrative propagated by Beijing: that those who did their utmost to subjugate China in the past are intent on stifling its rise today.
To be sure, however, these initiatives should not be misconstrued as sympathizing with Beijing’s activities that undermine cohesion in the West. We should be clear-eyed about the potential threat China poses not only to NATO as an institution, but to individual members that are drawn by the specter of engagement with Beijing which may in turn inhibit their ability to act in unison with allies and partners to rebuff subversive activities. We should care about how China sees the world not to accommodate its conduct of foreign affairs when it collides with our interests, but to inform those tasked with drawing up a framework within which Chinese missteps, made wittingly or otherwise, can be deterred, countered, or punished accordingly.
The benefit of raising our collective literacy of what motivates Beijing’s influence campaigns in the Xi Jinping era and how they are manifested is twofold. It would allow NATO as an institution and its individual members to gauge risk and preempt actions that can erode faith in the democratic process, rather than mitigating the fallout from damaging and embarrassing revelations of influence operations. It would also rectify some misguided strategic thinking, an example of which was on display at the June summit in Brussels. For example, Secretary General Jens Stoltenberg raised the issue of China’s nuclear modernization, saying the Alliance was concerned over China “rapidly expanding its nuclear arsenal, with more warheads and a large number of sophisticated delivery systems.”[viii]
The gradual growth and refining of PRC nuclear capabilities is an ostensibly menacing development that should be taken seriously. Expressing general disappointment over China’s nuclear ambitions, however, misses the point of China’s military reform and modernization initiated decades ago and accelerated under Xi Jinping. The nuclear element of Beijing’s modernization drive is commensurate with its position on the world stage, makes up for a lack of hard power capacities – which is also being addressed – and is geared toward near term contingencies of primary political importance to the CPC.[ix] NATO is and should be worried about an expanding and more sophisticated nuclear arsenal, as well as the evolution of the People’s Liberation Army into a lethal, competent fighting force. That worry, however, must be accompanied by a sober assessment of what these security objectives and capabilities support. Most of China’s nuclear forces are geared toward regional deployment, with an eye to Taiwan, a nuclear-armed India with whom China is in a protracted territorial dispute, the East and South China Seas, and the United States’ substantial and growing presence in the Indo-Pacific. The challenges faced by the party-state on these matters are becoming more acute – the issue of timing concerning Taiwan’s reunification with the mainland under CPC leadership, securing maritime interests, and the ability of the PLA to take offensive measures in the region while keeping US forces at bay. Furthermore, select NATO allies are also becoming more involved in the region, as manifested by a patrol of the South China Sea by a French submarine in February, as well as the British-led Carrier Strike Group 21 (CSG21) currently underway with American and Dutch support, which will conduct exercises with a host of regional partners. As a result, Beijing needs ironclad guarantees that it can bring a plethora of security contingencies to their correct conclusion should a military solution be called for.
The pursuit of ‘national rejuvenation’ binds these security interests together and pressures CPC leadership in ways NATO decision makers may not fully grasp. For the first time modern China, under the current leadership, has laid down benchmarks and imposed a deadline for ‘socialist modernization’ by the centenary of the PRC in 2049. The political fallout from failing to achieve any of the above, especially in the case of a failed effort to retake Taiwan, would be significant and undermine the four confidences Xi has called on the Party to embrace and project in its external relations.[x] For these reasons, China’s gradual buildup and modernization of its nuclear forces, including its nascent triad capability, should make sense to anyone really paying attention.
What can NATO as an institution do to counter China’s nefarious influence?
Raising our collective literacy of Beijing’s interests and how they are manifested in foreign policy will prove instrumental in upholding the chief commonality among NATO allies: our democratic values. Our political systems, despite their many faults exposed by an era of disinformation and the emergence of far-right extremism, remain crucial incubators of ideas, where competing priorities and thoughts contend. That very openness, however, is exactly what leaves our societies open to manipulation. In this regard, Beijing already has a demonstrated history of leveraging contacts or attempting to groom assets to lobby for policy on its behalf. In the case of Australia, political donations from Chinese diaspora linked to the CPC were alleged to have been made with the aim of making Canberra’s China policy less confrontational. A professor at an Australian university had his original book contract cancelled canceled due to what Allen and Unwin, the publisher, cited as the potential for legal action from “Beijing’s agents of influence.”[xi]
Why does China engage in these and other influence operations around the world, even at the risk of discovery and admonishment? One reason is that Beijing wishes to disseminate a narrative that supports the Party’s enduring position atop China’s political hierarchy.[xii] Take Xi Jinping’s work report at the 19th National Congress in 2017, when he referenced the “trend of the times” being in China’s favor. Narrative is a key plank of Chinese statecraft. This fact becomes even more salient when one understands China’s dearth of formal alliances and its many transactional economic arrangements with non-aligned states.[xiii]
Engage Beijing. Strengthen democracy at home.
Despite an ever-louder chorus of voices within governments advocating confrontation with Beijing no holds barred, NATO must recognize the fallacy of applying such a shortsighted solution to the foremost geopolitical player in Asia. Setting in motion an antagonistic relationship between NATO as an institution and China would only play into narratives propagated by Beijing of a transatlantic body losing focus and Europeans doing the bidding of the United States.[xiv] Instead, the Alliance should choose engagement and communication as the overriding theme of its efforts to counter malign influences. Such an approach would not signify weakness, but quite the opposite. The Alliance needs to communicate with one voice that the pursuit of China’s economic and political interests in Europe and North America end where risks to the cohesion and integrity of our political and governing institutions begin. Xi’s China must be compelled to understand that activities intent on crossing this line will be named, shamed, and if necessary, severely punished.
To drive home the point, NATO should seek to engage important actors within the party-state and communicate through the right diplomatic channels on important matters. This could involve circumventing official PRC representatives in foreign affairs who do not have the ear of Xi Jinping and are positioned outside the core of the CPC. The Biden administration exemplified this effort with its insistence that Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin meet with Xu Qiliang, Vice Chairman of China’s Central Military Commission (CMC) and member of the Politburo of the CPC, as opposed to the PRC Defense Minister who is only Austin’s equal in nominal terms.[xv] Although that effort failed, it sends the message that while engagement is a priority, it should bear fruit and bring together actors on both sides who wield real political authority. Other governments should adopt this approach and be supported by fellow allies when Beijing dismisses such efforts as posturing and grandstanding. Only by tapping the close confidants of China’s most consequential leader since Mao Zedong will seeds be planted that may change Beijing’s calculus in the medium to long term. NATO should, however, expect its warnings to Beijing that it butt out of some policy areas to be ignored, which is why member states must prepare potent policy responses that necessitate reliance on each other despite diverging interests on China policy.
Engagement is not an end-all solution. It alone does not deter adversaries or deliver sought outcomes. But engagement and effective communication are the most important safeguards against kinetic confrontation, which would exacerbate and likely intensify Chinese influence operations seeking to undermine NATO as an institution and play member states off each other through economic and other inducements.
Equally important for NATO allies is the task of strengthening democracy at home. Collective efforts aimed at rolling back China’s disruptive and subversive influences will prove effective only if the preceding policy processes are sound. Across the NATO alliance, sentiment on China is resoundingly negative. Translating this unfavorable view into appropriate, corresponding policy requires increasing societies’ participation in the political process. While seemingly straightforward, winning over the support of various electorates is an uphill battle, especially during a pandemic-induced economic downturn on top of chronic economic insecurity. Mistrust of political institutions is rampant, and the very foundations of democratic processes within the NATO alliance are coming under scrutiny. Political leadership in some member states has exacerbated these misgivings, from former U.S. President Donald Trump’s self-preservation strategy of questioning the integrity of American elections, to Turkish President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s autocratic pivot after a 2016 coup attempt and everything in between. Renewing democratic processes across the Alliance is an immense challenge, but one NATO cannot afford to shy away from in the face of the security and political threats emanating from Beijing.
Winning through collective action and individual reflection
Firmly countering the nefarious influences of any state is warranted. In the case of China, punishing the sort of subversive behavior with the severity it deserves and in a timely manner will strike at the heart of Beijing’s soft power projection. At the same time, Europe and North America must double down on their democratic modes of governance. As mentioned previously, in a competition with an authoritarian state, democracy is a strength that should be leveraged to shore up its susceptibility to disinformation and influence operations. Sending a clear, consistent message that efforts to undermine democratic principles or pit NATO allies against each other through a strategic wedging strategy do not serve Beijing’s interests and will erode its ability to pursue the outcomes it seeks through disruptive actions. To have the best chance at bringing about the change we seek, NATO should be at the forefront of dialing back anti-China rhetoric and instead proceed with a coherent, coordinated strategy to roll back Chinese influence within the Alliance where damaging to our collective interest.
About the Author
Kellen McCullum is a research fellow at the Center for Security Analyses and Prevention, where he researches China’s security and development interests in the Xi Jinping era. He is also a foreign policy contributor and co-editor at China BIG Idea, a daily newsletter that seeks to convey to global decision makers the substantial economic opportunities as well as the risks of doing business in the People’s Republic. He graduated from the University of Kent’s Brussels School of International Studies (BSIS) in 2020, where he received his MA in International Political Economy with Foreign Policy Analysis. His other research interests include China’s political economy, external drivers of policy change and reform in the Xi era, and elite party politics.
[i] “Xi Jinping’s report at the 19th CPC National Congress,” Xinhua, 3 November 2017, http://www.xinhuanet.com/english/special/2017-11/03/c_136725942.htm.
[ii] "The Chinese Dream of national rejuvenation is laid out in volumes I and II of Xi Jinping’s," The Governance of China, Xi Jinping, The Governance of China I, Foreign Languages Press, 2014; Xi Jinping, The Governance of China II, Foreign Languages Press, 2017.
[iv] Xi Jinping, "The Governance of China II," 38
[v] Yang Jiechi, “Under the guidance of Xi Jinping’s thoughts on diplomacy, strive to promote major-country diplomacy with Chinese Characteristics,” Seeking Truth, 1 September 2019.
[vi] Matteo Dian, “Does China have Structural Power? Rethinking Chinese Power and its Consequences for the International Order,” The Journal of Northeast Asian History 13, no. 2 (2016), http://publication.gsis.snu.ac.kr/?download_doc_id=6504.
[vii] Finbarr Bermingham, “Nato says China presents ‘systemic challenges’ and vows to counter its rise,” South China Morning Post, 14 June 2021, https://www.scmp.com/news/china/diplomacy/article/3137272/nato-says-china-presents-systemic-challenges-and-vows-counter?module=lead_hero_story_2&pgtype=homepage.
[x] “Footprints: Major Events in CPC History 1921-2021,” china.org.cn, 1 July 2016, http://www.china.org.cn/china/2021-06/01/content_77231327.htm.
[xi] Amy Searight, “Countering China’s Influence Operations: Lessons from Australia,” Center for Strategic and International Studies, 8 May 2020, https://www.csis.org/analysis/countering-chinas-influence-operations-lessons-australia.
[xii] Lucille Liu, Jing Li, and James Mayger, “Xi Seeks ‘Lovable’ Image for China in Sign of Diplomatic Rethink,” Bloomberg News, 1 June 2021.
[xiii] Derek Grossman, “China’s friends are few and unreliable,” Nikkei Asia, 11 October 2020, https://asia.nikkei.com/Opinion/China-s-friends-are-few-and-unreliable.
[xiv] See example of such a narrative: “EU Parliament pleases itself halting China: Global Times editorial,” Global Times, 20 May 2021, https://www.globaltimes.cn/page/202105/1224084.shtml.
[xv] Demetri Sevastopulo, “Beijing rebuffs Pentagon requests for high-level military talks,” Financial Times, 21 May 2021, https://www.ft.com/content/c82ccb08-c0fc-468f-897f-6bab7350485d.
Photo credit: klau.co, https://klau.co/beijing/
This publication was co-sponsored by the North Atlantic Treaty Organization.