Dr Zeno Leoni, Defence Studies Department
The Communist Party of China (CPC) will be celebrating its 100th birthday on July 1, 2021. It is an anniversary that comes at a very symbolic moment. Ironically, just as the international campaign for the People’s Republic of China (PRC) to change course from state capitalism to a free-market economy may have reached its zenith, the CPC celebrates this pretty important milestone. Furthermore, it is about to overtake the Communist Party of the Soviet Union record by having the ‘longest unbroken rule by any political party’. Despite the anti-communist pressure from outside China that has been growing, the CPC has much to celebrate as it reflects on its 100 years – and with two presents of historical significance recently delivered by the West.
The first is what appears to be a tacit endorsement by the West of China’s much-reviled state-capitalism. China’s state capitalism, coupled with a foreign policy that successfully uses economic investment in foreign strategic industries and infrastructures to fulfil geopolitical objectives, has enabled this great power to flourish. This has been the case even in the shadow of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 that so badly affected the West. As the Serbo-American economist Branko Milanovic explained in Foreign Affairs, China’s positive performance has ‘undermine[ed] the West’s claim that there is a necessary link between capitalism and liberal democracy’. Similarly, The Economist commented that one of the lessons of Covid-19 in relation to China’s position within global supply chains is that ‘change would involve upending well-established political and economic theories’.
Recently, key government documents in the West have indicated that the policy-making of these governments is undergoing a shift as they seek to integrate different leavers of power to more effectively match resources to strategic goals. This is especially so when it comes to China.
A UK parliament report linked the concept of the ‘cross-government’ approach to Britain’s China policy. Whilst the UK government’s Integrated Review also endorses the same concept in relation to defending democracy from foreign interference. The US National Authorization Act 2019 more explicitly states that the administration must implement a ‘whole-of-government strategy with respect to the People’s Republic of China’. Moreover, the Innovation and Competition Act of 2021, approved on 8 June, compels US policy-makers to be mindful of security issues even when conducting tasks not directly related to grand strategy.
The second present for the CPC from the West was delivered recently at the G7 in Cornwall, where it became very clear that President Biden was going to struggle to organise a unified, anti-China front. To start with, the G7 communiqué confirmed that members ‘will cooperate to address the challenge posed by China’ but only ‘where it is in our mutual interest’. Meanwhile, the Financial Times reported that while the US was keen to make the most of the G7 summit about China, ‘Britain sought to avoid framing it in those terms’. Likewise, EU diplomats revealed that the UK, Canada, and Italy advocated for a more nuanced China policy compared to Biden’s hard line and that the EU’s approach should be one of ‘cooperate’, ‘compete’, and ‘contest’.
The elephant in the room was the tensions bubbling under the surface in the Anglosphere stemming from the backlash of Boris Johnson’s seemingly endless clashes with the EU. These are in relation to the Northern Ireland Protocol but also to the US reluctance to conclude a trade agreement with the UK. This is making the task of mending the diplomatic rifts caused by Trump and uniting allies against China all the harder for Biden.
All in all, with the Chinese model of capitalism seemingly being vindicated and a more fragile trans-Atlantic bloc, there is much to celebrate for the Chinese Communist Party. However, the 100th birthday is not the end of the story for the CPC, but rather the beginning of a new phase, with quite a few stumbling blocks ahead.
To start with, while the Biden Administration will not succeed at reviving the sort of Atlantic alliance that existed during the Cold War, the international mood about the CPC’s domestic and foreign policies has clearly shifted, and there will be additional scrutiny over every step China takes.
In Australia, a close economic partner of China, there has been a ‘reality check’ in recent years. In Italy, China’s propagandistic coverage on social media of medical help dispatched during the first wave of Covid-19 was described by the parliamentary committee for intelligence services as an ‘infodemic’ campaign. This has led international relations experts and practitioners to accuse China of practising ‘sharp power’ – a concept that captures how authoritarian countries apply soft power in an aggressive and manipulative manner to further their national interests. In the UK, meanwhile, the so-called Golden Era between London and Beijing has firmly come to an end, as evidenced in the Integrated Review, which stated that the PRC ‘presents the biggest state-based threat to the UK’s economic security’.
The list of countries revising and rebalancing their economic and security interests towards China is long and growing. Perhaps, this is what led Xi Jinping on June 2 to recommend that CPC officials showcase an image of a ‘credible, loveable and respectable China’ and that it is ‘necessary to … constantly expand the circle of friends [when it comes to] international public opinion’.
This makes the biggest obstacle the CPC faces over the next 100 years all the more challenging, as it seeks to navigate the global economy as dictated by countries of the Liberal International Order (LIO) and, especially, amidst the irresolvable tension between national and transnational interests.
Western countries, in their post-Cold War China policies, neglected strategic thinking because they were too ‘busy feasting at the Chinese table’. They are now struggling to rebalance their policy priorities. Similarly, the CPC in the years to come will have to find the right balance between being open and closed, between those domestic, core, and unnegotiable interests that transformed the PRC into a great power – such as the endurance of the CPC – and the grow-or-perish pressure that capitalism imposes on every country. It is a dilemma potentially aggravated by the West’s efforts to securitise sensitive supply chains and selectively decouple from China, with both short-term and long-term effects. Weaponised interdependence is likely to become a defining feature in future Sino-Western relations, although its implications are unpredictable at this stage.
At its 100th birthday, the Communist Party of China celebrates victory in the first round of a contest that has lasted for about half a century, during which the West has had to deal with the ‘blowback’ of encouraging China to join the LIO, which clearly played in China’s favour. Now, let the second round begin.