For countless centuries, tribes have fought and conquered other tribes, nations have fought and conquered other nations, empires have fought and conquered other empires.
After World War II, a different future was imagined. The United States created the hopefully named “United Nations.” Americans began to build what would become known as the “liberal international rules-based order.”
When the Soviet Union disintegrated, America was left as what Charles Krauthammer termed “the unipolar power.” Unlike hegemons of the past, and consistent with the international order it had nurtured, the United States sought consensus, shared decision-making, attempted to resolve conflicts through diplomacy, obeyed rules and signed multilateral treaties that constrained its own power. A long period of peace and rising prosperity seemed all but inevitable.
You know what happened next. Revanchist movements utilizing terrorism arose in both Sunni (e.g., Al-Qaeda) and Shi’ite (e.g., the Islamic Republic of Iran) forms. Vladimir Putin, who came to power in Russia, was not interested in cordial relations with the United States. And then there was the People’s Republic of China.
For decades, American leaders were confident that outreach, engagement and increasing economic interdependence would transform China’s Communist rulers into solid stakeholders in the international order.
Slowly but surely, evidence to the contrary has been accumulating. Only those determinedly ignoring that evidence continue to insist that Xi Jinping, the most powerful Chinese ruler since Mao Zedong, does not have global ambitions and an intricate strategy to achieve them.
Consider Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, which is transforming weak nations around the world into dependencies. Consider Beijing’s manipulation of the United Nations and such affiliated bodies as the World Health Organization and the World Trade Organization. Consider that despite Beijing’s heinous oppression of the subject peoples of Xinjiang, Tibet and Hong Kong, China this month was elected a member of the U.N. Human Rights Council. How many European Union officials opposed that or at least expressed concern? Not one.
Another significant strand in Xi’s strategic tapestry is revealed in a new study by two Foundation for Defense of Democracies scholars. Emily de La Bruyere and Nathan Picarsic have found that Beijing is on track to “capture the modern networks, technical standards, and technology platforms that will form the foundation of the 21st-century global economy.”
You might ask: “What’s wrong with that? Let them compete!” But the goal of China’s rulers is not to win within the international order but rather to restructure that order so that only they can win.
De La Bruyere and Picarsic write: “Beijing does not seek to out-innovate its competitors through direct competition on a level playing field. Rather, China exploits partnerships with foreign companies, governments, and institutions to siphon technology. Those technologies and international partnerships enable Beijing to export and shape networks, standards, and platforms that lock in enduring advantages for China.”
Their report details how Beijing enlists Chinese companies in support of its “military-civil fusion” policy. It instructs them to obtain technology from other countries, “including through joint ventures and forced technology transfers within those partnerships. To proliferate favorable standards, Chinese companies build industrial zones, telecommunications infrastructure, and logistics information networks with little concern for immediate profit.”
They quote retired People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Commander Wang Xiangsui: “Whoever controls the flow of resources, markets and money is hegemon of the world.”
There’s also this unwelcome surprise: Key to what de La Bruyere and Picarsic call Beijing’s “strategy to dominate the 21st-century economy and set the rules for the modern world” is Germany, America’s NATO ally and the strongest member of the European Union. Which is why their report is titled “Made in Germany — Co-opted by China.”
Their data and analyses show that China is using “theft, centralization, and non-market incentives to establish partnerships through which Berlin’s advanced capabilities prop up Beijing’s champions. China also deliberately encourages the dependence of German actors to cement such one-sided arrangements, even after malign behavior is revealed.”
It is not yet clear that German officials understand this. And blocking Beijing, should they decide to do so, won’t be easy. German companies, unlike their Chinese counterparts, enjoy substantial freedom and are loath to take orders from politicians.
De La Bruyere and Picarsic offer three policy recommendations that I have space here only to summarize. To start, the United States and Germany should work together to “identify and combat disinformation, misinformation, and the malign leverage that Beijing claims by twisting narratives.”
Second, the allies should develop “a new toolkit of cooperative export restrictions and investment-review mechanisms tailored to China’s subversive bid” and create “an intelligence task force focused on Chinese investment in the European Union.”
Third, the United States and Germany “should utilize NATO’s tremendous potential as a coordinating mechanism.”
De La Bruyere and Picarsic conclude: “China’s designs on Germany require an urgent, cooperative Western response that spans the economic and security domains. Beijing seeks to weaponize cooperation with Germany to subvert traditional German strengths, exploiting them to propel Chinese technological advancement and dominate the 21st-century economy. If left unchecked, China’s strategy will undermine, and produce a world hostile to, the prosperity, security, and values of Germany, the United States, and their liberal democratic allies.”
More broadly, with the help of the United Nations, Germany and a growing list of nations that Beijing has on a short leash, Xi is pursuing not global leadership but global domination. His intention is to build a new illiberal international order, one with rules made in China, for China and enforced by China. America, Germany and other free nations can take steps to frustrate his ambitions. Or they can fail to rise to the challenge. I’m making no predictions.
Clifford D. May is founder and president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies (FDD), and a columnist for The Washington Times.