The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Welcome to China’s new interventionist foreign policy

Chinese President Xi Jinping at the Belt and Road Forum in Beijing on April 27, 2019. (Mark Schiefelbein/AP)
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Charles Dunst is an associate at LSE IDEAS, the London School of Economics’s foreign policy think tank.

On May 13, the Chinese Embassy in Brasilia wrote to Brazil’s congress, recommending the body’s silence on the reelection of Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen — essentially demanding adherence to the “One China” policy. But later that month, a Brazilian congressman leaked the letter on Twitter, rebuking what he called an “affront” and congratulating Tsai on her victory. Brazilian netizens responded angrily, starting a “VivaTaiwan” campaign on social media and accusing the Chinese Communist Party of infringing on their country’s sovereignty.

This episode may come as a surprise to many, given that China has for years promised noninterference in its partners’ affairs. Yet, as the CCP’s overstepping in Brazil confirms, the era of Chinese nonintervention is now over.

Since 1955, China had predicated its foreign policy on the principles of noninterference, which Premier Zhou Enlai detailed at the Bandung Conference. Beijing never completely abided by these principles, but successive leaders largely adhered to them. China, for instance, largely stayed out of the conflict in Syria that consumed many world powers. And for years, it played “the role of spoiler” at the U.N. Security Council by opposing or abstaining from the body’s efforts to sanction autocratic governments in countries such as Zimbabwe, Yemen and Syria. This noninterference won over strongman leaders who tired of the human rights-related “strings” that the West regularly attaches to aid.

But Chinese President Xi Jinping has jettisoned his predecessor Hu Jintao’s prescription that China hide its strength, bide its time and never take the lead. Instead, through the Belt and Road Initiative, Xi’s China has invested heavily and become enmeshed within the politics of countries across the globe. More than 60 countries — from Cambodia to Angola to Pakistan to Hungary — have signed onto Belt and Road projects or expressed interest in doing so. This allows China to wield substantial influence in these states’ politics.

With this expansion has come the death of Chinese nonintervention.

China, for example, adopted a surprisingly “hands-on approach” to the 2014 conflict in South Sudan to secure its access to that country’s oil, in sharp contrast with China’s relative hesitance to involve itself in the Libyan civil war in 2011, the year before Xi took the office of CCP general secretary. When Libya devolved into civil war, China struggled to evacuate the more than 35,000 Chinese working in the country and secure its economic interests. In the years since, China rectified this by expanding its military capacity in its African partner states to preemptively protect its interests amid any future turmoil.

But Chinese intervention has noticeably intensified since 2018, when the China-skeptical Mahathir Mohamad surprisingly triumphed in Malaysian elections over the China-friendly incumbent Najib Razak. Mahathir promptly traveled to China to renegotiate BRI deals agreed to by Najib, warning of “new colonialism” — a comparison that Chinese leadership vehemently rejects. Najib’s loss has clearly taught Beijing that political noninterference does not serve its interests.

Months later, the Chinese ambassador in Cambodia attended ruling party events, including one headlined by strongman leader Hun Sen, hailing Cambodia’s “excellent” diplomacy and criticizing proposed human rights-related European Union sanctions. “In the past, China kept a very low profile when it came to elections and domestic politics in Cambodia,” said Cambodian analyst Chheang Vannarith. “This time, China is being very assertive.”

And this past May, the Chinese ambassador to Nepal held meetings with senior Nepali leaders to express “concern over the ongoing power play within the ruling party.” Officials understood the meeting as Beijing’s way of demonstrating support for struggling but China-friendly Prime Minister Khadga Prasad Sharma Oli.

Chinese intervention also extends beyond political pressure. In Myanmar, a state-owned Chinese manufacturer is arming the Arakan Army, a major insurgent group in the Rakhine state, even as Beijing deepens ties with the government against which they are fighting, presumably because the group has promised to not disturb the Chinese deep-sea port at Kyaukphyu that likely serves Beijing’s military interests.

It pays for China to be on the rebels’ good side.

This shift in Beijing’s approach to foreign policy is clear even in Chinese messaging and culture, such as in the popular Chinese film “Wolf Warrior,” which portrays Chinese soldiers taking out an evil militia in Africa. After the “Wolf Warrior” kills an American mercenary leader, the screen fades to black before an image of a Chinese passport appears alongside a promise: “To citizens of the People’s Republic of China, when you find yourself in danger in a foreign country, do not give up hope. Please remember, behind your back, will be a strong and powerful motherland.”

The motherland is no longer afraid of interfering in others’ affairs when its interests are at stake. Indeed, engagement with China now requires that partner states accept the CCP’s export of its illiberal preferences onto their own soil.

Beijing has proved that it will readily disregard its partners’ sovereignty whenever Chinese interests are on the line. Global leaders must now realize that when the domestic rubber meets the road, China will not hesitate to intervene — its promises be damned.

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