China’s authoritarian government persecutes political opponents, threatens Hong Kong’s autonomy and has been accused of using the sprawling, international Belt and Road Initiative and other overseas investments to entangle developing nations in debt to gain strategic opportunities.
As former national security adviser Lt. General H.R. McMaster recently told the Catalyst, a publication of the George W. Bush Institute, China was brought into the international order on the assumption that it would play by the rules, liberalize its economy and ease off the reins of authoritarianism — an assumption that China repeatedly has shown was misplaced.
China’s policies are exercises of raw power, and two moves in recent days underscore China’s internal weaknesses as it ascends economically in Asia. The first is the sudden and ham-fisted squashing of the initial public offering of Ant Group, the internet finance giant controlled by Chinese billionaire Jack Ma. The other is China’s participation in a far-flung 15-nation trade agreement that opportunistically consolidated economic power in the Pacific at the expense of the United States.
The blocked IPO reveals China’s ideological fear of private enterprise as we know it, an antithesis to free-market principles. According to published reports, Chinese President Xi Jinping personally pulled the plug on the $34 billion IPO — the largest ever — to signal that entrepreneurism is not bigger than the Communist Party.
That would be right from Xi’s playbook. Long an irritant to the government, Ma chafed over the state’s tight reins on financial regulation and technology development — direct challenges to China’s authoritarian views of the internet, individual wealth and business. This rebuke is as personal as it is ideological, and reminds us of the existential clash between Western-style market economies and China’s state-run economy.
The other expression of this clash is China’s entry into a 15-nation, regional economic trade partnership that includes South Korea, Japan, New Zealand, Vietnam and Australia. China is now at the center of the world’s largest trade bloc of over 2.2 billion people and 30% of the world economy.
China’s gain is the United States’ loss. China has exploited the leadership vacuum created when President Donald Trump yanked the United States from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a multination trade compact designed to check China’s economic power in the Pacific, in favor of a bilateral pact with China that is less than it seems.
The short-sighted decision to exit a multilateral alliance forfeited the economic leverage to press the case for Western-style free markets, human rights and other reforms. Now China has expanded diverse supply chains and markets in the Pacific and has no incentive to moderate in any way.
Imagine what might have been with the United States at the core of a Trans-Pacific Partnership of Australia, Brunei, Canada, Chile, Japan, Malaysia, Mexico, New Zealand, Peru, Singapore, Vietnam. The rules of economic engagement for 40% of the global economy would have been driven by the United States and those economic allies, not China and its trade partners.
If it weren’t evident before, it should be now. The United States, which represents about 25% of the world’s economy, benefits from engaging with allies on the world stage and not relinquishing influence over China’s worst instincts.