Julia Hoffmann is a 2nd year International Relations student at King’s College London. Having grown up in China, she has always been keenly interested in the country’s history, and the contemporary political developments that will shape the future of the globalized world. In this article, she examines how autocratic regimes, spearheaded by China, seek to create a counterbalancing alliance to the United States.
As every student of International Relations knows, history ended with the collapse of the Communist Soviet Union in the 1990s. As countries in the aftermath of the Cold War slowly realized that becoming a liberal democracy was their inevitable destiny, the democratic powers of the world waited with non-bated breath for the rest of the world to finally catch on to this trend and align themselves with the far more advanced liberal democracies of the West. At least that is the story Francis Fukuyama told of the future back in the more peaceful times of 1992. Yet, as every current student of International Relations can tell you, one sweeping look across the globe reveals that history has not ended, but is constantly moving forward still – and at more and more rapid speeds.
Even though once political ideology created the fault lines of great power conflict, Robert Kagan argues that these are now drawn between states with differing forms of government. In one camp, he identifies the democracy-lovin’ – and exportin’ – liberal democracies of the West. On the other side, he finds the at times satirically evil caricatured autocratic regimes. To the surprise of no one, the People’s Republic of China is one of the heavyweights in this latter category. While Fukuyama might expect China to soon wake up to the follies of its ways and make an immediate U-Turn towards the preordained path of democracy, as China becomes bolder with throwing its weight around on the world stage, Kagan’s prediction of a growing “association of autocracies” that rivals the “axis of democracy” seems far more likely.
From the comfortable viewpoint of the present, it is unfair to completely fault Fukuyama for his theory. Back in the late 1970s to the 1990s, a third wave of democratization saw more than 30 countries from all over the globe make the transition to democracy. However much criticized the concept is now, at the time, the democratization of countries in a number of diverse regions such as Latin America, Asia-Pacific, Eastern Europe and sub-Saharan Africa certainly reinforced the notion that autocratic models of government were overthrown and outdated. In stark contrast however, the contemporary autocracies of present-day Russia, and particularly China, seem to offer a viable and even desirable form of government rooted in economic growth and political stability. Realizing that there is an alternative to the liberal democratic model of the West and beyond that, an alternative to the American hegemon, many countries are now turning towards China and Russia for alliances, and to autocracy for their form of government.
This sentiment has become embodied in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization (SCO), which has explicitly been called the “anti-NATO” by Russian officials. The SCO developed out of a security agreement called the Shanghai Five – China, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Russia, and Tajikistan – with the goal of closer cooperation in the sectors of security, military, economy and culture. Unsurprisingly, countries involved in conflicts with the US are turning towards the SCO for support. For one, in response to American backlash after protests in eastern Uzbekistan were violently put down, the Uzbek government consequently realigned its foreign policy towards Asia and the SCO. In a more famous example, hoping for more favourable economic and political standing, Iran has been pursuing membership to the SCO for close to 15 years. In the wake of the chaotic US withdrawal from Afghanistan, the SCO’s calculations favour Iran’s membership as the country will play a big role in regional security conflicts.
Beyond the SCO, China actively supports many regimes with dubious , and not so dubious, ethical track records. China has lent its political and economic support to the Tatmadaw in Myanmar and North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un against popular sentiment. Less widely reported are its engagements in Africa. In 2016, the then president of Zimbabwe, Robert Mugabe, cloaked himself in the legacy of Hitler and ordered a crackdown on a national strike that left 30.000 people dead. In response China awarded Mugabe the Confucius Peace Price a year later and strengthened its economic ties with Zimbabwe. In the same vein, China is investing in African leaders regardless of their moral or political capacity. Employing “palace diplomacy”, aka corruption, China has funded lavish palaces and gifts in countries such as Botswana, Malawi, Namibia, Somalia, Zambia, Benin, Chad, Guinea, Liberia, Sierra Leone, and Uganda.
These partnerships are shaped by a mutual understanding of pragmatism: agreements essentially boil down to a cost-benefit analysis in which economics and politics always win and morals and ethics always lose. According to this same principle, China has sought to forge an alliance with Afghanistan after the US troop withdrawal. While the benefits for Afghanistan are plain in political and economic support for the war-torn country, China spots certain opportunities for itself as well. Most straightforwardly, China has used this opportunity to denounce the United States. In public statements it has declared: “American myth down. More and more people are awakening.” In this way, the Chinese are trying to create a narrative of American decline and send a message to American allies about the unreliability of American guarantees.
Apart from rhetoric, China also has strategic and economic interests to protect in the area. For one, a stable Afghanistan is needed to secure Chinese projects such as the Amu Darya Oil Project, the Mes Aynak copper mine, and expanding the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor into Afghanistan. However, more than economic interests, China needs the assistance of the Afghan government to guard its Western border and the strategically important Wakhan Corridor which connects the two countries. In regards to Afghanistan, China’s top priority is suppressing the Uyghur-dominated Turkistan Islamic Party (formerly known as the East Turkestan Islamic Movement) from spilling into its most problematic province, Xinjiang. In the 1990s, Afghanistan harboured and sanctioned the actions of the Turkistan Islamic Party against China’s wishes. Although they are still believed to have ties with the group, Afghanistan has made concessions to China, promising to “will never allow any force to use the Afghan territory to engage in acts detrimental to China”.
China’s cooperation with the Taliban is not an outlier in its foreign policy; if anything, it is the logical continuance of its previous policy strategies. Not only that, but in China’s purely economic and geopolitical calculations, its partnership with this brutal and oppressive regime is the strategically best way to secure its interests in the region. While such a self-interested approach to geopolitics may seem appealing in the ever more complex environment of interests vs. morals in which states must now operate, these pragmatistic decisions reveal an inherent cynicism in the thinking of autocratic regimes. But as Robert Kagan reminds us, “Nations are not calculating machines. They have (…) intangible and immeasurable human qualities of love, hate, ambition, fear, honor, shame, patriotism, ideology, and belief, the things people fight and die for, today as in millennia past.” While strategies of how to engage with autocratic regimes will occupy academics and state leaders for years to come, this short excursion into the “association of autocracies” has definitively shown that history has very much not come to an end; as such we must continue to live it and simultaneously try to find solutions to evermore global challenges.
Featured Image Credit: https://www.trtworld.com/magazine/slowly-but-surely-china-is-moving-into-afghanistan-24276