Charles Dunst is a visiting scholar at the East-West Center in Washington, an associate at LSE IDEAS, and a contributing editor of American Purpose.
In January 2017 at Davos, the small alpine town that hosts the annual World Economic Forum, Chinese President and Communist Party General Secretary Xi Jinping made the case for Chinese global leadership, promising that while the soon-to-be Trump-led United States was promising to close its doors, China would keep them “wide open.” Corporate and political elites may have been somewhat skeptical, but many praised Xi’s speech, seeing it as a step in the right direction. This was only the most recent triumph for China, whose leadership successfully capitalized on the 2008 financial collapse—for which many faulted the United States—to win global goodwill for its authoritarian capitalist model. As the Forum’s founder Klaus Schwab put it while introducing Xi: “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility, the international community is looking to China.”
Yet as Luke Patey of the Danish Institute for International Studies shows in his clear-eyed new book How China Loses: The Pushback Against Chinese Global Ambitions, much of the world has not liked what it has seen. China, he writes, “seeks to challenge the core values of the world’s liberal democracies: individual liberty, freedom of speech, and rule of law.” This challenge has frustrated countries from Germany to Malaysia and beyond. Indeed, China’s “predatory economic agenda, headstrong diplomacy, and military expansion,” as Patey writes, are undermining rather than advancing its standing in the world, so much so that Beijing, according to him, will fall short of attaining the mantle to global leadership it claims. Ultimately, though, Patey overstates his case: How China Loses does not so much show that China is losing everywhere in the world, but rather only that Beijing is not achieving its goals among developed democracies—a grouping whose collective importance is rapidly declining.
Patey’s eye is well-trained both journalistically and analytically. For this book, he traveled to countries including South Sudan, Pakistan, and Germany, deftly presenting these and others as case studies that illustrate his thesis of China failing to reach its goals. In South Sudan, readers learn that Chinese officials do not yet understand how their investments in the country are inherently linked to Sudanese and South Sudanese politics, even when they have fostered war in those countries and actually undermined Beijing’s strategic objectives there. In Pakistan, we see how oft-mismanaged Chinese investment is pulling Beijing into bloody local conflicts, namely the Balochistan insurgency, that it so long tried to avoid. In Germany, we see how China’s nonreciprocal approach to its economy and investment—namely China’s refusal to truly open its markets to many foreign firms and Beijing’s boosting of state-owned enterprises that compete with German industry—antagonizes partner countries.
But Patey’s case selection is curious. It is odd, for instance, that he did not travel to Southeast Asia, China’s historical backyard and the gateway for its global expansion. He writes extensively only about one country there, Malaysia. His characterization of this country is similarly peculiar. He portrays the former Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammad as a leader who “left his mark” by pushing back against and changing Malaysian opinions of China—even though some 60 percent of Malaysian elites still say that if forced to choose between the United States and China, they would go with the latter. Mahathir may have campaigned on an anti-China platform in 2018, but by 2019 he had almost entirely reversed course, saying that if forced to choose between Beijing and Washington, he would ally with the “rich” former rather than the “unpredictable” latter, and that there was no point confronting China, so Malaysia should simply defer to the Asian giant as it had done “for the past 2,000 years.” This is hardly the voice of a leader whose country China has lost.
Moreover, Patey mentions Cambodia and Laos, perhaps the Southeast Asian countries most like Chinese client-states, only in passing, noting that there is “a tendency for China to avoid blowback to Belt and Road projects”—those funded by China’s massive global development project—“in authoritarian regimes and weak democracies, particularly smaller economies such as Laos and Cambodia.” Therein lies the most serious flaw in Patey’s argument: His examples of countries that China has lost—Denmark and Japan, for instance—are functional democracies responsive to public opinion and discontent. In contrast, countries like Cambodia and Zimbabwe that continue to support Chinese interests can do so precisely because they are not as responsive to public opinion, which is increasingly marked by anti-Chinese sentiment in these states.
The qualities of China’s foreign policy may have repelled other states in the democratic world, but many autocrats are happy to fit themselves neatly within Beijing’s hierarchical worldview—which one former Japanese diplomat tells Patey is China’s “most fundamental problem”—if doing so keeps these autocrats rich and in power. Still, Patey argues that China could lose “not because it lacks global power, or that others should work in concert against all its ambitions, but because the actions and visions of its leaders elicit cautious reception and pushback across the world that undermines its potential as a global superpower.” But again, this “reception” matters only in countries where people can vote out leaders perceived as doing China’s bidding. Increasingly widespread anti-Chinese sentiment has not and will not soon force autocratic regimes to fundamentally reorient their approaches to Beijing.
Throughout the book, though, Patey seems to assume that leaders act in their countries’ best interests—that well-intentioned presidents and prime ministers the world over will band together and uphold the liberal international order. He writes, for instance, that because “Chinese economic power can bend the will of new political leaders, but not wider society,” many countries will have no choice but to stand up to Beijing. But he does not interrogate how much society’s opinions matter in countries ruled by autocrats. He instead takes it as fact that even illiberal leaders will put their respective national interests first. This assumption is evident in his conclusion, in which he recommends that countries diversify trading and investment partners and privilege multilateral relations with China, rather than engage the Asian giant bilaterally.
But leaders, particularly undemocratic leaders, often do not act in their nation’s interest. Developing countries, which include many authoritarian states, remain home to an overwhelming majority of the world’s population, and are in many ways the backbone of China’s “community of shared future”: its Sino-centric alternative to the liberal democratic order. With the world’s political and economic power shifting towards Asia as the continent’s wealth grows, China is arguably better served, at least strategically, by courting Cambodia and Laos than by pursuing deeper ties with Germany and Denmark. And if the United States remains unfocused on Asia and other developing regions, leaving China-countering efforts there to middle powers like Japan and Germany, Beijing will find its construction of an illiberal order all the easier.
Nonetheless, Patey’s book is chock full of keen observations, meaningful interviews, and remarkable data, all of which smartly illustrate the flaws manifest in China’s authoritarian capitalist foreign policy. But the grandiosity of both his title and thesis betrays him. Indeed, upon putting down How China Loses, one is left wondering how, if China is so likely to lose, has Beijing made so many countries so pliant to its interests, and why is President Joe Biden’s diplomatic team so forcefully promising to beat back Chinese influence?
Beijing’s belligerence certainly has lost it friends, as Patey suggests, but China’s failure to construct a global or at least regional Sino-centric order is far from foreordained. The upshot from this more pessimistic outlook is that proponents of the liberal democratic order must not rest but instead rise in a coordinated manner to meet today’s China challenge. For leaders the world over, taking into account Patey’s prescriptions would be a good start.