Robin Shepherd: On China at least, Joe Biden should follow the lead of Donald Trump

The threats posed by an authoritarian Beijing can only be opposed by an America that leads its allies in concert

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If Joe Biden is genuine about wanting to build bridges across the turbulent waters of American political tribalism, he could make no better start than to forge a broad coalition to meet the challenge from China.

Canadians should need no reminders about how pitiless and ruthless China’s leaders can be in mounting that challenge. Michael Spavor and Michael Kovrig, a.k.a. the two Michaels, have been held on trumped-up charges in Chinese prisons for almost two years now. They are hostages in a dispute they had no part in over Chinese tech giant Huawei.

Canada is doing what it can to ensure their release. But the broader challenge can only be met by a United States that leads its allies in concert abroad, and marshals every ounce of muscle that America can bring to bear at home. In some respects, the signs are positive.

Canadians should need no reminders about how pitiless and ruthless China’s leaders can be

In Congress, where there is strong bi-partisan agreement that robust push-back against Xi Jinping’s aggressive brand of authoritarianism is now unavoidable, Biden would be knocking at an open door. By giving credit to President Donald Trump for leading the first U.S. administration since the end of the Cold War to take the Chinese threat seriously, he would be setting a very public precedent that his commitment to inclusive politics is more than rhetoric.

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Such a magnanimous stance would also amount to good policy, serving as a warning to Beijing that they take his incoming administration as a pushover at their peril. There is a reason, after all, why Trump is popular in places like Hong Kong. While few will miss White House foreign policy blurted out randomly on Twitter, the message on China has been clear and serious.

Underpinning that message is a new understanding — now shared widely across the democratic world — that Xi Jinping’s China is the most powerful authoritarian state in history. Moreover, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) is not content to rigorously and ruthlessly entrench its dominance at home where the incarceration of more than a million Uyghurs represents one of the most egregious human rights tragedies in the world today.

A man holds photographs of Michael Kovrig and Michael Spavor, who have been detained in China for almost two years, outside the B.C. Supreme Court in Vancouver in a file photo from Jan. 21, 2020. Photo by Darryl Dyck/The Canadian Press

The One Country Two Systems arrangement in Hong Kong is being eviscerated before our eyes. Taiwan trembles on a front line that could be breached at any moment, with Xi openly stating that the use of force is not off the table. Asia, Africa, Latin America and North America all stand in the crosshairs of Xi’s “wolf warrior” diplomacy, economic blackmail from the One Belt One Road Initiative, naked theft of intellectual property on a (literally) industrial scale, and blatant attempts to undermine democratic processes and censor criticism of Beijing’s policies.

What is to be done? First and foremost, we need to acknowledge an uncomfortable truth. The United States and most of its democratic allies made a foreign policy miscalculation of historic proportions over China. The widespread belief that Beijing was on the road to becoming what former deputy secretary of state Robert Zoellick once famously called a “responsible stakeholder” in the international community was flat wrong. That said, finger pointing will help no one. Neither would a breathless dash to adopt new policies before there is a widespread understanding of the nature of the challenge that China poses.

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Policy-makers around the world need to wake up to the reality of the China threat by carefully studying and learning about the various elements involved, from the Leninist essence of the CCP, through its assault on global democracies in international institutions, to its generalized and broadly-based interference in free and open societies. As a starting point, our organization,HFX, has produced China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game, which we see as a “Handbook for Democracies” that discusses these challenges, and more, and is available for anyone to download.

With an economy poised to overtake America’s in the next decade or so, a military that in some respects already rivals the United States, and a single-minded determination to rule the digital revolution in the 21st century, Xi Jinping’s China is rapidly emerging as the most significant threat to the democratic world in modern times.

President-elect Biden will need to hit the ground running if he is to meet that challenge. If he does, he will find many willing allies both at home and abroad.

Robin Shepherd, HFX Vice President, is the author of China vs. Democracy: The Greatest Game

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