The European Union have provided development and trading partnerships with nations from every corner of the globe. In doing so, the EU promotes democracy and human rights by attaching social provisions and human rights conditions to their agreements. For example, EU development partnerships in the Indo-Pacific or Central Africa will be subject to clauses regarding the internal affairs of a country.
Comparatively, China’s programs and partnerships do not bind political clauses to agreements. China promotes norms of ‘unconditionally’ and ‘win-win’ economic outcomes and will turn a blind eye to the internal affairs of the countries it partners with. This approach allows China to be increasingly viewed as the development partner of choice as they are willing to meet the immediate economic needs of states.
The Global Financial Crisis of 2007-2008 further elevated the status of China’s economic model. Responding to the crisis, China unleashed substantial stimulus packages through the state-controlled financial sector and aided regional neighbours. China’s trade surpluses and currency manipulation have also led it to accumulate the world’s largest foreign currency reserves, thus becoming a central part of the international political economy. China’s performance, when juxtaposed with Europe’s response which was largely confined to bailing out poorly regulated banks, positions China strongly to extend its normative power throughout the developing world.
The European Union’s strict criterion for its membership and programs rests on principles of democracy and the rule of law. While developing countries have traditionally been willing to make concessions in their internal affairs in return for economic benefit, China is providing ‘no strings attached’ partnerships and an economic model that outperforms that of the EU. Therefore, the EU’s normative influence to promote democracy throughout the world is waning significantly.
To maintain a normative presence which continues to push developing nations closer towards democracy and the recognition of human rights, the EU must do more to acknowledge the role of China by allowing reform in areas of traditional EU development initiatives. Greater flexibility and inclusion in EU programs will enable a balance to be struck between economic and social development. This will also reduce the appeal of China’s development program which often leaves countries devastated by national debt and forced to maintain deferential stances towards the grand strategy of the CCP.
In light of the ongoing 2019-20 Hong Kong protests, China’s ceremonial parliament has voted to bypass Hong Kong’s Legislative Council to enact dramatic national security legislation. According to the Chinese government, these new laws are intended to crackdown on ‘secessionist and subversive activity … terrorism and foreign interference’. Beijing has previously blamed the lack of a national security law for last year’s alarming anti-extradition protests. However, activists remain concerned that these laws will undermine civil liberties and bring an end to Hong Kong’s unique partial autonomy.
Hong Kong is currently governed under a “one country, two systems” model underpinned by two key documents: The Sino-British Joint Declaration and the Basic Law. These established China’s rule over Hong Kong – subject to significant caveats including the continuation of British capitalism, maintenance of the common law, protection of civil liberties and an understanding that Beijing would not directly intervene in the city for a period of 50 years from the city’s 1997 handover. Significantly, Article 23 of the Basic Law stipulates that Hong Kong shall enact national security legislation “on its own.”
While details about the application of these new security laws remain unclear, they clearly encroach upon Hong Kong’s existing autonomy from China. The ‘crimes’ stipulated in the security laws have vague definitions and could potentially include any attempts to voice dissent against the Government. Such laws may also lead to widespread arrests on arbitrary political charges, a crackdown on free speech, and the unleashing of China’s security organs, such as the Ministry of State Security and the People’s Armed Police. If these reforms are unable to bridge the divide between Hong Kongers and Beijing, then Hong Kong may remain a tinderbox of revolt for years to come.
The enactment of this legislation has prompted wide-spread criticism from international actors such as the United Kingdom, Australia and Canada. In the United States, the Trump Administration has announced that it will no longer treat Hong Kong as being autonomous from the Chinese mainland as a result of Beijing’s latest intervention. In addition to the political ramifications, Hong Kong’s status as a financial hub is now in danger. For businesses, the main value of the city is that its financial and legal systems are more transparent and fair compared to China’s. These features make Hong Kong an attractive option for both foreign and Chinese firms looking to prove their credibility in the region. Any erosion of the rule of law and freedom of speech risks undermining this appeal.
Following US President Donald Trump’s announcement that he would strip Hong Kong of its special privileges, China’s state media have taken aim at the US by comparing #BlackLivesMatter protests with the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong. A commentary published in China Daily – a mouthpiece of the ruling Communist Party – said US politicians should do their jobs and help solve problems in the US, instead of trying to create new problems and troubles in other countries.
Chinese attempts to equate protesting in some US cities with wide-spread calls for democracy and freedom from China in Hong Kong are disingenuous and politically-motivated. At this critical time, it is important that Western media outlets critically assess China’s claims and report them for what they are. Racial tensions in the US and Chinese interventions in Hong Kong are entirely seperate issues. Failure to recognise these clear differences and blind acceptance of CCP rhetoric plays right into Beijing’s hand and may cost the people of Hong Kong their freedom.
The COVID pandemic has showcased a proliferation of blame, acrimony and military aggression between the United States and China. Additionally, we have witnessed the fragility of international institutions as the WHO which struggled to balance the strategic interests of China with the health of the global community. Core realist tenants of the anarchical, state-centric international order are proving relevant in the study of modern international relations.
The emergence of the COVID-19 global pandemic has inspired varying international responses from the United States and China. China severely mismanaged the outbreak of the coronavirus through censorship and denial. As precious weeks passed and the seriousness of the outbreak became apparent, officials of the Communist Party of China made extensive preparations to protect their population, while only selectively sharing information with the international community. Amid the global pandemic, the Chinese government has continued to advance its strategic ambitions in the South China Sea and has been accused by the United States government of exploiting the crisis to gain territory. On April 2, Vietnam reported a Chinese military ship deliberating sinking a Vietnamese fishing ship in the disputed territory. In March, the Chinese government commissioned two research stations with defence capabilities on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The US international response has differed significantly from China’s approach.
America’s democratic values and trusted institutions have enabled more accurate reporting of COVID-19 figures, this has allowed epidemiologists to develop policies to ‘flatten the curve’ and contain the virus. The US Centre for Disease control also continues to publish information that helps American citizens gain access to medical services and minimise community transmission. The US has prioritised holding China accountable for the global spread of the coronavirus and has scaled up its military presence in the South China Sea. In March, the US military conducted live-missile testing in the Philippine Sea, sending a message of deterrence to China. On March 31, President Trump announced the suspension of all US funding to the World Health Organisation (WHO) due to concerns of its mismanagement of the COVID pandemic and “China-centric nature.”
Structural realists assert that the architecture of the international system forces states to compete for limited power. For this reason, cooperation within international institutions often proves fragile. The COVID pandemic provides a vivid reminder of the relevance of these realist precepts. States are fearful that cooperation may enable another state to advance their capabilities and gain greater power and influence relative to them. In this case, President Trump declared the suspension of all funds to the World Health Organisation, perceiving the benefits of US cooperation within the WHO to be waning relative to the growing influence of China. Structural realist theory also provides valuable insight into China’s behaviour within the WHO. States will engage in international institutions when they perceive opportunities to gain power relative to their competitors. President Xi Jinping of the Chinese Communist Party has established the priority to challenge the American global order by strengthening Beijing’s multilateral clout. The World Health Organisation’s response to the spread of coronavirus has demonstrated the influence China wields in the institution relative to the US. Until mid-January, the WHO stated that there was no evidence of human-to-human transmission on a large scale, this statement was made without independent investigation into China’s claims. Following the US decision to halt funding, China identified a US leadership void and stepped in to fill it, announcing a 30 million dollar increase in their contributions to the institution, enabling greater Chinese influence in global health and the portrayal of China as the new champion of multilateralism. So long as China continues to benefit from this institution relative to others, structural realists predict they will continue to amplify cooperation and influence within the World Health Organisation.
According to realists, the main goal of states within the international system is survival. States understand the best way to ensure their territorial integrity is to be more powerful relative to others. These conditions place a premium on the possession of military power as states are aware of the inherent risks of conflict. China has historically undertaken expansionist strategies to guarantee security and survival, during the global COVID pandemic China has scaled up its territorial ambitions in the South China Sea, seizing the strategic opportunity presented by the diminished capabilities of the United States. On April 2, a Chinese Coast Guard ship rammed and sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat carrying eight fishermen off the disputed Paracel Islands. Beijing blamed the Vietnamese ship for fishing illegally in Chinese waters. In the previous month, China commissioned two new research stations on artificial reefs it has built on maritime turf claimed by the Philippines. The reefs are equipped with defence silos and military-grade runways. John Mearsheimer asserts that hegemony is the most effective way to secure the survival of a state. For this reason, the rivalry among the great powers for hegemony is a constant feature in the international system.
The US government and military officials have criticised China for its increased militarisation in the South China Sea during the global pandemic. From the US perspective, the waterway is a vital channel for US-style sea power. In mid-March, US military vessels and aircraft conducted live-fire missile testing in the Philippine Sea. By demonstrating US military capabilities, a clear message of deterrence was sent to China. Structural realism offers a simple explanation for the recent foreign policy of China and the US. China is an emerging global hegemon and is pursuing as much power as possible within the South China Sea while discouraging others as a means of guaranteeing their security. The US seeks to maintain the status quo of American regional hegemony within the South China Sea and is attempting to balance against the increasingly combative behaviour of China.
While structural realism provides unique and helpful insights into understanding recent COVID-inspired foreign policies of the US and China, the theory fails to grapple with the influence of domestic politics on a state’s external behaviour. Structural realists assert that the driving forces for international relations are systemic and uninfluenced by domestic politics. States are considered interchangeable ‘black boxes’ that will behave similarly as the international system creates the same basic incentives for all states. This level of analysis has limited structural realism in its understanding of the diverging COVID strategies of the US and China. Differences in the domestic political systems of China and the United States have proven relevant to recent international relations. Neo-classical realists have attempted to reconcile this criticism of structural realism by recognising the impact that domestic politics may have on a state’s external behaviour. Under the leadership of President Xi Jinping protecting the reputation and authority of the Chinese Communist Party is prioritised above human life. China’s authoritarian leadership and communist political system led to the censorship of COVID information and prevented China from signalling early warnings to the international community.
The United States is a democratic republic and stresses the importance of free communication between people and government. These internal values within the US have led to high rates of testing and the transparent disclosure of these figures to the international community. At current, the US has recorded the highest COVID death toll in the world, surpassing China. In saying this, it is important to remember that while the Chinese government claims to be ahead of the US in containing the virus with no reports of new cases, we have reason to doubt China’s information due to its censorship of early COVID warnings and lack of cooperation throughout the pandemic. We will likely never know how many Chinese citizens were infected and died due to COVID-19. In the US, President Trump downplayed the coronavirus and offered advice which conflicted medical experts. However, the democratic system in the US underpins the leadership of the President. When a US president fails, citizens can count on the objectivity of trusted institutions such as the U.S Centres for Disease Control and Prevention to provide accurate and objective information. The Disease Centre’s weekly morbidity and mortality report has been a fixture of critical communication between government and the public since 1946 and this has continued throughout the COVID pandemic.
Neo-classical realist theory inspires the contemplation of alternate foreign policy decisions which may have emerged had COVID-19 first broken out in New York rather than Wuhan. Internal conditions within the United States uphold democratic values enabling stronger communication between government and citizens. These societal underpinnings are likely to have guided a different foreign policy approach to China. While we can never truly be certain of this assumption, in order to prevent the COVID-19 global pandemic, an approach focused on saving lives rather than preserving power, based on transparent reporting and international cooperation was required, the US has exhibited these priorities in their COVID response while China did not.
The relevance of structural realism in the study of modern international realtions has been reinforced by the COVID-inspired external behaviours of China and the United States. The theory provides a useful framework for understanding inter-state completion, the fragility of international cooperation and military security. While it is limited by its system level of analysis, neo-classical realism has built upon previous work of structural realists and can assist in our understanding of the domestic forces behind foreign policy.
2020 has been an unprecedented year by all metrics. Reflecting on the few months endured so far, our current affairs would be better suited to the plot of a fictional novel or Netflix series than life as we know it. The Coronavirus has stretched medical services to breaking point, bound people to their homes, closed borders and suffocated economies. While it is not the intention here to minimise the human cost of this tragedy that continues to unfold, one of its most enduring effects could be to usher in an unsettling period of authoritarian politics.
At this stage, most countries have introduced some form of extraordinary measures to battle the coronavirus. Democratic governments and authoritarians alike are increasing their power by curtailing civil liberties. Procedures previously classed as dangerous expansions of state power are now being lauded by leaders and public health officials as the only way to curb the global pandemic. In ordinary times, significant increases in government power stir furious debate and protest. Yet, the Coronavirus has shown us that citizens are willing to accept mass curtailment of their freedoms in the interests of public health. It has been collectively agreed that extraordinary times, call for extraordinary measures. The key concern here is that while emergency responses can be swiftly introduced, such temporary measures are at risk of becoming the new normal.
Warnings from Hungary
Take Hungary, the first democracy to fall under this Pandemic as a preliminary warning. Last week the Hungarian Parliament passed a law by a 2/3 majority affording the government of Prime Minister Viktor Orbán rule by decree for an indefinite period. Hungarians found to spread information deemed to be untrue, interfere with the protection of the public or alarm large groups will face several years’ imprisonment. While the Hungarian government insists that these measures will last only as long as the crisis does, the duration is entirely up to Orbán as emergency powers can only be lifted by a Parliamentary supermajority, which Orbán happens to hold. There is a line between using emergency powers and outright authoritarianism, one that Hungary has undoubtedly crossed. With a failing democratic state in Hungary, what could this mean for the world’s remaining democracies?
Authoritarian responses to crises within democracies
Two decades ago, 9/11 shook the world to its core. The international community responded by introducing wide-ranging counter-terrorism laws. The US Patriot Act expanded the surveillance powers of the United States government and established a system of indiscriminate global surveillance. Surveillance technology developed by the US during the Cold War was later used by the FBI to track civil rights leaders such as Martin Luther King, and in the 1970s, anti-crime warrants that were initially approved in response to violent crime were later used against protesters during the Vietnam War. In Australia, equally significant changes took place. To date, Australia has some of the most draconian anti-terrorism laws in the Western world and is the only Western liberal democracy that allows ASIO, the domestic intelligence agency to detain persons for seven days without charge or trial and without reasonable suspicion that those detained are involved in terrorist activity. If repressive government responses to 9/11 are any indication of how new legislation will impact a post-COVID world, the future strength and endurance of our democracies is in jeopardy.
Freedom of Assembly
Freedom of assembly, a fundamental right, has now been severely restricted in most countries. Celebrations and significant events such as weddings and funerals have been banned in the UK or drastically restricted in other countries. Government orders have also seen a global freeze on religious meetings, impacting the way individuals gather in their faith communities and evangelise. Elections are also being postponed in the interests of ‘flattening the curve’. The Democratic presidential primary in the United States has been postponed in at least 12 states and territories. In Britain, local elections scheduled for May have also been postponed. While postponing elections is the better choice given the risk of mass disease transmission, it is important to consider that delaying elections indefinitely could deprive governments of their legitimacy and allow incumbents to use these delays to entrench their power and hold elections when convenient.
Across the democratic world countries such as Australia, the UK and France have seen increasingly repressive social distancing measures. In Australia, the federal government has left enforcement to the states, creating uncertainty and a space for arbitrary policing. Police in Victorian and New South Wales are handing out ‘on the spot’ fines of up to $20,000 and terms of up to six months’ imprisonment for failure to follow self-isolation rules. There are also police powers to conduct random checks. France recently commenced a 15-day lockdown, deploying 100,000 police officers across the country. Citizens are required to present identification paperwork to police to prove they can leave their homes to buy necessities or attend work. The United Kingdom’s coronavirus bill gives police, public health and immigration officers sweeping powers to detain people suspected of carrying the coronavirus. Police in Warrington said it had issued six court summons for offences, such as shopping for “non-essential items” and going “out for a drive due to boredom,” while Derbyshire Police admitted using drones to monitor citizens out walking. While it is important for people to adhere to social distancing to maximise their health and the health of the broader community, rushed laws that expand arbitrary police powers have several inherent risks. In India, police brutality has been widely publicised. In an appalling video that went viral, police in the northern state of Uttar Pradesh force young boys to perform frog jumps as punishment for violating the state curfew. A video shared in March this year displays police waiting outside a mosque in the southern state of Karnataka, beating worshipers with a stick as they leave. Similar cases of oppressive law enforcement have been reported around the country. Social media accounts display messages of people running out of food yet afraid to leave their dwellings, fearful of the police. While abuse of police powers varies throughout the democratic world, all democracies must protest police abuse and pressure law-makers to clarify COVID laws, removing the risk of arbitrary application.
Akin to increased surveillance powers post-9/11, democracies are acting swiftly to keep a close eye on their citizens. Israel’s counterterrorism unit will use technologies like phone tracking – typically used on Palestinians – to track citizens, sending a text to their phone when they breach quarantine rules or may have come into contact with an infected person. South Korea, has employed web developers to build detailed maps of citizens’ movements using CCTV, phone-tracking and bank transaction data. Taiwan has built an electronic fence using phone-tracking data to enforce quarantine measures. Strict surveillance measures adopted to monitor citizens during coronavirus lockdowns could result in the long-lasting erosion of personal freedoms. United Nations’ privacy chief Joseph Cannataci warned of the danger with sweeping surveillance laws introduced to protect citizens in exceptional circumstances. The privacy chief cautioned that while most civilians accept the need for emergency measures, they could outlast the current crisis. While health data can be useful in assessing citizens’ vulnerability to COVID-19, it could also be abused by governments and hackers to vilify vulnerable minorities. Cannataci describes a situation where such information could be abused to identify HIV-positive people in countries where homophobia is widespread and this condition is seen as an indicator of homosexuality. Additional surveillance during emergency crises such as the coronavirus are demanded however, by accepting such laws, we open the possibility of further encroachment on our civil liberties.
Government intervention to close businesses, enforce social distancing, postpone elections and ramp up surveillance may be required to control the rapid spread of the coronavirus and protect the medical system from inundation. However, these measures may come at the incredible cost of weakening our democracies and steering a new wave of authoritarianism within the international order. The true test of time will reveal how many emergency measures will linger and continue to shape our world post-COVID-19. In the meantime, developing laws and regulations must include the necessary safeguards to ensure that measures are proportionate and temporary.