Elizabeth Economy, advisor on China to the U.S. Government: “A confrontation between China and Taiwan cannot be ruled out”.
Elizabeth Economy (USA, 1962) is the senior advisor for China-related issues. of the U.S. Government Department of Commerce, in addition to senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University. The advisor to the Biden Administration has just published The World According to China (La Esfera de los Libros), where he examines the prospects of the Asian giant and its policies, on its way to the hegemonic struggle with the United States.
This renowned expert analyzes for 20minutes China’s present and future, where, according to Economy, the contradictions of its authoritarianism are encountering enormous difficulties for its international interests. In addition, issues such as the economic struggle with the United StatesThe internal pressures due to the Covid restrictions or the tensions with territories such as Hong Kong and Taiwan will also mark the future of the superpower and its president, Xi Jingping.
You explain in your book that China has moved from bricks to microprocessors. How has the Chinese economy changed in recent years?China, before Xi Jinping, promised that its market would be more open and that the state sector would remain smaller and smaller. That was the direction it was moving in, but Xi feels uncomfortable about not having control in the economy. He then began an increase in state-owned enterprise and more restrictions in areas where there was free flow of information or free flow of capital. Companies like Tencent and Alibaba, or any where money and ideas flow without state control, were much more restricted. There was also significant investment in the innovation sector and Xi has succeeded in transforming China from a manufacturing powerhouse to an innovation powerhouse. It is now one of the leading powers in innovation, although there are some limitations, especially in those areas where creativity must be unlimited. Despite this, China has made substantial progress and Xi Jinping has transformed the geo-economic landscape and extended not only its physical, but also its digital infrastructure. China has left a much larger footprint globally than it had before.
For years there has been an ‘economic war’ between the U.S. and China for world hegemony. Is China preparing to take on that role?Xi Jinping has closely aligned the commercial economy with the military through the military civilian fusion program. He uses his economics to try to force other countries to change their policy positions. During the pandemic he pressured Australia when it called for an investigation into the origins of the virus. This kind of behavior, both in terms of military and economic coercion, gave people a very different impression of China as a world leader. What we have today is not just a competition between the US and China, but also over values, norms and human rights. The policy of engagement that the US has practiced for decades vis-à-vis China was to work with them to open up their economy and society. To become a pillar of the international liberal order. But in the end none of that happened and the US had to reevaluate.
What has China done to narrow that gap with the United States?It has invested heavily in its Army to make it competitive as a regional power in the Asia-Pacific, especially in terms of hardware. We don’t know what its actual combat capabilities are because it hasn’t been tested since 1979. Yes they have had border skirmishes with India, but generally speaking they have not launched any kind of invasion. It has also done well in terms of innovation and turning it into products that can be exported and dominate the world. Huawei is certainly one of the leading 5G providers on the planet. It has narrowed the gap significantly in the last ten years in aspects that are fundamental.
We don’t know what China’s real combat capabilities are because it hasn’t been tested since 1979
He has not been involved militarily, but he has been present in other ways in conflicts such as the Syrian conflict or on the African continent, where he has more and more weight. What is China’s strategy like?Xi Jinping has talked about the need to reform the global governance system and that China has a model that other countries can emulate, which on the other hand is an authoritarian model. He would never say that he is trying to export communism, but that he has set up training centers in Africa and elsewhere to educate officials around the world on how to govern the way they do. We haven’t seen this from China since Mao Zedong. It is very unusual. China wants to keep up with the U.S. as a global superpower, but I don’t think it’s quite ready in terms of its influence.
China, in terms of influence, is not quite ready to be a world superpower
Why?Because he has shown no interest or ability to lead and forge global agreements. We saw it clearly when former U.S. President Donald Trump withdrew from important international agreements and organizations because he was not interested in being the global leader and covering the security of the rest. Many people expected China to step up and fill that void. But it didn’t. In fact, it couldn’t even solve the Myanmar refugee problems in its own backyard. We didn’t see any effort in this regard. Or what we see right now with the Ukraine war: that China, despite its stance on sovereignty, refuses to criticize Russia and is backing it economically.
No one believes that Beijing will preserve Taiwan’s ability to govern itself.
He also touches in the book on the challenge in Hong Kong, where protests were suppressed, and tensions with Taiwan. Where do you see the future of this area going?The most immediate consequence of the Chinese crackdown in Hong Kong is that no one in Taiwan trusts the idea of a two-system country anymore. No one believes that Beijing will preserve Taiwan’s ability to govern itself, which is what they had promised. The idea that Hong Kong could have its own form of democracy with an open economy and sound judicial system is gone. Beyond the US and what it is doing in the region, other countries in the region must work together, conduct their own military exercises, form their own economic agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Japan is the leader of this agreement and this has happened because China is moving in a direction that most democracies in the region do not approve of. In addition, many other middle and great powers in the Asia-Pacific are increasing their own role and their own influence.
Is a direct confrontation between China and Taiwan feasible?I think it is possible. Xi has made it clear in his statements that there can be no great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation without reunification with Taiwan. He thinks that a very important part of his own personal legacy as a leader is to bring Taiwan into the fold of mainland China, but there is no indication that the Taiwanese people are interested in that. What options are left? Some kind of blockade or other military action. You can’t rule out that idea. It is always a possibility.
Do you think Xi Jinping is waiting for the right moment?He now needs to focus on how to navigate the Ukraine issue and resolve the economic problems that arose in the wake of Covid. The degree to which the U.S., EU, Canada, Japan and other countries joined together to sanction Russia also gives Xi Jinping pause for thought because, of course, he would be concerned that China would face something similar if it took aggressive action against Taiwan. That is also a limiting factor for him.
Would he abandon the idea of taking Taiwan back then?China would prefer to have a peaceful unification. I don’t think it wants to launch some kind of military aggression against Taiwan. But it also doesn’t want to see them move further and further away. The people of Taiwan feel that they are less and less a part of any kind of Chinese construction. The question is whether there will come a point where China feels that nothing can bring them back other than military action. Taiwan has an election coming up and I think Beijing will wait to see what happens and whether it can get the new Taiwanese president to recommit to the 1992 consensus. If that happens, mainland China will probably take a step back.
At the last Chinese Communist Party Congress we saw Xi Jinping increase his power. Is China an increasingly authoritarian state?It is absolutely an authoritarian state. The only debate is whether it is more authoritarian than totalitarian. The question is how complete is the party’s control over Chinese society in general, and I mean Xi Jinping. The repressive elements, the public security forces and the surveillance system have become much more widespread than ever, and the space to express your own ideas has shrunk.
I don’t think there are many people interested in living in a world defined by Chinese values
Restrictions by Covid generated civilian protests calling for greater freedom, though they were quickly brought under control. Is the government afraid of dissent?Absolutely. The Communist Party has 97 million people, it’s huge. But China has 1.4 billion people. The party is not even 10% of the population. Of course there is fear about protests and dissent, because they know that their legitimacy is based only on repression and economic performance. They are especially afraid of young people and university students.
He acknowledges in the book that China has moved from being a country that seeks to accept the rules to one that seeks to dictate them. Would it be different in a world with China as the hegemonic power?In the Chinese conception, human rights are determined by the state and are not inalienable. An example is the proposal that China has on the Internet at the UN, where it proposes an “off switch” for governments to control people’s connection. That would mean that if the US government doesn’t like what I’m telling you, they would simply turn off my computer. It would be a world shaped largely by Chinese interests. Geographically it would also be different: it would have Taiwan and the land it claims from India. Asia-Pacific would be different with China’s control over the South China Sea. Norms and rules would reflect Chinese values. There would be no movies in the West criticizing China. We would see all the different ways China uses coercion to change the way other states behave.
Is it realistic to imagine such a world in less than fifty years?I don’t think so. If you look at 9 of the 10 largest economies in the world they are all major democracies except China. I don’t think the major democracies would accept China as the dominant provider of norms and values and institutions globally. I don’t think there are many people in the international system interested in living in a world defined by Chinese values.