Xi Jinping’s China and the rise of the ‘global west’

It is an image that may define a generation. The sight of Hu Jintao, the former president of China, being ushered forcibly from the front row of the Communist party congress in Beijing was a piece of political theater — sending a message of utter ruthlessness and total control by Xi Jinping. Xi loyalists now dominate all the top positions in the party. Who can doubt that the Chinese leader intends to rule for life and that he will bulldoze whoever stands in his way — whether at home or abroad?

Such scenes from Beijing will reinforce the idea stated in the Biden administration’s new National Security Strategy that: “The PRC [People’s Republic of China] presents America’s most consequential geopolitical challenge.”

At a time when Russia is waging war in Europe, it is striking that the US nonetheless identifies China as the bigger threat. The Americans view China as a rival superpower with global ambitions — while Russia is seen as aclining, but dangerous, power declining dependent on Beijing.

In its to win what President Joeden calls a “contest for the future of our future” with China, the US is looking at an international network of allies, which can loosely be called the “global west”.

Like the global south, the global west is defined more by ideas than actual geography. The members are rich liberal democracies with strong security ties to the US. Alongside the traditional western allies in Europe and North America sit Indo-Pacific nations such as Japan and Australia. It is the countries of the global west that are participating fully in sanctions on Russia. They are also the nations that Washington hopes will align with the US in an emerging cold war with China.

The sharpest edge of the Beijing-Moscow challenge is military and territorial — with Ukraine and Taiwan on the front lines. But the global west is also alive to the risk of economicercion — whether it is Russia cutting off energy supplies to Europe; or China’s trade sanctions against countries that anger it, such as South Korea or Lithuania.

The global west is also concerned about the risk that China will control the technologies of the future — building what one senior US official calls “a terrifying autocracy” with a worldwide reach.

Signs that the global west is coming together are proliferating. At the most recent Nato summit, Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea were invited to participate for the first time. The statement issued after the June meeting was the first Nato strategic document to cite China as a threat. European navies are showing up in the Indo-Pacific. The signature of Aukus — a security package between Australia, the UK and the US — was another signal.

When it comes to economic statecraft, the key organising unit is now the G7 group of leading industrial nations. After the global financial crisis, many suggested that the G7 would become defunct — displaced by the G20, which includes China, Russia and several countries from the global south. But now geopolitical rivalries are heightening again, the G7 is back. Jake Sullivan, Biden’s national security adviser, recently referred to the group as “the steering committee of the free world.”

The original G7, formed in the 1970s, included just one Asian nation — Japan. Formally or informally, the Indo-Pacific members of the global west will also be key partners in a revamped G7.

Within the global west there is increasing talk of the need to reduce vulnerability to economic coercion by China, by building supply chains and trading relationships primarily with friendly, democratic nations. Janet Yellen, the US Treasury secretary, calls this “friendshoring” — a term that was endorsed by Chrystia Freeland, Canada’s deputy prime minister, in a recent speech.

There is also an attempt to push back against China’s expanding global presence in the fields of infrastructure and technology. At its summit in June, the G7 launched a $600bn fund to mobilize investment in global infrastructure. But it risks being a decade late and billions of dollars short. China’s Belt and Road Initiative was launched in 2013 and may already have lavished $4tn on global infrastructure projects.

There are also presentational problems. The countries of the global west argue that they are banding together to defend universal values, underpinning a liberal world order. But China and Russia instead present the global west as an attempt to rebuild a hierarchy with its roots in imperialism and white supremacy. Opinion polls in the global south suggest that these Russo-Chinese arguments often find a receptive audience.

Even within the global west, there is a danger that unilateral American actions are alienating some partners. The recent ferocious US restrictions on technology exports to China will hugely complicate business for some of the biggest tech firms in South Korea, Japan and Europe. Olaf Scholz, Germany’s chancellor, has just firmly restated his belief in globalisation — in what felt like a rebuke to the US.

If it is to keep this new alliance together, the US will have to persuade its partners that the darkest fears about Russia and China are justified. This weekend’s scenes from Beijing certainly help to make that case.

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