As much as any other single development, China’s rise over the past two decades has remade the landscape of global politics. Beginning with its entry into the World Trade Organization in December 2001, China rapidly transformed its economy from a low-cost “factory to the world” to a global leader in advanced technologies. Along the way, it has transformed global supply chains, but also international diplomacy, leveraging its success to become the primary trading and development partner for emerging economies across Asia, Africa and Latin America.
But Beijing’s emergence as a global power has also created tensions. Early expectations that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to liberalization at home and moderation abroad have proven overly optimistic, especially since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012. Instead, Xi has overseen a domestic crackdown on dissent, in order to shore up and expand the Chinese Communist Party’s control over every aspect of Chinese society. Needed economic reforms have been put on the backburner, while unfair trade practices, such as forced technology transfers and other restrictions for foreign corporations operating in China, have resulted in a trade war with the U.S. and increasing criticism from Europe.
Meanwhile, China’s “quiet rise” has given way to more vocal expressions of great power aspirations and a more assertive international posture, particularly with regard to China’s territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Combined with Beijing’s military modernization program, that has put Asia, as well as the United States, on notice that China’s economic power will have geopolitical implications. The COVID-19 pandemic initially opened up opportunities for Beijing to expand its influence, but subsequently called into question both China’s credibility as a responsible stakeholder and the future of the supply chains that have fueled its economic success story.
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All of these trends are now likely to gather momentum now that Xi has been reappointed to a third term as Communist Party chairman and Chinese president, breaking the two-term precedent set during China’s reform and opening period. But as he concentrates power into his own hands, Xi also assumes greater responsibility for China’s successes—and its failures. With challenges piling up, there is no guarantee that China’s rise won’t lose steam, due to outside pressure from Beijing’s competition with Washington or mistakes and unforced errors of its own. And last year’s protests across China, which led to the abandonment of Xi’s draconian “zero COVID” policies, served as a reminder that despite his and the CCP’s grip on power, they are still ultimately accountable to the Chinese people.
WPR has covered China’s rise in detail and continues to examine key questions about what will happen next. Can China sustain its economic miracle in the face of demographic and environmental challenges—and competition with the U.S.? What role will China play in international development now that its Belt and Road Initiative seems to have run its course? Is China seeking to reshape the rules-based international system to better reflect its interests, or is Beijing’s goal to undermine and replace it? Below are some of the highlights of WPR’s coverage.
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The U.S.-China rivalry will shape the course of international politics in the 21st century. Hence, any insights that can be gleaned on the state of bilateral relations from the recent meeting between U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Chinese President Xi Jinping are worth evaluating. And the insights to be gleaned are encouraging.
China Under Xi Jinping
Many observers in the West assumed that integrating China into the global economy would lead to domestic liberalization and international moderation. Instead, under Xi, China has pocketed the gains of its economic rise, while cracking down on what little domestic dissent had emerged under previous leaders. He’s now been appointed to a third term as party chairman and president, breaking the two-term precedent set since China’s reform and opening period. But with challenges piling up at home and abroad, he might find the current landscape harder to navigate.
U.S.-China Relations and Competition
As optimism about China’s rise began to fade at the end of the Obama administration, the U.S. foreign policy community quickly embraced a bipartisan consensus on the need to get tough on Beijing. But former President Donald Trump’s trade war, amid calls for a broader “decoupling” of the two countries’ economies, did not deliver decisive results. Since taking office, the Biden administration has tried to maintain pressure on Beijing while opening channels of engagement, but those efforts have failed to meaningfully improve relations. More recently, the Biden team has increased the pressure on Beijing, particularly when it comes to competition over the technologies that will determine global power dynamics in the 21st century.
Foreign Policy & the Belt and Road Initiative
China has a long history of aid and investment in the developing world. But its Belt and Road Initiative of global infrastructure investment made inroads not only in Asia and Africa, but also Europe. Beijing is increasingly using the leverage its economic partnerships generate to advance its political interests, at times by using boycotts and other coercive tactics to bully governments that cross it. That, combined with Beijing’s aggressive “wolf warrior” diplomacy, is now creating a backlash that is undermining China’s global image—and influence.
China’s Military Modernization—and Taiwan
Once primarily a personnel-heavy and ill-equipped land army, the Chinese military has overhauled itself into a force capable of fighting on land and sea, in the air and space, as well as in the cyber domain. And its cutting-edge equipment is increasingly supplied by a Chinese defense industry that has itself become a global player. That has raised concerns among neighbors and rivals, particularly when it comes to the prospect of an invasion of Taiwan to unify the island with the mainland by force.
Editor’s note: This article was originally published in May 2019 and is regularly updated.