Squeeze Play

At first glance, this might seem the traditional neocolonial model. But China has updated that model for a globalized era. Beijing fuels its variant of neocolonialism by weaponizing its integration into the international system. China claims the resources — World Bank loans, for example — that come of participation in international institutions without fulfilling the corresponding obligations. Beijing uses those resources to play bank, on the rest of the world’s dime, for its own strategic ends.

In doing so, China claims an asymmetric advantage. By joining the World Trade Organization (WTO), Beijing obtains access to information on the world’s top economies, while refusing to be transparent about its own. Beijing reaps the reputational and technological boons of operating a BSL-4 laboratory in Wuhan, while failing to maintain appropriate safety protocols. China benefits from its G-20 status, while ducking the organization’s commitment to global economic stability. Bought off by the promise of China’s market, or blinded by optimistic ideals, the international system looks passively on.

For the G-20 to make good on its commitment to the developing world, it must hold China accountable. For the international system to protect and promote the global order, it must resist Beijing’s weaponized cooperation. That can start with immediate tasks relevant to COVID recovery: pushing back at China’s interest collection practices and stripping China of its “developing country” label that allows the world’s second-largest economy to claim concessionary loans from the World Bank.

But a more ambitious response will also be necessary. If Beijing is using the World Bank, or the World Trade Organization, or the U.N. Human Rights Council, to colonize the developing world and manipulate the developed world, China should not be a member of the World Bank, the World Trade Organization, or the U.N. Human Rights Council. And in cases where the U.S. opts to withdraw from organizations that Beijing has subverted — the World Health Organization, for example — the U.S. must offer a positive alternative.

China’s asymmetric strategy threatens global, and U.S., norms and prosperity. This affront should spur a bipartisan response. It should activate labor interests on the left, national security hawks on the right, and a country built on fundamental shared ideals. It should activate the economic interests whose resources Beijing siphons and the cosmopolitan interests whose international institutions Beijing subverts.

Such activation may be beginning. Both President-elect Biden and President Trump have backed domestic investment plans that target China’s parasitic industrial offensive in the United States. But Beijing’s strategy is global. And the threat is immediate. Washington will have to follow through on those promises, in a bipartisan fashion. It will then need to extend them internationally, in a multilateral fashion. China’s offensive demands a new New Deal combined with a new Bretton Woods.