As China rises, it is changing its attitude toward the US

China’s rise is no longer just a repositioning on the economic-diplomatic chessboard, but it has rapidly moved away from defensive positions on other important issues like human rights and democracy.

US PRESIDENT Joe Biden convenes a virtual Summit for Democracy from the White House in December. (photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)
US PRESIDENT Joe Biden convenes a virtual Summit for Democracy from the White House in December.
(photo credit: LEAH MILLIS/REUTERS)

For many years, China pursued a cautious strategy in its relations with the West, especially the United States, fearing that any tensions would prematurely embroil the country in a military confrontation that would slow its accelerated development. However, China’s attitude toward the United States (US) pressure has fundamentally changed over the past years.

In June 2021, the National People’s Congress of the People’s Republic of China passed a law to counter foreign sanctions. This was the first such measure to establish a framework for China’s response to US sanctions. It is a response to the US Competition and Innovation Act, which Congress passed as part of its ongoing trade and economic disputes with China.
Sanctions on Chinese telecommunications and technology companies have expanded in recent years. It is clear that the battle is in full swing again, this time around internal regulations and laws of the two parties. As the world’s second-largest economy, China has moved towards tough mechanisms to protect its strategic interests. It is using a different diplomatic pattern than at the beginning of former president Donald Trump’s term in office, five years ago. Now it is not just taking blows (sanctions), but striking back by responding with counter-sanctions and perhaps taking the initiative to strike preemptively if it deems it is necessary.
China’s rise is no longer just a repositioning on the economic-diplomatic chessboard, but it has rapidly moved away from defensive positions on other important issues, such as human rights and democracy. It has a clear desire to promote its own democratic model.
The White Paper published by China’s State Council Information Office last December, titled “China: Democracy That Works,” describes China’s model in the world against the backdrop of what might be called signs of a clash of models or values that has been anticipated since the debate over China’s rise and expected role in the world order began.
Chinese staffers adjust US and Chinese flags before the opening session of Sino-US trade negotiations in Beijing in February 2019. (credit: REUTERS/MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/POOL)Chinese staffers adjust US and Chinese flags before the opening session of Sino-US trade negotiations in Beijing in February 2019. (credit: REUTERS/MARK SCHIEFELBEIN/POOL)
The document looks to stabilize the country’s position vis-a-vis the Western model of democracy. “The real obstacle to democracy lies not in the different models of democracy, but in the arrogance, prejudices and hostility to the attempts of other countries to find their way to democracy, and in the determination to assume superiority and impose a certain model of democracy on others,” it says.
The document pushes back against the Western model of democracy and promotes the idea of national specificity in formulating the appropriate model for each country based on the internal variables that affect the level of identities, culture, politics, security and other areas.
The democratic process “takes different forms and develops according to the paths chosen by different societies based on their exploratory and innovative experiences.” The Chinese White Paper continues, “The people, not a handful of foreigners, decide whether or not it is a democratic state.”
The determination of a country’s democratic character is made by the international community, not arbitrarily by some self-appointed judges, the document asserts. China wants international bodies to redefine the terminology because “there is no single model of democracy, as it manifests itself in many different forms.”
“It is inherently unambitious to measure the world’s various political systems against a single criterion and to take a monochromatic view of different political structures.” So you can see that the Chinese model is winning out over the Western model around the world. China enters the real arena of competition as a constant strategic adversary of the US.
This explains the strong mobilization of all means by Washington to counter this rising power. This rise is occurring faster than the expectations of US policymakers, who assumed a long-standing policy of gradual containment. The West has recognized that Beijing will gain many allies by exporting the Chinese model of socialist democracy and its own concept.
It may be on the verge of forming a Chinese camp similar to the Soviet camp. But Beijing will have to meet the expected conflict with the United States, not with ideology, but with a wide range of measures, especially economic ones. Democracy is last on the list of China’s vital interests.
But it seems to be necessary after all, as it is one of the instruments in the arena of the conflict because the West usually treats human rights and democracy issues as main cards against the Chinese dragon. China was excluded from the Democracy Summit convened by President Biden, where he announced the establishment of the Democracy Club, in which more than 100 countries are participating, excluding China and Russia. In the Middle East, only Iraq and Israel were included. However, the Biden Summit, one of his campaign promises, went down the tubes.
Other than promises and empty rhetoric, it has delivered pretty much nothing. It wasn’t even publicized publicly as a way to attract new members to the so-called Democracy Club, but it has succeeded in alienating key US allies.As well, the timing of the agreement is far from convenient, when American democracy is unmistakably in crisis. Washington would have been better off working to mend the internal cracks and deep scars of the American model (especially since the January 6 capitol riots) and then trying to use it in a high-profile conflict with China.
The natural consequence is that the divergence between democratic and non-democratic states, by definition of the Biden administration, is growing. Consequently, the administration has given a gift to its Chinese rival. In this context, Foreign Policy has published a report arguing that the US is not the best place to host the Democracy Summit because its democracy is flawed and nothing has been done to address those shortcomings. Additionally, the summit proved to be another strategic mistake in not inviting all friends of the US to participate.
China brings something new to the table by redefining the term human rights. It offers an alternative to the Western understanding of these rights and is all about freedom and democracy. It sets other important priorities, boasting that in 30 years it has guaranteed its citizens the “right to food, clean water, medical care, safe housing for the poor, compulsory education in the poorest areas, and the building of a civil society [in which] people have become prosperous, harmonious, and happy.” 
So, once again, the world is witnessing two competing models. However, this time it is not about the attractiveness of ideas and ideologies, but mainly about the possibilities of cooperation, investment and trade - and everything else is just an auxiliary tool used in the context of a global clash taking shape.
The writer is a UAE political analyst and former Federal National Council candidate.