Roosevelt Institute | Cornell University

The Quiet Rise of the “China Solution” and the Threat it Poses to the Current World Order

By Kevin ZongPublished February 21, 2019

Chinese Premier Xi Jinping.
The chronicles of Huawei's adventurism in 5G technology in Europe are the latest in a series of moves that seek to assert China as a new global leader, setting forth the "China Solution", an alternative to the Western liberal world order. The White House must take note and offer a response unless it is willing to concede to a country with an increasingly-influential authoritarian regime.

     The Chinese telecommunications giant, Huawei, has been in the spotlight since early December when Canada arrested Meng Wanzhou, a top executive, for extradition to the US. She would be charged with violating sanctions against Iran. Within the week, the Chinese government arrested Michael Korvig, a Canadian former diplomat in an act of retribution. This represents another episode in the complicated saga of US-China relations over the past two years, as Huawei has long been seen as an extension of the power of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).

     Outside of the mainstream narratives discussing the potential impact the arrest may have on tense negotiations over the ongoing trade war between the two nations, new attention has been turned to Huawei’s actions, particularly its 5G for Europe project, in which the firm hopes to build Europe’s highly sought after 5G network. The project hasn’t gone completely to plan, as Huawei has faced formidable resistance. A Huawei espionage scandal in Warsaw, the company’s headquarters for the Central and Eastern Europe region, has reignited fears that allowing Huawei to build Europe’s 5G network will result in backdoors for Chinese surveillance. Meanwhile the US has been persistent in pushing its allies to ban Huawei from its 5G technology, citing security threats to the NATO Alliance and misuse of data by the Chinese. Secretary of State Pompeo has gone far enough to warn that a technical partnership with Huawei would hurt NATO allies’ relationships with the United States.

Regardless of these challenges, Huawei still has reason to be optimistic. Despite bans from Australia, New Zealand, and Japan, Hungary has remained solidified in its 5G partnership, while, in the last two weeks, the UK, Germany, and Italy all have opted not to ban Huawei and keep their options open. Certainly, this is not a definitive victory for Huawei as no contracts have been guaranteed; however, the fact that the US’s influence over its allies seems to have diminished provides hope that Huawei can overcome the calls for its banning.

     The case of Huawei’s expansion into Europe is emblematic of a larger force at play: the receding influence of the US. Since World War II, the US has been widely regarded as the leader of the global order and its leadership has been bolstered by unified action with other Western allies, namely the UK, France, and Germany. But now, with even the closest allies of the United States refusing to acquiesce to what amounts to something between a request and a demand, there should be some alarm that the long-standing hegemonic power the US has held may no longer be held in such high regard. Not only that but the US’s reputation of being a world leader in cutting-edge technology may be under threat as well, and the fact that Huawei is keeping up with the US in the race for 5G technology is an indication.

     In the midst of this moment of US weakness, China has found an opportunity to assert itself on the world stage. On July 1st, 2016 at the 95th Anniversary of the CCP ceremony, Premier Xi delivered a speech that advocated for the “China Solution”, a move away from Deng Xiaoping’s “hide and bide” strategy to international affairs and instead “provide a Chinese solution to aid the exploration of a better social system for humanity”. Most simply put, China has begun to see itself as the next global hegemon, and believes the so-called Washington Consensus of free market economics and democracy should be replaced with the China Solution: an alternative to Western leadership that implements economic liberalization without liberalizing politically.

     It can be argued that in the years since the arrival of the “China Solution” rhetoric, Beijing has been boldly increasing promotion of its alternative methods to the world. In Africa, where many countries find difficulty obtaining loans from the IMF due to stringent regulations (both political and economic), China has been a source for desperately needed investment, pledging $60 billion in 2018. Some have chalked this up to China’s own autocratic system: while Western institutions may be concerned about the levels of democracy in countries they extend loans to, China is more than happy to accommodate nations with autocratic structures mirroring its own.

     Meanwhile, the legitimacy of the US system is being called into question as well. Liberals have long trumpeted democracy as a key factor in strong, stable economic growth, but that thesis is being called into question given the meteoric rise of China’s economy. A country whose very government is solely dependent upon performance legitimacy has succeeded and has demonstrated to the world that a model of autocratic rule can be just as successful as Western democratic regimes, if not more so. China’s One Belt One Road Initiative has demonstrated this, particularly with the CCP’s 16+1 Plan of cooperation with 16 Central and Eastern European countries. The two most powerful countries in this group are Hungary and Poland, both of which were growing in their democratic potential in the early part of this century, but have now reverted back towards authoritarianism while, at the same time, they have solidified economic relations with China. Although there are certainly more factors at play than just contracts with Chinese firms, it cannot be understated that the Chinese model of economic success and stability within an autocratic system certainly inspires confidence in the likes of Victor Orban and Andrzej Duda to move forward with autocratic ambitions, especially now with the support of said strong and powerful autocratic nation.

     Truly then, there is a new kid on the block of international leadership, and it just so happens that the US is currently embroiled in a heated trade war with them. Although President Trump claims that his brash methodology has brought China to the table and will produce a deal that ends China’s unfair practices, his tit-for-tat methods will not hold up against a country strong enough to predict its reclamation of the mantle of global leadership. While the president may assume the US is in a position of superiority when dealing with China, his confidence is misplaced. China’s quiet amassment of political and economic capital across a broad range of countries has brought its authoritarian-based China Solution to the doorstep of the Western world order. Meanwhile, the White House refuses to recognize this as fact, instead moving increasingly towards isolationism as it jumbles its presence in the Middle East, antagonizes our southern and northern neighbors, and acts nonchalantly towards NATO at a time the US needs them most. The China Solution’s rise came in response to a perceived weakening of US influence and image abroad, and it seems President Trump is content to continue granting China more opportunities for a power grab. Perhaps it is this lack of strength that has led to the disregard of US calls to ban Huawei; if a country seems to renounce its global leadership, why listen to its demands?

     None of this comes as surprising news. For years now, China has been a country wearily observed by all. However, this latest Huawei activity serves as a good reminder that China has a legitimate challenge to the current world order through its China Solution. The US cannot afford to believe the status quo will hold Western world leadership together, garner positive results from the trade war, or help improve the image of an already disappearing US world presence. There must be a demand for a US response, lest we witness autocracy become the new democracy.