Skip to content
As Xi Professes a Commitment to ‘Multilateralism,’ the U.S. Counters With a Dose of Reality
Go to my account

As Xi Professes a Commitment to ‘Multilateralism,’ the U.S. Counters With a Dose of Reality

A recently declassified memo suggests we bolster democracies throughout China’s neighborhood as a counterweight to the CCP’s domineering model.

On January 25, Chinese leader Xi Jinping addressed the World Economic Forum in Davos. The title of his speech, “Let the Torch of Multilateralism Light up Humanity’s Way Forward,” says much about how Xi hopes other countries will perceive his nation. As I’ve written in the past, Xi has co-opted the language of liberal-minded internationalists. His most recent speech is a good example of this practice, as he used the words “multilateral” and “multilateralism” on at least a dozen occasions, while portraying China as the nation most interested in upholding “the common values of humanity,”—namely, “peace, development, equity, justice, democracy and freedom.” Yes, Xi—the same man who is currently overseeing the oppression of minorities in Xinjiang and a crackdown on dissidents in Hong Kong—actually claimed those values as his own. At times, Xi’s rhetoric could have even passed for that of an American progressive, as he emphasized the importance of combating climate change and promoting “green development.” 

It’s not clear if anyone accepts Xi’s portrayal of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) at face value. It is clear that many American officials aren’t buying his routine.

In the waning days of the Trump administration, the National Security Council declassified and released a memo titled “U.S. Strategic Framework for the Indo-Pacific.” The framework summarizes the overall strategy devised by the U.S. government for countering China’s rising power and other related issues. There is a dramatic contrast between the worldview portrayed in Xi’s speech and the path forward that U.S. security officials lay out for “upholding the values of humanity.” 

In his speech this month, Xi spoke as if the CCP’s authoritarian model could be easily integrated with democracies in a unified league of nations. He claimed that all nations should stay committed to international law and international rules instead of seeking one’s own supremacy.” Xi held up the United Nations, the World Trade Organization, and the World Health Organization as the cornerstones of a world order. 

According to the framework, the American national security bureaucracy has come to a radically different conclusion. Rather than try to accommodate Xi and the CCP, its authors seek to bolster democracies throughout China’s neighborhood as a counterweight to the CCP’s domineering model.

In many foreign policy discussions, democracy promotion is associated with the Iraq War and nation-building projects led by the U.S. military in the post-9/11 era. In reality, the U.S. hasn’t been engaged in any large-scale nation-building projects in years. It’s clear that the authors of the framework have something different in mind altogether, even though they haven’t worked out all of the details and the U.S. military will undoubtedly have to play a role.

For example, one “objective” listed in the framework is this: “Promote U.S. values throughout the region to maintain influence and counterbalance Chinese models of government.” This is to be accomplished, in part, through “initiatives that show the benefits of democracy and liberty to all countries, including economic, technologic, and societal benefits.” The U.S. will continue to engage “South Korea, Taiwan, Mongolia, Japan, and other regional democratic partners to demonstrate their own successes and the benefits they have accrued.” The framework also says the U.S. should assist Burma in its democratic transformation. 

These are not just pragmatic policy goals. These action items are rooted in American principles. While President Trump often discussed foreign affairs in transactional terms, his own National Security Council was thinking beyond such narrow terms. Indeed, at a time when the idea of American retrenchment is popular, the authors of the framework advocated continued leadership and engagement across a number of areas. 

Most notably, they laid the groundwork for the creation of a “quadrilateral security framework with India, Japan, Australia and the United States as the principal hubs.” They also argued that America should: “[p]reserve and where possible expand foreign development assistance and defense engagement, including access, exercises and training, and interoperability” with countries such as the Philippines and Thailand, “[e]xpand collaboration with Indo-Pacific countries on peacekeeping, humanitarian assistance/disaster response, and global health,” help Japan modernise its self defense forces, bolster Taiwan’s military defences, and enhance India’s role as America’s “Major Defense Partner.” 

To be sure, the framework envisions a world in which all of the aforementioned countries, and others, can stand their own ground in the face of Chinese aggression. But it is impossible to square the strategy outlined in the document with isolationism. “Strong U.S. alliances are key to deterring conflict and advancing our vital interests,” the document reads. And strong alliances clearly require an American presence, even if the scope and scale of that footprint is being debated.

It is worthwhile to contrast Xi’s language on economics with the policies outlined in the framework as well. Before the World Economic Forum, Xi reiterated his call “to implement a win-win strategy,” claiming that China is committed to its policy of “opening-up” during this era of globalization. “We will foster a business environment that is based on market principles, governed by law and up to international standards, and unleash the potential of the huge China market and enormous domestic demand,” Xi said. 

The American national security establishment sees things quite differently. The CCP isn’t committed to “market principles”—at least not when it could lead to true competition between Chinese and foreign firms within China itself. The CCP maintains dominance over China’s massive domestic market, while using whatever tools it can, including corporate espionage, to undermine rival firms abroad. The authors of the framework say the U.S. should “[p]revent China’s industrial policies and unfair trading practices from distorting global markets and harming U.S. competitiveness.” The U.S. must “[c]ounter Chinese predatory economic practices that free out foreign competition,” as the CCP aspires “to dominate the 21st century economy.”

As an alternative to the CCP’s authoritarian economic model, the framework holds up a “free and open order”—a concept that, again, combines both principle and pragmatism.

Xi let it be known that the CCP would continue to “advance high-quality Belt and Road cooperation.” The One Belt, One Road initiative is Beijing’s ambition plan to underwrite development projects as part of an interconnected economic network, with the CCP setting the rules of trade. The framework’s authors want nations to know that “One Belt, One Road” can come with very big downside, making the recipients of Beijing’s loans beholden to the CCP’s political demands. Therefore, they recommend that the U.S., its partners and allies “promote an integrated economic development model in the Into-Pacific that provides a credible alternative to One Belt One Road; create a task force on how best to use public-private partnerships.”

Xi may think that he can maintain a balance of power through international institutions while China continues to rise. But if the new Biden administration adheres to the framework, that won’t be possible. “Past diplomacy has often been broad and shallow, which suits China’s interests,” the framework reads. The same can be said of Xi’s rhetoric.

Tom Joscelyn is a senior fellow at Just Security.