China watchers' 2022 predictions: Tiger year trajectory


Hi China Watchers. This is our final edition of 2021 and we’ve polished the crystal ball — via the input of past newsletter contributors — to provide smart predictions about what to expect in U.S.-China relations in 2022. We’ll also decode China’s DARVO propaganda and finish with a cheery musical number (with “Chinese democracy” characteristics).

Let’s get to it. — Phelim

PROGRAMMING NOTE: China Watcher will take a break the weeks of Dec. 20 and 27, but we’ll return to our normal schedule on Jan. 6.

China Watcher’s all-star cast of expert contributors submitted their predictions for what lies ahead in U.S.-China relations in 2022. Responses have been edited for clarity and length.

TAIWAN

The U.S. and China may be able to start some long overdue official level discussion to mitigate the emerging strategic arms race [with] some form of bilateral strategic stability dialogue, [but] the Taiwan Strait will continue to be the most dangerous flashpoint that could pull them toward military confrontation. — TONG ZHAO, senior fellow in the Nuclear Policy Program at the Carnegie–Tsinghua Center for Global Policy in Beijing

The greatest danger is a perfect geo-political storm in which Beijing ramps up its aggression against Taiwan at the same time as Russia does the same against Ukraine. The most hopeful scenario for us is that President JOE BIDEN is able to make good on the ambitions of his recent Summit for Democracy bringing together a large coalition of nations with the collective economic, diplomatic and military muscle to push back hard against aggression from Beijing. — ROBIN SHEPHERD, vice president, Halifax International Security Forum

There is a growing gap between how Main Street and the U.S. business community think about China [and] Republicans (and some Democrats) will use that in the 2022 midterms to hammer opponents seen as insufficiently tough on Beijing. Possibly as early as 2022, Chairman XI JINPING may see it as politically expedient to try and seize Taiwan: maybe just a few of its small islands, or maybe the main island. — ISAAC STONE FISH, CEO of Strategy Risks and author of the forthcoming “America Second

CLIMATE

Now is the time for the world’s two largest [carbon] emitters to flesh out concrete plans to decarbonize. [But] if China’s economic growth continues to show signs of hitting the buffers, or its energy security comes under threat, Beijing is likely to double down on nationalist rhetoric to safeguard regime stability. This could have disastrous knock-on effects for the status quo in Taiwan and the space for cooperation on the international stage. — TOM TUGENDHAT, chair of the British Parliament’s Foreign Affairs Committee

ECONOMY

The most destabilizing factor for US-China relations in 2022 [will be that] the current [bilateral] tensions prevent the kind of engagement required to effectively address lowering tariffs [to] counterbalance inflation and make ways for China to buy U.S. exports. — SHIRLEY MARTEY HARGIS, consultant on China and international security at CRDF Global

The greatest opportunity is to get the commercial relationship back on track because it greatly benefits American jobs and competitiveness at home and globally. However, we have not seen the sense of urgency from the administration on its U.S.-China trade strategy or the Section 301 tariffs that the situation warrants. The greatest threat is further decoupling of the U.S. and Chinese commercial spheres, which provide much-needed stability for the broader relationship. — CRAIG ALLEN, president of the U.S.-China Business Council

Since the Trump administration, we've seen the worldviews of Chinese and American diplomats in Africa grow alarmingly polarized. This us-or-them logic and both sides' seeming willingness to use disinformation are warping important African conversations around infrastructure and other development issues. Diplomatic pressure on African governments to choose sides without considering African priorities is likely to backfire omnidirectionally, damaging everyone involved. — COBUS VAN STADEN, senior analyst at the South African Institute of International Affairs and co-host of the China in Africa Podcast

CULTURE

My New Year’s wish: we finally abandon the fantasy that the CCP is interested in cooperating with us. [And] build off of President JOE BIDEN’S democracy summit and work with partners to strengthen deterrence and protect the rules-based international system against threats posed by Beijing and Moscow. — MATT TURPIN, former China director at the National Security Council and editor of the Hoover Institution’s China Global Sharp Power Weekly Alert

Xi Jinping has made clear his intent to promote "socialism with Chinese characteristics," at the expense of Western liberalism, so we are in a zero-sum competition. While Xi may avoid confrontation during the Olympics and the 20th Party Congress, he will maintain his offensive aims and persist in trying to achieve them for the foreseeable future. The good news is that Americans are both increasingly aware of this set of challenges and moving to protect themselves. Representatives from major U.S. institutions in finance, tech, law and academia have all told me they are worried and working to limit their [China] exposure. — JACQUELINE DEAL, senior fellow of the Foreign Policy Research Institute, and president of LTSG, a defense consultancy

Beijing’s drive to legitimize autocratic practices worldwide, its technological and military buildups, and its aggression in the Taiwan Strait have raised the likelihood of conflict between the superpowers. The United States has reacted with a clear attitude but has not articulated an effective strategy to stabilize U.S.-China relations and advance American interests and values. Finding that strategy is the United States’ most pressing foreign policy challenge. — ROBERT DALY, director of the Kissinger Institute on China and the United States at the Wilson Center

Feb.1, 2022, will usher in the Chinese zodiac’s year of the tiger. The above predictions suggest we’ll all need its tiger-like qualities of bravery and strength for the challenges ahead.

TRANSLATING WASHINGTON

— UYGHUR ACT SPEEDS TOWARD PASSAGE: Legislation that aims to prohibit imports that use forced labor of ethnic Uyghur Muslims in China will soon land on Biden’s desk — and he plans to sign it, reports POLITICO’S STEVEN OVERLY (for Pro). An amended version of the Uyghur Forced Labor Prevention Act, now H.R. 6256, was approved by a voice vote in the House on Tuesday and will now head to the Senate where it is also expected to receive broad support.

Representatives of organizations focused on U.S.-China business ties are concerned by what they say is the legislation’s expansive reach and its imposition of onerous evidence requirements of non-forced labor sourcing of Chinese imports. One such representative not authorized to speak on the record said the business community has been dismayed by lawmakers’ deaf ear to these concerns. “Xinjiang is an enormous place that has a lot of different things going on so [the legislation] condemns the economy of an entire province just to make [politicians] feel good,” he told China Watcher. “And the way the legislation is written is that it forces American businesses or all businesses to prove a negative [and] that's actually impossible to do.”

Congress is unmoved. “We must pass this legislation to give Americans the peace of mind that the clothes they wear, the food they eat, and the technology that they use, are not tainted by forced labor perpetrated by the Chinese government,” said Rep. JIM MCGOVERN (D-Mass.), who sponsored the House bill. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson ZHAO LIJIAN dismissed the act as “political manipulation and economic bullying in the name of ‘human rights.’”

— BLINKEN BLASTS CHINA’S ‘AGGRESSIVE ACTIONS’: Secretary of State ANTONY BLINKEN issued a rallying call to Asian allies Monday against “Beijing’s aggressive actions” in the Indo-Pacific. In a speech at Universitas Indonesia, Blinken said defense of the “rules-based order” required regional states to oppose Chinese depredations. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson WANG WENBIN shot back by accusing the U.S. of using the South China Sea “to flex muscle and provoke trouble.” Blinken cut short his Asia trip Wednesday after an unidentified member of his press pool tested positive for Covid-19. That scuttled his planned trip to Thailand and added to the diplomatic collateral damage of the U.S. government’s uphill battle in curbing the spread of the coronavirus one year since vaccines became available.

— DEMOCRACY SUMMIT TAIWAN MAP SNAFU: Taiwan’s Summit for Democracy appearance went awry Friday when someone on the U.S. government side abruptly cut transmission of a slideshow presentation by Taiwan’s digital minister, AUDREY TANG, Reuters reported. A possible reason: Tang’s inclusion of a color-coded map that highlighted the self-governing island in bright green (a hue favored by the self-governing island’s pro-independence movement) rather than the red denoting China. A State Department spokesperson told China Watcher on Monday that the interruption in the visual feed was “an honest mistake” and noted that her full video presentation was on the summit’s website.

— STATE SLAMS NICARAGUA’S CHINA SWITCH: Nicaragua’s decision last week to dump Taiwan and switch diplomatic relations to China deprives Nicaragua of “a steadfast partner in its democratic and economic growth,” State Department spokesperson NED PRICE said Friday in a statement. Nicaragua’s defection cuts the number of countries that diplomatically recognize Taiwan to 14 and leaves Belize, Guatemala and Honduras as the island’s remaining Latin American allies. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Wang applauded Nicaragua’s move” as “on the right side of history [and] in line with global justice.”

Not quite, warns EVAN ELLIS, Latin America research professor with the U.S. Army War College Strategic Studies Institute in a Global Americans article published Friday. Nicaragua’s China flip “will create a cluster of regimes … empowered by Chinese money with the latitude and motivation to thumb their noses at U.S. censure regarding democracy, corruption, immigration, and counterdrug cooperation,” Ellis wrote.

— NEW STATE SANCTIONS TARGET CHINESE OFFICIALS: The State Department placed four current and former Chinese officials on a sanctions list Friday “for gross violations of human rights, namely arbitrary detention of Uyghurs.” The officials, SHOHRAT ZAKIR, ERKEN TUNIYAZ, HU LIANHE and CHEN MINGGUO, and their family members are banned from entering the U.S. That same day the U.S. Department of the Treasury also sanctioned Zakir and Tuniyaz under the Global Magnitsky Human Rights Accountability Act and identified SenseTime Group Limited as a corporate contributor to China’s “surveillance technology sector” targeting Uyghur Muslims.

Treasury will blacklist another eight Chinese firms, including the commercial drone producer DJI, as soon as today for similar abuses, the Financial Times reported Wednesday. Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao called such measures “unwarranted suppression” of Chinese firms.

— LITHUANIAN DIPLOMATS FLEE BEIJING: The Lithuanian Embassy in Beijing shifted into “remote operation” mode Wednesday after its diplomats left the country due to alleged “intimidation” by Chinese authorities, Reuters reported. That diplomatic withdrawal is the latest in a worsening bilateral face-off sparked in August when China recalled its ambassador to Lithuania and demanded that Lithuania do likewise as reprisal for allowing Taiwan to christen its new representative office in Vilnius the “Taiwanese Representative Office.”

— BIDEN’S BEIJING BOYCOTT DISSENTERS: French President EMMANUEL MACRON last week confirmed France won’t join a diplomatic boycott of the 2022 Beijing Olympics, describing the sanction as “insignificant.” French officials will join South Korean counterparts as well as United Nations Secretary-General ANTONIO GUTERRES in the Games VIP viewing stands.

— TRIBUNAL LINKS XI TO XINJIANG ABUSES: The self-declared Uyghur Tribunal concluded last week that Chinese leader Xi Jinping and other senior Chinese government officials “bear primary responsibility” for human rights abuses against Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang. The tribunal, a non-governmental initiative by international legal scholars that has no legal authority, concluded after months of reviewing evidence that Xi and Xinjiang Party Secretary, CHEN QUANGUO, bore responsibility for crimes against humanity for policies that have resulted in “torture, rape … and other inhumane acts” and for genocide by “imposing measures to prevent [Uyghur] births.” China’s Foreign Ministry issued a statement Sunday calling the Tribunal a “political farce.”

— REPORT: CHINESE RESEARCH COOPERATION IS RISKY: U.S. researchers should bolster measures against ethical and security risks of cooperation with Chinese partners, a Hoover Institution report published Wednesday warns. Current vetting standards for such collaboration fail to address how Chinese state-controlled research institutions “have obfuscated their activities and associations, incentivized unauthorized transfers of intellectual property or know-how, and engaged in other questionable practices that undermine human rights and the integrity of scientific research,” the report states.

— REPORT: CHINA’S CONFUCIUS INSTITUTES STILL MENACE: U.S. educational institutions with cooperation agreements with China’s state-controlled Confucius Institutes face persistent security risks, a report released last week by the Foundation for Defense of Democracies warns. Tufts, Stanford, Texas A&M and other schools are in danger of their Confucius Institute relationships becoming “modern-day Trojan horses … [facilitating] an intricate web of academic and research partnerships between America’s top universities and Chinese schools that directly enable China’s military-industrial complex,” the report said.

— CHINA’S PROPAGANDA DARVO DIAGNOSIS: What do disgraced former New York State Gov. Andrew Cuomo and China’s Foreign Ministry have in common? Both deploy a rhetorical technique called DARVO, or "Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender” to defame and silence critics, said JENNIFER J. FREYD, professor emerit of psychology at the University of Oregon, and pioneer of the DARVO concept. Freyd described recent Foreign Ministry messaging, including that recent dump of “democracy”-related documents and Foreign Ministry responses to both U.S. criticism of China’s human rights record and Lithuania’s relationship with Taiwan, as textbook “Institutional DARVO.”

“It’s DARVO-like because it changes the narrative for what they're doing to what we're doing and, in that way, reverses victim and offender,” said Freyd. “DARVO is about attacking someone's credibility. It’s saying, ‘When you make this accusation, you're doing it for ulterior motives or you don't have the mental resources to be accurate,’ or whatever it takes to diminish somebody's credibility, and clearly that's what [the Foreign Ministry] is doing.”

The Foreign Ministry’s routine accusation of “hurt feelings” of the Chinese people in response to foreign criticism also fits the DARVO mold. “That is the standard DARVO argument because then they become victims of the person making the accusation and the accusation becomes the offense.” Freyd said. And that strategy can be effective. “If [countries] think that they’re going to get a DARVO response from China … it could silence [some] nation states,” warned Freyd.

— SINGING DEMOCRACY’S BLUES: The contribution of China’s state news agency Xinhua’s YouTube channel, New China TV, to state media criticism of Biden’s Summit for Democracy included a three-minute video titled “American Democracy? Or Ameri-cracy?!” It features a live-action top-hatted, bow-tied emcee engaging with four animated animals that represent Iraq (a goat), Vietnam (a water buffalo), Afghanistan (a snow leopard) and Egypt (a camel). Together they lament what they describe as U.S. interventions, military or otherwise, that harmed those countries under a veneer of pro-democracy efforts. The show ends with the quintet singing a song with lines including “Use democracy as a cloak, Ameri-cracy rules the world; if any country said ‘no’ you would bash it as your foe.”

Season’s greetings to all readers — and animals!

Thanks to: Ben Pauker, Luiza Ch. Savage, Matt Kaminski and editor John Yearwood.

Do you have tips? Chinese-language stories we might have missed? Would you like to contribute to China Watcher or comment on this week's items? Email us at [email protected]

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CLARIFICATION: An earlier version of this article mischaracterized the political leanings of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies; it is a nonprofit, nonpartisan research institute.