From U.S. to Japan, Lawmakers of Opposing Parties Unite Across World to End 'Naive' China Strategy

Lawmakers across multiple nations have announced the launch of the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China (IPAC)—a body seeking a fresh "strategic approach" to issues related to China.

The group, which includes U.S. Sens. Marco Rubio and Bob Menendez, has been set up to work "towards reform on how democratic countries approach China," according to its website. Lawmakers from the U.K., Australia, Canada, Japan, the European Union, Germany, Sweden, and Norway are also involved, with more nations to be represented soon as additional politicians sign up.

The group's launch comes at a time of historically poor relations between China and the democratic international community. Long-standing concerns over human rights and trade practices have been exacerbated by the COVID-19 coronavirus pandemic and Beijing's plan to criminalize dissent in the semi-autonomous territory of Hong Kong.

In the U.S., a struggling President Donald Trump is doubling down with his tough-on-China approach as the economy nosedives and protesters take to the streets. Eager not to be outdone, Democratic presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden has been bolstering his own China-skeptic message.

In a video message announcing IPAC's launch, Rubio said: "China, under the rule of the Chinese Communist Party, represents a global challenge...We the Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China stand together to coordinate the response to this great challenge."

Newsweek has contacted the Chinese embassy in Washington to request comment on the launch of IPAC.

Western politicians and corporations once hoped that China was heading down a more liberal and democratic path. When Chinese Premier Deng Xiaoping began opening the country's mammoth market from the late 1970s, foreign capitalists were eager to take advantage. When China joined the World Trade Organization in 2001 it removed many remaining barriers to business, propelling China's economic growth.

But prosperity did not pull China away from authoritarianism. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) crushed reformist demonstrations in 1989 and has since adopted modern technology to fortify its totalitarianism. The CCP is now marching the country towards superpower status with an unapologetically dictatorial model, while foreign nations re-evaluate their ties with Beijing.

Sir Iain Duncan Smith—a former leader of the British Conservative Party who still sits in parliament—told Newsweek that the free world had been "naive" in its approach to China, settling on the "unfounded" hope that free markets would lead Beijing to democratic reforms.

Beijing has made no secret of its authoritarianism, and certainly not since President Xi Jinping took office in 2013 and began centralizing power. But democratic governments continued to do business with China and deepen economic integration. Smith—a long-time China-skeptic—said that it took recent crises—Xinjiang, the South China Sea, Hong Kong and now coronavirus—to highlight the unsustainability of the free world's ties with Beijing.

"The nature of the Chinese government became very much on display for the first time for a long, long time," Smith said of the COVID-19 pandemic. "And I think that is what has certainly convinced many people around the world that this is a very, very difficult government to deal with."

Rubio concurs. He told Newsweek that democratic states "underestimated the Chinese Communist Party's drive for power and influence, both inside and outside the People's Republic of China" and failed by "making economic interests our guiding star."

"This erroneous concept for dealing with Beijing, however, was born from hope and the idea that it was worth taking that risk. We now have to face the reality that we were wrong and redirect our policy to accept the realities and the threats the CCP posed to the world," Rubio said.

In the U.S., there appears to be growing bipartisan agreement that China is an issue to be addressed, whether due to its trade practices, spreading global influence or human rights abuses. "The actions of the CCP have brought policymakers from different political views together in many ways," Rubio said.

The EU has trodden a softer line on China than the U.S., refusing to indulge in the open attacks and conspiracy theories favored by President Trump. EU leaders have courted Chinese economic opportunities while warily watching Beijing's investment in the Balkans and the east of the bloc, fearing China might try to undermine its influence there.

Indeed, one of IPAC's missions is to protect national integrity: "The PRC must not be permitted to compromise the sovereignty or institutions of any developed or emerging markets through lending, investment, or by any other means."

The EU has also spoken out against human rights abuses in China, despite protest from Beijing. Miriam Lexmann is a member of the EU Parliament from Slovakia, belonging to the center-right Christian Democratic Movement. She told Newsweek that Europeans must put their values at the lead of the bloc's foreign policy.

"Now is the moment where we have to change certain approaches to China but also our foreign engagement in general," Lexmann said. "Our policies should support the well-being of our citizens...but human rights in general."

European concerns about Chinese investment, firms like Huawei, and disinformation and censorship disputes efforts have all informed growing Beijing-skepticism in the bloc.

Such issues are highlighting the "loopholes" in EU policy, Lexmann said. This is prompting a backlash on the continent amid concerns that Chinese actions are now threatening European security, she added.

Reinhard Butikofer, a German member of the EU Parliament for the Alliance 90/The Greens party, said that Europe "cannot return to business as normal" with China given its human rights abuses and totalitarianism, though acknowledged it is always difficult for such a diverse bloc to agree a common approach.

Across Europe, the 5G debate has raised questions about the security threat posed by China. Chinese firm Huawei is at the forefront of 5G rollout, and despite American protests was poised to be a leading provider of 5G infrastructure for European nations. But China-skepticism has hindered Huawei's projects.

In recent months, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson was forced by Conservative colleagues—led by Smith—to agree to sideline Huawei from the 5G network, despite having initially agreed to give the firm a limited role.

Canadian Conservative Party MP Garnett Genuis said his country has been going through its own "very difficult interactions with China" in recent years, not least what he called the "hostage diplomacy" that emerged from Canada's arrest and proposed extradition of Huawei CFO Meng Wanzhou to the U.S. on fraud charges. Shortly after Meng's arrest, China detained two Canadian citizens.

This and other Chinese controversies have "spawned a great deal of sensitivity and realism among the public when it comes to how to respond to Chinese government aggression," Genius told Newsweek.

This extends to security issues in Canada as well, Genius explained. The pandemic has shown "the implications for our own security of China's totalitarian system and repression of information," he said.

Economics often takes precedence in national political debates, but Genius said that security threats like COVID-19 "have massive economic implications... We can't just think about economic issues in a vacuum."

For these reasons and more, Smith said it was not difficult to get lawmakers from around the world to sign up to IPAC, such is the concern about China's malign intentions. "That's why this is just a wake-up call to everybody," he said. "We have to act now."

But modern China is far richer and more influential than it was in the 1970s, or even the 2000s. Pushing back against Beijing will likely come with costs, at a time when the world is facing its worst economic depression in living memory thanks to the coronavirus pandemic.

Americans have already suffered from Trump's trade war with China, paying the price via higher import costs and fewer exports. Asked whether it was fair to make Americans pay to pressure China to reform, Rubio replied: "We cannot allow Beijing to profit from its broken agreements and egregious human rights violations that undermine American values and international norms."

He added that democracies "face economic costs by not holding the Chinese government and Communist Party accountable...Whatever short-term profits are earned by not responding to these government policies comes at the long-term expense of our economy as a whole."

The coronavirus crisis has torpedoed global economic growth projections, and thrown the U.S. economy into turmoil just months before what was already going to be a highly charged presidential election. Rubio said the pandemic is "the product of an authoritarian party-state that censors information to such an extent that medical professionals are prohibited from sharing relevant notes without attracting the police."

Smith—a vocal supporter of the U.K.'s departure from the EU, which remains shrouded in uncertainty and concerning economic predictions—said the world needs to make the shift now rather than later.

"Yes, these are going to be tough decisions, but they have to be taken now," he said. "Because the further down the road we allow this to slide, the more dependent we become and the more difficult this decision will be to make."

The magnitude of the change requires multinational cooperation, Smith said. "No single country can do this alone." Collaboration may help soften the blow of decoupling with China, to whatever extent that is possible. "Governments need to say there are strategic areas where, frankly, we cannot be in the hands of the Chinese."

Butikofer said no one is picking a fight with Beijing, but instead lawmakers are "standing up for our own interests and our values." He said EU politicians want China to allow a level playing field for European firms and end state-directed economic nativism.

"Even before we invented the word 'decoupling' in D.C., China started decoupling actively," Butikofer said, citing the ban on foreign technology for all Chinese officials.

Genius said that all trade with China is mutually beneficial, so any pain felt in democratic nations will also be felt in Beijing. "I think there needs to be strategic, thoughtful, principled engagement," he said. "Nobody in this group is calling for a wholesale isolation of ourselves. We just need to take the rose-colored glasses off, to recognize the problem."

"The challenge is to realize that a lot of the things we wished were true may not be true," Genius said.

This article has been updated to include comments from Reinhard Butikofer and Marco Rubio.

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A man wearing a face mask walks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China on June 4, 2020. (Photo by NOEL CELIS / AFP) (Photo by NOEL CELIS/AFP via Getty Images/Getty