April 8, 2021

IntelBrief: Authoritarians and Autocrats Seek a More Assertive Role in the World Order

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi walks by U.S. and Chinese national flags (AP Photo/Andy Wong, Pool)

Bottom Line Up Front

  • The United States and other democracies are facing a rising wave of increasingly assertive autocracies, including China and Russia. 
  • Through the Belt and Road Initiative, Chinese investment has helped Beijing make political inroads in several democracies worldwide.
  • Beijing and Moscow are working to undermine American – and more broadly Western – influence and seeking to curry favor with other autocratic regimes.
  • The Biden administration aims to synchronize words and deeds, and in so doing, recoup the political legitimacy and moral authority to lead the West.

In Washington and across capitals of other Western democracies, China’s increasing assertiveness in world affairs is an issue at the top of the policy agenda. There is growing concern over China’s global footprint and Beijing’s open call for an alliance of like-minded autocracies to rival the U.S. and its allies, undermining the values associated with their influence. In the post-Cold War era, such a siren song might have fallen upon deaf ears. But in 2021, and in the midst of a global pandemic that has left death and economic devastation in its wake, more countries are at least willing to listen to China’s pitch. The unpredictability and unreliability of the past several years of American foreign policy have only reinforced this message.

Four years of the Trump administration and its proclivity to not just tolerate but embrace dictatorships has led to confusion and uncertainly among many other countries that have long viewed the United States as a beacon for democracy. The Biden administration will not coddle strongmen like its predecessor, but a lot of damage control is still required by the U.S. to repair frayed relations with traditional allies—and there are some limitations on prospects for wholesale shifts in approach to compensate for the last few years. New initiatives like the Quad—the security dialogue that consists of the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India—are viewed as a potential bulwark against China and its autocratic allies. However, Chinese economic investment through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has helped Beijing make political inroads in several democracies worldwide.

In late March, Chinese Foreign Minister Wang Yi met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov to denounce what Beijing sees as U.S. meddling and incompetence. This was on the heels of a notably tense and unproductive meeting between the U.S. and China in Anchorage, Alaska, where the meeting deteriorated amidst mutual recriminations and accusations over breaches of diplomatic procedure and etiquette. Relations between Beijing and Washington appear headed toward a nadir, exacerbated by accusations over the origins of the coronavirus and China’s refusal to share critical data about the extent of the COVID-19 pandemic. China’s repeated intellectual property theft and ongoing genocide of its ethnic Uighur population are just two issues that have led to ongoing friction with the United States. China views any attempts to discuss its lack of adherence to well-established international norms as an abuse of its sovereignty.

China now views itself as the United States’ direct peer and not unexpectedly for an aspiring great power, seeks to exploit opportunities to consolidate this position. Beijing and Moscow are working to undermine America’s influence and seeking to curry favor with other autocratic regimes, including Saudi Arabia, Turkey, and Iran, wooing these countries with promises of robust economic investment and support. Moreover, in Africa and Central Asia for example, Beijing is wielding its development investments to secure greater influence over security and counterterrorism measures. Unlike support from the West, investments from Beijing are not accompanied by any expectations of human rights standards or interference in domestic political and security issues.

Given the nature of the international system and the near-constant jockeying for primacy, there will always be tensions and rivalries between autocracies and democracies. The usual selling point for autocracies, to their own population and neighbors, is the false but attractive choice of stability above all else. At various points, this Faustian bargain has also seduced the U.S. and its allies who supported autocratic regimes from Latin America to the Middle East in the name of stability in many cases. Economic rationales also played an important role in those arrangements as well. At the same time, the U.S. has tried to present itself and allies as the gold standard of governance, despite times when Washington has merely paid lip service to human rights, and in some cases, embraced dictators over democracy. The Biden administration seeks to synchronize the United States’ words and deeds, and with that, recoup much-needed political legitimacy and the moral authority to once again position the United States as a leading democracy.