China is seizing on the Biden administration’s Summit for Democracy as an opening to ramp up its anti-American propaganda and push its alternative vision for a new world order, dismissing the gathering in Washington this week as a “farce” that enhances U.S. efforts to “interfere in other countries’ internal affairs.”
The second edition of one of President Biden’s signature foreign policy initiatives is also putting global bloc divisions on vivid display. The Chinese Foreign Ministry’s charges demonstrate Beijing’s rising frustration and concern about a gathering that administration officials say is about supporting democracies at a time when authoritarianism is rising around the world.
On Wednesday morning, Mr. Biden told the 120 invited world leaders attending in person and virtually that his administration was setting aside $690 million to bolster democracy programs around the globe. The funding will be used to support free and independent media, combat corruption, bolster human rights, advance technology that improves democracy and support better election processes, U.S. officials said.
China’s state-controlled media have eagerly pushed an alternative narrative to a pre-summit virtual event Tuesday that featured an appearance by Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy and focused on confronting what Secretary of State Antony Blinken described as “Russia’s brutal and unjustified war against Ukraine.”
“The gathering will show how Washington manipulates democracy to stoke confrontation, divide the world and advance its hegemonic agenda,” said a commentary disseminated to media outlets in dozens of countries by the Chinese government’s official Xinhua News Agency.
China Daily, a newspaper run by the Central Propaganda Department of the ruling Chinese Communist Party, posted an “editor’s note” online that said the “so-called Summit for Democracy convened by U.S. President Joe Biden reflects his dangerous Cold War mentality.”
“The move by the United States to divide the world into ‘democratic’ and ‘undemocratic’ camps by using its own standard reveals its attempts to preserve its global hegemony,” the note said.
U.S. officials say the messaging reflects an increasingly aggressive Chinese state-controlled media campaign to promote anti-American narratives and to echo Russian propaganda about the Ukraine war in the global competition for hearts, minds and allies.
Analysts say the campaign has become a defining characteristic of “Cold War 2.0” in recent months, with Beijing and Moscow moving into full rhetorical alignment against the U.S. and the network of democracies that side with Washington.
As if on cue, the Kremlin echoed the Chinese criticisms. Spokesman Dmitry Peskov told reporters in Moscow on Wednesday that the summit was an “exercise in moralizing” and not a “serious event.”
“Those who agreed to attend this class were free to do so, of course,” Mr. Peskov said, according to the official Tass news service. “It’s their sovereign right, but here, in fact, many see that such attempts to divide the world into first-rate and second-rate countries are now seen by many with a smile.”
Russian Foreign Ministry spokeswoman Maria Zakharova said the U.S. had not earned the right to stage the summit and criticized the participation of U.N. Secretary-General Antonio Guterres.
“We believe it is the height of hypocrisy on the part of the American authorities to claim leadership in promoting democratic values on a global scale in conditions when their reputation in this area cannot even be called dubious, it has been completely destroyed,” she said.
Competition and confrontation
Despite the Chinese government propaganda, Mr. Biden and his advisers continue to soft-pedal official rhetoric. The administration said the U.S. seeks only competition, not confrontation, with China and does “not seek a cold war.”
Yet Mr. Biden dramatized his commitment to democracy with his announcement of the $690 million fund. U.S. officials said a key goal of the discussions this year is to find ways to make “technology work for and not against democracy.”
Mr. Biden frequently suggests that the U.S. and like-minded allies are at a crossroads — a moment when democracies need to demonstrate they can transcend autocratic governments such as China, Russia, Iran and North Korea.
Mr. Biden promised the summits as a 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, and they have become a keystone of his administration’s efforts to deepen alliances and nudge autocratic-leaning nations toward at least modest reforms.
“Strengthening transparent, accountable governance rooted in the consent of the governed is a fundamental imperative of our time,” Mr. Biden and South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said in a joint statement at the opening of this year’s summit.
Still, the gathering’s high ideals often clashed with realpolitik concerns, including a speech Wednesday morning by Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu. Mr. Biden’s declared a day earlier that he wouldn’t be inviting Mr. Netanyahu to the White House “in the near term.”
The president on Tuesday sharply criticized the Netanyahu government’s aggressive judicial overhaul plans, which have sparked massive protests in Israel in recent days and concerns about a potential curtailment of democracy in the Middle Eastern nation.
Critics give Mr. Biden credit for trying to rally democracies but say the administration’s reluctance to call out authoritarian backsliding among some U.S. allies could undercut the summit’s legitimacy and give fodder to anti-American messaging such as that emanating from Beijing and Moscow.
In the difficult calculus between values and interests, the administration has largely “shied away” from confrontations with key allies and individual autocratic leaders and favored security and economic concerns over governance issues, said Jon Temin, a former State Department official now serving as vice president of policy and programs at the Truman Center for National Policy.
The Biden administration “said little publicly about democratic regression in Turkey, Hungary and Poland before Russia invaded Ukraine and has said almost nothing about it since,” Mr. Temin said this week in an article published by Foreign Affairs under the headline “The U.S. Doesn’t Need Another Democracy Summit; It Needs a Plan to Confront Authoritarianism.”
Mr. Temin said that “to mount a credible defense of democracy abroad, Washington and its partners would need to challenge authoritarian and authoritarian-leaning governments, not just bolster democratic reformers.”
Mr. Biden held his first democracy summit, in December 2021, under strikingly different circumstances. Countries were facing the depths of the COVID-19 pandemic, the Russian invasion of Ukraine was two months away, and the rhetorical and strategic animosity between China and the U.S. had not reached the fever pitch of today.
“Since the last summit for democracy two years ago, the world has changed dramatically,” Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte said. “For decades, the idea of war in Europe seemed unthinkable. But we were wrong as Russia’s brutalization of Ukraine has shown we cannot assume that democracy, freedom and security are givens, that they are eternal.”
Mr. Biden appears to have sharpened his rhetoric while sending a message that the summit is not a U.S.-run show. Washington was the sole host of the 2021 summit, but the U.S. is sharing hosting duties this time with Costa Rica, the Netherlands, South Korea and Zambia.
“Worldwide, we see autocrats violating human rights and suppressing fundamental freedoms … with corruption eating away at young people’s faith in their future [and] citizens questioning whether democracy can still deliver on the issues that matter most to their lives and to their livelihoods,” Mr. Blinken said at the pre-summit virtual event.
The competition between the West and Beijing for the global narrative reflects what some analysts describe as a strengthening alignment of the world’s top autocracies — China, Russia, Iran and North Korea — against Moscow’s war in Ukraine and Washington’s success in rallying NATO and other allies to support Kyiv.
More broadly, the Russia-Ukraine war has heightened the stakes of uncertainty about Washington’s ability to lead a democratic world order and forge a united front with other key governments in an increasingly turbulent era of great-power competition.
The U.S. and Europe have been mostly in lockstep on countering China’s rise and have responded collectively to the Russia-Ukraine war, but some warn that Western messaging is falling flat with many emerging global players.
The Biden administration has sought to widen the tent this year by including representatives from eight countries that weren’t invited to the inaugural 2021 summit: Bosnia and Herzegovina, Gambia, Honduras, Ivory Coast, Lichtenstein, Mauritania, Mozambique and Tanzania.
Yet controversies about the messaging and the guest list continue.
Pakistan announced Tuesday that it was turning down an invitation to participate in the summit, apparently to avoid angering China, a major trading and investment partner.
• This story is based in part on wire service reports.
• Guy Taylor can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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