Time for Collective Pushback against China’s Economic Coercion


This commentary is part of CSIS’s Global Forecast 2021 essay series.

Coping with the multitude of challenges that China poses will require building coalitions. President-elect Joe Biden knows this. “As we compete with China and hold China’s government accountable for its abuses on trade, technology, human rights and other fronts, our position will be much stronger when we build coalitions of like-minded partners and allies to make common cause with us in defense of our shared interests and values,” Biden said at the end of 2020. As the European Union’s apparent decision to sign an investment treaty with China demonstrates, building a unified bloc to push back against all of China’s objectionable policies is unlikely to succeed. Instead, coalitions of the willing will need to form around shared interests on specific issues.

One pressing issue that is ripe for collective action is China’s economic coercion. To date, Beijing has used the threat and imposition of trade-restrictive measures to punish over a dozen countries for pursuing policies deemed harmful to Chinese interests. The first episode occurred in 2010 when China blocked salmon imports from Norway after the Nobel Committee awarded the Peace Prize to Chinese human-rights activist Liu Xiaobo. That same year, Chinese customs officials obstructed exports of rare earths to Japan in an effort to compel Tokyo to release the captain of a Chinese fishing trawler who was detained after his vessel collided with Japanese coast guard vessels in waters near the disputed Senkaku Islands. In 2012, after engaging in a confrontation with China at Scarborough Shoal in the South China Sea, the Philippines discovered that its tropical fruit exports to China were quarantined due to alleged infestation.

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