What can Beijing learn from America's retreat? Alan Philps unravels China's pursuit of dominance
Destination 2049: the Chinese century will be a projection of money, politics and technology
For more than two decades, experts have been predicting that this will be the “Chinese century”, implying that the Middle Kingdom is going to unseat the United States from its throne as the undisputed global power.
While Washington has fretted over what this means, China has shown a marked reluctance to project itself as the world Number 1, following the dictum of the late Deng Xiaoping, “hide your strength, bide your time.” This policy was fostered in part by the desire not to fuel the angst of the Washington establishment over the spectre of its long-term decline.
In his speech to the Communist Party Congress, President Xi Jinping cast aside any reticence about his plans for China to be a great power. By mid-century China would be “a global leader of composite national strength and international influence”. China would be moving “closer to centre stage”. The target date is 2049, the centenary of the revolution which brought the Communist Party to power and united the country after years of war and foreign domination.
There are many reasons why this Chinese dream may not come good. China still needs many years to develop its economy and, with a Leninist party in charge, investment may be stifled; or social media may overwhelm the party’s ability to control a vast and disparate country.
These traps are widely aired in Washington to explain why the next stage of China’s rise is going to be tougher than the past. Mr Xi may indeed trip up, but it makes more sense to look at the problem from another point of view: China has a plan, while the US is in a perplexed and unpredictable mood, striving to retain its position but not knowing how to do it. Clearly, a vacancy has opened up.
Mr Xi made many references to the building up military, but that does not mean that Chinese tanks will be soon storming into India.
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As Kerry Brown, professor of Chinese studies at King's College London, points out, Mr Xi’s plan relies on the rest of the world cooperating, even if it does not actively support it. China has benefited hugely from the existing world order – where it enjoys a veto-wielding position at the United Nations - and has no interest in disruption, which seems to be the current method of the Trump White House.
The goals of the Chinese century are likely to be parity with the US in international relations – meaning that Washington can no longer ignore or intimidate Beijing – and a bigger say in shaping the global agenda. In short, one of the consequences will be that the American idea that it has the right to intervene around the globe so long as it promotes its version of “democracy” will belong to the past. Judging a regime’s fitness to survive on the basis of its adherence of human rights will not feature.
Influence will spread in other ways. A good example can be found in the Central Asian republics of the former Soviet Union, conquered by the Russian empire in the 19th century and still seen in Moscow as part of its sphere of influence. China’s “Belt and Road” initiative – Mr Xi’s flagship policy – aims to open Central Asia to Chinese investment with high-speed railways and other infrastructure projects.
Moscow originally tried to block these projects in countries such as Kazakhstan. But having no money to match the Chinese offers and at odds with Washington, Mr Putin has acquiesced in the Chinese plans, hoping that his plans for a Eurasian Economic Union can be combined with the Belt and Road initiative.
So the most effective weapons in the Chinese arsenal are money, technology and the patient pursuit of long-term political goals.
In terms of geopolitics, the official Russian view is the rise of China will open the way for a more equitable share of power between Washington, Beijing and Moscow, ending the quarter century when America’s power has been unchallenged with (as Moscow sees it) disastrous consequences for the Middle East.
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Alexey Pushkov, a Russian senator and commentator on foreign policy, told a conference in London this week that no country will supplant the US in military terms in the short term. With its unparalleled network of foreign bases and huge lead in weapons technology, its position as the pre-eminent military power in not under threat.
What had changed, he said, was the end of American dominance the global economy dating from the end of the Second World War. This had led to anxiety and unpredictability in Washington. “They don’t have answers to the questions they are facing. Like a boxer who is losing his edge, they find that there are now rivals who can land a blow on them,” he said. “The worry is that some irrational decisions could be taken”.
The Russians have an interest in talking down the Americans, particularly now that they have discovered how to run rings around Washington in the Middle East.
But there is a lesson here for the Chinese which they seem to have understood. America’s supremacy may have resulted from winning the Second World War, but it maintained its position due to a strong economy and the attractiveness of the American way, even if the high-flown rhetoric of US presidents often hid baser commercial interests. The wars that America has fought have more often than not proved to be unnecessary or unsuccessful, particularly in recent years when it had free rein in the world.
The Chinese century is unlikely to be a repeat of the American century. The idea that one power can straddle the world is past. It will no doubt be the world’s greatest economic power, even an indispensable power in terms of diplomatic action. But without the extraordinary advantages of the US – lacking any serious enemies in its hemisphere and with almost unlimited economic resources – China will always have to proceed with more caution than the Americans.
Alan Philps is a commentator on global affairs