This is the second in a series of essays on the shifting state of global power and influence by WikiTribune contributor Jean-Jacques Subrenat, a former French ambassador. His first in this series was on isolationism in the United States.
Since its formation, China consistently designated itself as a pivotal state. In Mandarin it is known as 中国 or Zhongguo — “the country at the center”. With a new doctrine of international assertiveness espoused by President Xi Jinping, that concept is now more tangible than ever and could become a defining characteristic of world affairs in 2018 and beyond.
First, a little history
Whereas the classical Roman Empire (27 BCE – 395 CE) conquered a range of cultures, for most of its history China did not expand beyond its own cultural sphere. However, this pattern of centrality was broken when Genghis Khan the founder of the Mongol Empire, conquered most of Eurasia. His heirs extended that empire to most of modern-day China, Korea, Central Asia, regions in Eastern Europe and Southwest Asia. It is estimated that at its height, the Mongol Empire comprised one fifth of the world’s inhabited land area. By contrast, China did not engage in maritime exploration, with the notable exception of Admiral Zheng He (郑和, 1371 – 1435?) who went as far as East Africa, seeking commerce but not territorial gain. After the Mongol empire was replaced by the Ming dynasty, an inward-looking policy prevailed till the current phase of China’s territorial disputes with Brunei, Japan, the Philippines, South Korea and Taiwan.
“Hide your strength and bide your time” has given way to putting China “closer to center stage”
From Mongol cavalry to nuclear weapons
Created in 1927 as a clandestine force, today the People’s Liberation Army is the largest in the world with more than two million members. China’s defense budget is second only to that of the United States. Until the 1990s the Navy was an appendix of the army, but today its blue-water capability is among the strongest in Asia.
This military capability is increasingly matched by a new confidence under President Xi Jinping (习近平, born in 1953) in looking outwards and making full use of China’s diplomatic, economic and strategic clout. In the 1980s, his most comparable predecessor Deng Xiaoping ( (邓小平 1882-1987) advised China’s leadership to “hide your strength and bide your time”, a formula which has now given way to putting China “closer to center stage” (The New Yorker).
In all of the Far East, the air superiority of the United States is still unequaled, thanks to its bases and troops in Japan and South Korea, but China is gradually building up its air force (South China Morning Post). Alongside traditional forces, China is also enhancing its capability in missiles, cyber-warfare, space-based warfare and intelligence.
It is noteworthy that China tested its first atomic device in 1964, less than a decade after Moscow refused to share its nuclear weapon technology with Beijing. China also tested its first hydrogen device in 1967 — the shortest “fission-to-fusion’’ development cycle in the world (32 months from atomic to hydrogen weapon). Currently, the country’s nuclear stockpile is estimated at between 100 and 400 warheads (Arms Control Association). It is believed that China does not deploy SLBMs (submarine-launched ballistic missiles), unlike the other signatories of the Non-Proliferation Treaty (NPT), i.e. the United States, Russia, the U.K. and France. And like the four other permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, China has veto power.
Global power built on domestic transformation
After the creation of the Republic of China in 1912, its influence was limited by the magnitude of its domestic issues. Demographic growth, widespread poverty, limited access to resources, a feeble economy, a weak and corrupt administration, as well as secessionist tendencies in several regions all took their toll.
After the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took power in 1949, China depended heavily on aid from the Soviet Union. The two countries even joined forces against the U.S. and their allies during the Korean War 1950-53.
Paradoxically, modern China’s quest for power and influence started with the Sino-Soviet rift in 1956, brought about by the Kremlin’s refusal to share nuclear weapon technology with Beijing. The Soviet Union viewed China as a possible competitor for leadership of world Communism and developing nations. The Non-Aligned Movement (NAM), initiated in 1956 by the Yugoslav leader Josip Broz Tito, proclaimed its neutrality between the U.S. and the U.S.S.R. which were then engaged in the Cold War. But it is interesting that the NAM was inspired in part by the Bandung Conference of 1955, attended by the Chinese prime and foreign minister, Zhou Enlai (周恩来, 1898-1976). In 1964, when Mao Zedong (毛泽东, 1893-1976) and his supporters launched a massive upheaval, which they called Cultural Revolution to conceal their struggle to regain total power, many turned away from China, with the exception of regimes such as North Korea and the murderous Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.
From poverty to a leading economy
From the late 1930s to the late 1950s, China had to overcome major difficulties: the Japanese occupation, the Korean War and the curtailment of Soviet aid. All these were major impediments to China’s economic recovery and modernization. When the CCP took power in 1949, China had a population of roughly 600 million and rising rapidly. Agricultural and other resources could barely keep up with demographic growth. With a very weak transport infrastructure, distribution between China’s regions was very limited.
China’s economy evolved in three phases: 1949-80, 1980-2000 and 2000 to the present. Deng Xiaoping is credited with the major turnaround from 1982 onward, when more “responsibility’’ was granted to all economic actors, thus reversing the policy of complete control by the central government. Faced with fallout from the global financial meltdown of 2008, in 2010 China’s Economic Stimulus Plan aimed at providing affordable housing, lower credit restrictions for mortgage and SMEs, lighter taxation on commodities and real estate sales, while channeling public investment into infrastructure development (rail, roads and ports).
With an average annual growth rate of 10 percent from 1990 to 2004, the Chinese economy gradually climbed the global charts. By 2016 its economy was the world’s second largest. From the “workshop of the world’’, China has also become a global actor in research and development in areas such as biotechnology and information technology. U.S. sources concede that in 2016 China even overtook the U.S. in supercomputing capacity (Science), and is now a leader in quantum Internet capability (Scientific American). It is worth remembering that China, the world’s most populous country, has a literacy rate of about 96 percent while the world average is 83 percent. By comparison, Brazil’s rate is 92 percent, India’s 72 percent, Russia’s 99 percent and the U.S. has 86 percent.
Shortly after he was first designated as Secretary General of the CCP, Xi Jinping visited Shenzhen Special Economic Zone (深圳经济特区 Shenzhen jingji tequ, a brainchild of Xi’s own father) where Deng had ignited the dramatic economic reforms of the 1980s. During that visit, Xi gave a forceful message to Party leaders: modernization and top-down reform are acceptable, but anything resembling former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev’s Glasnost (гла́сность = government accountability), which led to the implosion of the U.S.S.R., will be suppressed.
In Mao’s era, capitalism and personal wealth were contrary to Communist doctrine and severely punished; in today’s China they are proudly shown off as proof of the country’s rapid progress. Now, private enterprise is arguably less accountable in that country than, say, in the Netherlands or Sweden. As a result, wealth and power have become conjoined to such an extent that high-level corruption is a major issue in China. But because anti-corruption campaigns are also potent political weapons, they can only be initiated and fed by the top leader himself.
Since 2012, over a million officials have been disciplined on charges of corruption (The Conversation), a measure which has enhanced the popularity of President Xi. But while such campaigns are aimed at eliminating corruption, they also help Xi consolidate his power by neutralizing political high-fliers such as Bo Xilai (薄熙来 born in 1949), Sun Zhengcai (孙政才 born in 1963) and more recently Lu Wei (鲁炜 born in 1960) who was in charge of consolidating The Great Firewall and tightening internet censorship in China.
In short, in today’s China many things are permissible, including all the tools of capitalism, provided they do not jeopardize the over-arching power of the CCP.
Can China export its politics as well as its goods?
In Part 1 in this series, I drew attention to some trends in the United States, which could weaken Washington’s future influence on global issues. China needs to be analyzed in the same light.
Beijing’s claim that it has developed “a Chinese form of Socialism” begs the question: what type of country might freely choose China’s implacable single-party system as a model?
Under Mao’s rule, China’s ideological clientele was made up of poor and developing countries, and some intellectuals in the West. Today, China’s importance is tangible in international trade, finance, manufacturing, transport and tourism, while its single-party ideology has become generally less attractive. At least since Deng Xiaoping, the leadership has been aware of this, and its foreign policy has evolved accordingly.
Since the beginning of the 21st century, China has sought to increase its influence in global terms. Three examples are worth mentioning. First, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) was set up after a proposal by China in 2009, and officially launched in 2013 by President Xi during a visit to Indonesia. Previous to that, China was already engaged in international financial institutions such as the International Monetary Fund (IMF), the World Bank (WB) and the Asian Development Bank (ADB), where the influence of the U.S., Japan and several European countries was traditionally predominant. The AIIB is a major financial initiative in Asia and the Pacific, with loans totalling about 1.7 billion US$ at the end of 2016. China accounts for the largest capital subscription, and therefore holds the largest voting rights in the AIIB.
The second example is the Silk Road Economic Belt and the 21st-century Maritime Silk Road (丝绸之路经济带和21世纪海上丝绸之路), also unveiled by Xi Jinping in 2013, which aims at creating a modern equivalent of the famous Silk Road by which trade was carried out in the past between China and many parts of Asia and Europe. The modern project aims at bridging the ‘infrastructure gap’ hindering development in a number of countries, especially in East, South and Central Asia, and could become a major instrument of Chinese influence throughout some of the most populated areas of the world.
The third example of China’s multi-layered approach to international relations is its growing network of Confucius Institutes (孔子学院 Kǒngzǐ Xuéyuàn), an attempt at using soft power alongside the traditional vectors of trade, investment, development aid, recognition and prestige. Until the 1980s, China criticised foreign cultural or development agencies (U.S. Peace Corps, Alliance française, British Council…) as agents of imperialism, but their impact on the overall foreign policy of the U.S., the United Kingdom or France was gradually recognized in Beijing. Begun in 2004 with a first establishment in Uzbekistan, the network now operates more than 500 institutes worldwide, usually in association with a local university or educational entity. In a number of democracies, the purpose, content and methods of Confucius Institutes have given rise to controversy.
As I wrote in the first part of this series: “President Trump’s decision to withdraw the U.S. from international efforts to avert induced climate change, has placed others in the limelight: French President Macron, German Chancellor Angela Merkel, but also Chinese President Xi Jinping. It is quite a novelty to see China, still one of the largest sources of atmospheric pollution, now being looked upon with more sympathy than the U.S. in environmental issues.’’
In 2018 and beyond, China’s influence in global issues could increase quite dramatically. First because China itself understands the advantage of being a global actor, even at the expense of furthering its ideology. And second because in today’s multipolar world, isolationist tendencies such as those defended by President Trump, are providing new opportunities for emerging global powers.
This is the second in a series of essays on the shifting state of global power and influence by WikiTribune contributor Jean-Jacques Subrenat, a former French ambassador. His first essay in the series was on isolationism in the United States.