The rise of China is perhaps the most remarkable economic development in modern human history. Never has a country grown at such rapid pace. China’s economy has been doubling every seven years, growing at double digit figures for much of the past three and half decades. In 1978 the Chinese economy was about 5 per cent of that of the United States. It is now slated to overtake the US by 2030 having already done so in terms of Purchasing power parity. At that time Deng Xiaoping, the Chinese leader, had hoped that China would someday have reserves of US $10 billion. Today, they total US $3.2 trillion.
While China’s gleaming infrastructure is already noteworthy, its current 14th Five Year Plan is designed to leap-frog ahead. It is focused on 5 G including semiconductors and chips, artificial intelligence and technology. China seems to be more than making up for having missed out on the “industrial revolution” of the west which had occurred during its ‘era of shame’. At that time, it was a weak entity battling in vain the influence of colonial powers. Those weaknesses are being corrected. China’s military wherewithal is being modernized allow for its consonance with its economic clout. Its obvious policy pursuit is to bring its capabilities to as much as possible at par with that of the US, and as soon as possible. Not with the intent of fighting a war, it argues, but in a desire to engage in “a new type of superpower relationship”. It would be one that will forever put to rest China’s past humiliating subservience. That is the essence of what the Chinese call “Zhang Guomeng”, the “China Dream”.
The Communist Revolution of 1949 was an important watershed point on bringing China’s aspirations to fruition. But was not the only one. The Revolution was a part of China’s evolution, a factor, albeit a very significant one, in the incremental advance towards progress. In its approach to modernization, China initially followed the west as did other Asian entities, but chose to fuse the foreign model with it its own history, culture and civilization in ways better than other Asian societies. For instance, its Communist philosophy was originally inspired by Marx, Engels and Lenin, all westerners. Eventually Mao Zedong, Deng Xiaoping, and Xi Jinping gradually supplanted them. Hegelian dialectics were meshed with the ancient Chinese ethos of rising against the wind like a kite. Progress was to be by meeting and countering challenges. Historically, when the Chinese blend cultures, they tend to ensure that the Chinese elements preponderate. That is why it is a mistake to believe that the Chinese economics and politics will eventually converge into the western model. They will take elements from the west but end up creating their own models.
Communism was thus gradually Confucianized by the induction of traditional values, both buttressing each other. The ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucius, preached a harmonious society of close relationship between the State and Society. The emperor (or any head of state, for that matter) was a father figure. Relationship and connectivity were key societal features. In what was remarkably a Platonic social organization, meritocracy or rule by mandarins was part and parcel of the classical Chinese polity. The purpose was to reach a most competent and sophisticated form of governance, much like Plato’s “philosopher magistrates” in ancient Greece, which was a system not quite implemented in Athens as rule by Mandarins was in China. All this is important to understand the politics of the contemporary Chinese Communist Party (CCP), which is not delinked from China’s past. The CCP is essentially and intensely Chinese, and not the same as the Communist Party of the erstwhile Soviet Union, or of anywhere else. If western civilization is a footnote to Plato, Chinese civilization is a footnote to Confucius.
In conflict and war, the Chinese, like others but understandably more so, draw upon the ancient Zhou dynasty strategist, Sun Tzu, who recalled that good fighters in the past put themselves beyond the possibility of defeat, and then waited for an opportunity to vanquish the enemy. Opportunities multiply when they are seized. The military strategy of Chinese warfighting does not appear to be too different. At the same time the Chinese also pay attention to von Clausewitz, the nineteenth century European thinker who viewed war, not as an independent phenomenon, but as “a continuation of politics by other means”. He advocated the pursuit of one great decisive aim with force and determination, a lesson the Chinese have taken up. Interestingly, some current analysts are attributing a Hegelian concept, one of “Trinitarian war”, to Clausewitz, based on a hierarchy of populace, the army and he government. This appeals to the Chinese. These ideas from different sources have fed into the Chinese concepts of dealing with the enemy. The point is that while the Chinese may wish to describe their rise as “peaceful development”, they are intellectually committed to war, if necessary. This has a huge implication for contemporary global politics.
China is huge, with a population of 1.4 billion, more than four times that of the US. Its territory is the fourth largest in the world. As a political entity it has a history of well over two thousand years. It is a civilizational entity, not a nation-state in the Westphalian sense. It has always seen itself as the superior Middle kingdom till humbled by the west in the 19th century, a phenomenon they do not wish to allow again and which they believe they now have the power to resist. As they rose, they took from the West what they believed would help them rise. Now it seems they are confident enough to be Chinese again. Mao suits are back in fashion!
The Chinese have often tended to follow a particular policy line, and then course-correct, when necessary, though not always with great success. Mao’s prescription to “let a hundred flowers bloom “and “let a hundred schools of thought contend” in the 1950s were followed by the disastrous cultural revolution that led China to the abyss of disaster in the 1960s. In the 1970s Deng Xiaoping opened the economy, preached that it was “glorious to be rich “, and in fact allowed some to “grow rich first”. Unsurprisingly ,as China prospered astonishingly, inequality also grew in tandem. While 850 million were lifted out of extreme poverty, the richest 20 percent earned more than 10 times of the poorest 20 percent. It was then that the current leadership and Xi Jinping decided that time had come to correct course once again. Xi saw his challenge as the need to strike a balance between political control, market efficiency and social justice to preserve, protect and sustain party legitimacy.
The new mantra was “common prosperity” designed to adjust excessive income and spread the wealth. The idea was to create an olive -shaped distributive structure- a small top, large middle, and small bottom, replacing the ‘pyramid’. It harkened back to Mao’s original ideals of an egalitarian society. The cake was big enough by now to shift the focus to the even distribution of slices. Nanny-state type interventions were made to take pressure off students and families regarding tutoring and education. The CCP wished to underscore at its hundred years of existence that China was a socialist polity after all. That this would also help to consolidate power for the Party and Xi was an additional, pleasing, bonus. As far as the leadership was concerned these were all pragmatic steps taken, as the Chinese like to do, after cool and dispassionate calculations.
There may be an increasing perception in China that the dependance on the US and the West must be reduced. Even if originally, it would not suit China’s aspirations, the need was becoming existential to counter the nature of the West’s reaction to China’s rise. Hence the “dual circulation policy”, to stimulate domestic consumer demand to complement export earnings. While not initiating “decoupling” from the west in economic terms, they are preparing for it. While China was never expansionist in the way western imperialist powers were, a friendly world was seen as an enabling matrix for China’s goals. So, it introduced the “Belt and Road Initiative” to link up well over a hundred countries in a mega economic project spread across Asia, Europe and Africa. The idea of choice for China ‘s export was “development”, rather than any other idealistic values that by now more seen to be preached than practiced. The developing world which today comprise 85 percent of the global population seem to accept the new partnership concept which was not aid as generosity but a collaboration on soft-market terms. Many speak of resultant ‘debt-traps’, but partners still take them in their stride, as they did western aid in the past despite warnings of the ‘structural dependency’ school and the neo-Marxists.
Andre Gunder Frank had stated before he died in 2005 that what was to be feared most was not China’s rise but America’s reaction to it. That caution may be prophetic. The China-US age of cooperation had lasted more or less through the entire period of America’s status as the unchallenged global superpower. In fact, historians Neill Fergusson and Moritz Schularnick coined the neologism “Chimerica” to describe the symbiotic relationship between the two countries. They had only made an incidental reference to the legendary “Chimera”, a fire-breathing destructive monster in Greek mythology. Unfortunately, it is this inference that now seems to be coming to full fruition. China and the US may be heading towards a collision course, and at this point the slightest any Thucydidean miscalculation (the fear in an adversary regarding the growing strength of another) may lead to the most horrendous conflagration.
President Donald Trump’s opposition to China is now being taken to new heights by his successor President Joe Biden. For Biden after the debacle in Afghanistan, this is the best manner of mustering a bipartisan position on a major issue. This is one subject on which a divided America can be united. Also, as the political realist author John Mearsheimer points out, America would be loath to easily surrender its number one status as a global power. These factors are combining to generate a line of thinking that the uncontrolled rise of China must be contained, just as that of the Soviet Union was, in accordance with the advocacy of George F. Kennan. Trump would have liked to go it alone, but Biden wants to do it by building alliances. Two problems arise with regard to this approach: One, China is far more powerful than the Soviet Union ever was, and far more interconnected with the US itself; and the other, alliances enhance the likelihood of conflicts of greater dimensions as all partners became involved, as often cited as the immediate cause of the first Great War when alliances sleep-walked into a massive conflict. For instance, a conflict between China and Australia (such probability increases as both are now seen as adversaries, because of the new pact AUKUS- at least China views Australia that way), will be likely to draw in the US and Britain as well, almost simultaneously.
The situation is beginning to look like “a game of chicken”, which in game theory is a study of mathematical models, also applicable to behavioral sciences. In one of its versions, opposing motorists drive towards each other on a collision course, where one must swerve or both will perish in the crash (the one who swerves is called ‘chicken’ or ‘coward’, hence the name of the game). In this case America seems entirely unwilling to yield its position in terms of power-hierarchy and the Chinese remain totally opposed to being humiliated again. To complicate matters the dispute seems also to involve a modicum of West versus East conflict, in the broad historical sweep of the latter standing up to the former for the first time in history as an equal. Indeed, the Chinese believe- indeed Xi has said so- that the only thing that can defeat China now, is not the US, but China itself (hence the current domestic corrective measures). Both motorists must be somehow stopped in their tracks.
But how? That is the greatest challenge that the world confronts today. It is also an element in “game theory”, that all actors including in the “game of chicken”, see themselves as acting rationally. The French have at times described their now manifold spats , rivalries, and conflicts with America as “war without deaths”. But this war between China and the US will be different. It will involve many deaths. And on many sides.
Dr Iftekhar Ahmed Chowdhury is the Honorary Fellow at the Institute of South Asia Studies, NUS. He is a former Foreign Advisor (Foreign Minister) of Bangladesh and President & Distinguished Fellow of Cosmos Foundation. The views addressed in the article are his own. He can be reached at: isasiac @nus.edu.sg