China is on the roll. Already the second largest economy in the world, it is poised to become the first sooner than expected, possibly within this decade. Small wonder that the focus of the globe should be on the lianghui currently being held in Beijing. This is the ‘two sessions,’ China’s annual Parliamentary meeting. They entail back- to- back sessions of the Chinese People’s Political Consultative Conference (CPPCC), the highest advisory body, and the National People’s Congress (NPC), the principal legislative forum. There might lack the scintillating repartees of a debate in the House of Commons, and the thrill of the Question hour in Commonwealth Parliaments. But nonetheless would have an enormous impact on the lives of global citizens, including the proverbial man on the Clapham omnibus. That is because the sessions provide an insight into the plans and aspirations of the world’s most rising power.
These two significant events rolled in one were expected to propound and approve policies that would have significant knock-on effects on the global economy. By all counts, China’s rise is appearing to be increasingly inexorable. Decisions are being designed to reap maximum benefit out of the population of 1.4 billion and a middle class of 400 million. A major success over the past decade has been the lifting of over 100 million citizens from absolute poverty, over which President Xi Jinping and the Communist Party have recently declared “Complete victory”. Xi has called it a miracle that will “go down in history’’. The sessions would also mark the release of the nation’s fourteenth five- year plan, on the anniversary of the Party’s centennial of existence.
China is already in the process of implementing its ‘’dual circulation” strategy. It principally entails stimulating domestic demand, now facilitated by the burgeoning middle class (internal circulation) , as well as catering to the export market (external circulation) , though with reduced reliance on the latter. In other words, the country will continue to improve its participation in global trade, finance and technology, at the same time hedging against global market disruptions by sharpening focus on domestic consumption, production and innovation. This idea assumes importance given the backdrop of the trade spat with the United State, dating back to the Trump Administration. It now seems that the Chinese calculus is that even under President Joe Biden, the rivalry with the US, though somewhat less strident at least in language if not in substance will continue. All indications extrapolating from the ‘’two sessions “are that China will continue to have faith in the international trading system, but will keep its powder dry.
At the sessions Premier Li Keqiang announce a planned GDP rise of “over 6 per cent”’ for the year. He desisted from making a quantitative target last year because of Covid-19 related uncertainties. But despite the fact that the virus has originated in China, the country handled the crisis in an exemplary fashion, and was able to post a growth -rate of 2.3 percent, being the only major economy to achieve a positive number. So Premier Li’s declaration reflected a sense of confidence. In fact, the International Monetary Fund thinks China might do even better and rise by 8.1 per cent. Pundits feel that if the trend continues in a general fashion, China might overtake the US as the world’s largest economy by 2038, seven years ahead of predictions. This will put the nation well on the way to achieving as the somewhat demurely expressed aspiration of becoming a “’moderately prosperous country”.
But the Chinese eyes were fixed on more than development and prosperity. The anticipation of intense US competition led to a spike in defense spending. In this regard an increase of 6.8 percent, adding up to US $ 210 billion, surpassing last year’s 6.6 percent was announced. This will help China modernize its military, and expand its capabilities in newer domains of cyber, outer- space, deep- sea and electromagnetic warfare. In these dual- purpose sectors monies could also be sourced from other heads. China’s advance in areas of novel technologies, such as Artificial Intelligence, has been remarkable. These could enable China to leap-frog ahead, off- setting western current conventional military superiority. In many ways we may be witnessing a reversal of the past cold-war scenario when the Warsaw Pact powers were conventionally superior to the West or NATO, and the latter pinned its doctrine to the “trip-wire” strategy. Accordingly, NATO would unleash a nuclear response automatically, should there be a conventional crossing of lines by the adversary. Except that, China could soon have the capability to effect devastating consequences through non-kinetic strikes.
But an accompaniment of China’s rise must be studied circumspection. China need not have to “hide its capabilities and bide its time” as in the 1970s and 80s anymore, but nor can it afford to recklessly pursue the classic formula of “kill one to persuade a hundred”. China will need the world to accommodate its burgeoning position., While it is true much of the world is willing to do so, it is also true there is a pervasive fear of China among many, of not just its military might but also economic clout. The US will clearly remain a competitor for the rivalry is structural. But most analysts agree it need not come to war. The responsibility for its avoidance is in the perceived national self-interest of both China and the US.
For now, with much good news emanating out of the “two sessions”, the mood in China seems euphoric. The people see this as an important milestone in the fruition of what in Mandarin is called, their “Zhang Guomeng”, or “China Dream”. The Chinese are not Anglo-Saxons. But the current sentiments in that ethos would be the same as in nineteenth century England, as evident in that phlegmatic jingle, inspired by a speech of Disraeli, which was the origin of the term ‘jingoism’:
“We don’t want to fight,
But by jingo, if we do,
We ‘ve got the ships, we’ve got the men,
We’ve got the money too!”
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