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Superpower China? Part II

By Anton Harder for China Brain.


Last month we argued that China was not developing into a cold war style superpower, but was in fact likely to be a defensive great power. Of course, any predictions, or even current assessments of international power, must be treated cautiously. After all the USSR was regarded as a superpower until it suddenly collapsed under the weight of what was only in hindsight recognised as economic incoherence. Japan also was imagined to be racing ahead of the West in economic growth until the engine stalled and has not recovered since. China is clearly at risk of falling into the much dreaded middle income trap as its growth slows, but even so and with a massive population of very poor people, China is and will remain a massive influence because of its absolute economic size.



However, the defensive nature of China will remain a key characteristic because for the governing elite of the Communist Party the central consideration will always be maintaining its own power. This does not mean pursuing popular policies but about pursuing policies that secure its own control over the economy while making sure that it protects the interests of economic elites who have benefitted so much from its rule. Furthermore, the Party is unlikely to challenge an international economic system which has enriched the elite that supports while enabling it also to lift millions out of poverty.


China, and the Communist Party, are therefore far more interdependent with the USA than is commonly realised. They are locked together in a financial embrace that if decoupled would ravage China’s economy possibly even more than it would the USA’s. Elites on both sides of the Atlantic have shared massive benefits since China’s US supported entrance to the WTO in 2001.


The Party is also very concerned with territorial integrity. This is a defensive not offensive mind-set. Military and intelligence resources are overwhelmingly dedicated to maintaining China’s current borders and holding down restive populations in Tibet and Xinjiang. Military development focuses on securing the island of Taiwan, rather than fighting major wars in distant arenas, as US strategic planners have traditionally done since 1945. China does not plan to build the capability to fight wars as far from its territories as the US has done in Korea, Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s more local defensive concerns regarding its own territorial integrity, and they are conceived of as defensive in China, including pacific island claims, limit attention that can be paid to global military and strategic scenarios.


So China might be cooperative economically and defensive and locally focused strategically and militarily, but it is certainly not submissive. China utterly rejects what Chomsky calls the “mafia principle” that global hegemony permits military and other action to keep others in line. China will not sit down and be quiet, even if its elites have benefitted a great deal from doing so. CCP legitimacy is hard to come by, especially as the economy slows. A major scholar of PRC foreign policy, Chen Jian, argues the central claim of the Party to power is in fact that the Chinese people have “stood up” in global politics. He further agues that China now pursues centrality rather than hegemony. The problem therefore lies with the West, and the USA, and how it defines its own power. Can the USA accept the implicit reduction in its absolute power that a powerful China at the centre of world politics implies? American rhetoric suggests it welcomes a powerful partner to tackle global issues, but the US has never before had to embrace a genuine partnership of equals.


As a defensive, domestically oriented power China embraces asymmetric doctrines to counter US threats. Cyber warfare, cheap technologies, strength in numbers and the US’s horror of military risk generally are all tools in China’s growing asymmetric strategy. This is not in fact a response to the new international situation but is traditional doctrine for the PRC based on Chairman Mao’s military thinking – he was undoubtedly one of the very pre-eminent military strategic thinkers of the twentieth century. China is not particularly working out ways to massively project power around the globe as the US does. It is rather seriously working out ways to make such projection more difficult for the US, especially in China’s own neighbourhood.


Another element of China’s defensive posture is that it is non-ideological. It no longer has any particular approach to promote internationally. In fact it has become extremely pragmatic, whatever works will do. This defensive posture has the beneficial corollary that it is seen as an example worth emulating in development terms, in the sense that one can avoid following any particular model but simply try what works on the ground. This compares rather well with the USA which can appear at times still bound by its free-market ideology, causing logjam in Washington over healthcare reform and other things. With no agenda to push on other countries, China’s new financial power is seen as less threatening in the developing world. Particularly in Africa, Chinese loans’ lack of conditionality makes them far more attractive than those from the World Bank and the congruent IMF policies attached that represent the West’s ideological preferences.


So we would characterise China on the whole as pursuing a conservative and defensive foreign policy, rather than an aggressive superpower one. Having said this, by the basic law that any action creates a reaction, even if China acts conservatively its influence will still be profound as one can observe from the attraction it exerts.


One warning note must perhaps be sounded to end this two part series however. History tells us that revolution occurs amongst populations not when they are oppressed and downtrodden, but in fact once expectations have been raised but are then not realised. We wonder if something similar might apply in the international sphere?  A poll was taken of Indian public opinion last year that showed the majority of its population ranked their country as second in global power only to the USA. This perception, probably at odds with the global consensus, might lead to a great deal of resentment in India if the population do not see that proud position delivering certain positive gains for the country. What pressure then might be caused in China if the population there, increasingly conscious of its national power, feels that some major concession to this new power is denied it?




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