It matters what the rest of us do and say about China’s rise. It is not a question for China alone. In international relations it takes two to tango. In China’s case, given its impact across north-east, south and south-east Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – not to mention the “Old World” of Europe and the United States – how the rest of the world responds to China’s rise also affects Chinese international behaviour. The content of this engagement, positive or negative, constructive or confrontational, principled or driven by pure pragmatism, is therefore important. It would be even more important if the west’s engagement with a rising China were considered, consistent and driven by a clear set of organising principles, rather than reflecting a series of one-off reactions to random events.
Moreover, the rest of the world’s ability to shape the contours of China’s future global role constructively represents a limited window of opportunity, while China’s international debate is still fluid, while Chinese influence continues to be contested, and well before final strategic settings become entrenched. I believe it is realistic to assume that we have, at best, the remainder of the present decade for this purpose – in other words, the better part of the ten-year presidency of Xi Jinping, who will assume office this autumn.
If it does take two to tango, we also need to ask: who are we really dealing with on the Chinese side? China, though a one-party state, does not represent a monolithic political culture. Chinese politics is made up of many competing forces. First there are the liberal internationalists who have pioneered, implemented and seen the great harvest that has come from China’s decision in 1979 to bring about market reforms in its domestic economy and to liberalise its economic engagement with the world.
The benefits are there for all to see in the great Chinese political debate. Living standards have risen rapidly, and not just in the great cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou, but also for hundreds of millions of people living in provincial centres and the countryside. Nonetheless, the country’s liberal internationalists do not have it all their own way. Their formidable achievements notwithstanding, there is a growing internal debate about the sharpening of income inequality, as well as widening regional and subregional disparities. Furthermore, the environmental dimensions of China’s industrial explosion are not only a problem for the world, they are a problem for China, too.
The big debate in Beijing recently was between the Chinese foreign ministry and theUS embassy over the latter’s right to produce and publish the daily pollution levels for the city of Beijing. The foreign ministry argued that it was an affront to national sovereignty. I dare say the good burghers of Beijing are quite happy to know which days they should keep their toddlers indoors. So, even as the thrust of China’s great drive towards economic liberalisation persists, reactions and reservations are now deliberated on and discussed more publicly than ever before.
It follows from this that another big competing force in the Chinese political debate today is one more critical of the social impact of economic liberalisation, and one that is more conservative in its policy conclusions. This group argues that the reform process has already gone far enough. It contends that any pretence of “socialism”, in what formally remains a “communist” system, has long disappeared. Elements of this conservative group argue that to take the economic reform process much further would endanger the interests of the still significant state-owned sector of the economy. They say that, when push comes to shove, it remains important for the Chinese state to be able to pull the levers of the national economy, not just through the classical forms of fiscal and monetary policy as we have in the west, but by actively directing state-owned corporations and financial institutions to expand or contract their economic and financial activity in direct response to government direction.
This group is particularly wary of the calls for democratic reforms arising from the burgeoning economic freedoms that already have been created, because it recognises these as significant medium- to long-term threats to the continued political monopoly of the Communist Party itself.
One last group that will be central to the question of China’s future place in the world is the military. Even as someone who began studying China 35 years ago, I still find the country’s armed forces one of the most opaque institutions in the world. That is also the conclusion of most China scholars and analysts around the world.
Like most militaries, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is a conservative institution in terms of values, traditions and its intrinsic nationalism. However, under the Chinese system, the military in many respects operates as a structure separate from the Chinese government. Usually the PLA’s policy perspectives on the region and the world are brought together with those of the government only at the most senior echelons of the party itself – through the Central Military Commission and the Standing Committee of the Politburo. The problem with opacity is that it often induces “worst-case scenario” planning on the part of China’s neighbours, and those who share the country’s broader strategic environment. Naturally, the PLA would argue that US and allied contingency planning in relation to China leaves it with little option other than to engage in worst-case scenario planning itself.
And so the self-perpetuating cycle of strategic mistrust and military countermeasures continues. The problem with risk management of this order of magnitude, however, is that it runs an even greater risk of becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. Planning for the worst tomorrow often shapes the political behaviour of today.
How this internal Chinese debate is resolved (between liberal internationalists, political conservatives and the military) is critical for all of us. Because the core question remains – once China becomes the world’s largest economy and as its diplomatic footprint and its strategic power expand accordingly, will China seek to change the rules, customs and culture of the postwar international order? And if so, how?
Whether we like it or not, the answers to these questions will affect all our futures: the future of economic integration in Europe, given the rolling European debt crisis and China’s emerging status as the global creditor nation; the emerging security order in Asia, where China’s military influence is already significant; as well as future prospects for global humanitarian intervention (in Libya or Syria, for instance) under the auspices of the UN Security Council, given Beijing’s ability to wield the power of veto.
I noted earlier that the debate about China’s future in the world is not just the sound of one hand clapping. The attitude and the actions of the rest of us can also have a profound effect, for good or ill. Regrettably, however, it is a debate for which most of the collective west is ill-prepared, particularly given individual countries’ domestic preoccupations with their respective economic futures and, as a result, the increasing political insularity of both Europe and the United States. Policy elites on both sides of the Atlantic (with the exception of some sections of the Obama administration) are largely disengaged from this, most critical conversation of the century – the rise of China. However, that is not the case in Asia, where, because of proximity, the policy debate on China is more sophisticated, nuanced and acute. There is, nonetheless, a real danger that a new global and regional order begins to emerge by default, in the absence of significant diplomatic engagement from the west, and one that may turn out to be deeply inimical to western values and interests.
So, what then is to be done? Is it possible for the west (and, for that matter, the rest) to embrace a central organising principle as we engage China over the future of the international order? I believe it is. But it will require collective intellectual effort, diplomatic co-ordination, sustained political will and, most critically, continued, open and candid engagement with the Chinese political elite. So, what might the core elements of such an engagement look like?