China’s continuous climb to world power brought many questions into light – was becoming a world power a deliberate and planned undertaking and, most importantly, how will China behave as a world power? With regards to the first question, many hold the view that China’s ascent to power is premeditated and long-planned, led by a single political party and a strong central government which is heavily involved not only in governance but also in the economy. Slogans like “renewal”, “revival” and “rejuvenation” seems to support this thesis. For centuries long before the rise of Europe and the US, China had already produced a great civilization and, through its tributary system, held a vast empire with numerous neighboring vassal kingdoms. Hence, from this vantage point, China’s modern rise can be seen as inevitable – a reversal of the century of humiliation and from then continuing on with the quest to retake its pre-eminent world position in the hierarchy of nations. However, while there are those who welcome China’s rise, there are those who find it discomforting and this can be largely attributed to different views on how the country will behave after it has restored its “Middle Kingdom” world status – after it had reclaimed its historic right or its own version of manifest destiny . China’s failure to better articulate its position and variances between pronouncements it made and actions on the ground add to this anxiety and discomfort.
Almost all estimates point to China eventually overtaking the US to become the world’s largest economy – they only differ on how soon the shift will take place. But in at least one indicator, purchasing power parity, China has already overtaken the US. From mergers and acquisitions of various foreign assets across all sectors (from materials, energy and food to technology, finance etc.) to the explosion of outbound Chinese tourism, China’s re-emergence is shaping the global economy in many ways. But while China’s economic credentials get much of the limelight, its growing achievements in defense technology, security strategy, defense diplomacy (as evidenced in participation in bilateral and military exercises) and growing confidence in contributing to addressing global issues (e.g. anti-piracy in the Indian Ocean, Iran nuclear deal, assistance in responding to pandemics like ebola), tend to be overlooked.
Most importantly, China’s recent economic initiatives, notably active involvement in the multipolar club BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China, and South Africa) and the establishment of Shanghai-based New Development Bank (NDB) and Beijing-based Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), offer alternatives to the postwar global economic and financial architecture led and dominated by the West and Japan, with some seeing it as a direct challenge to the latter. Failure to accommodate or delays in the reforms of global financial and monetary institutions may have prompted China along with other states to offer new windows for emerging economies to play a more robust role relative to their increasing wealth and capacity. While it is hoped that these new institutions will complement existing ones, divergence remains a possibility, especially if the interests of established and emerging powers are not appropriately reconciled. For now, co-financing of infrastructure projects by AIIB and the Japan-led Asian Development Bank suggest some convergence and hopefully this will be sustained – the East Asian region will be a key driver for world economic growth and would surely benefit a lot if regional rivals can set aside their differences and instead cooperate in building regional infrastructure and promoting trade connectivity.
Those who welcome China’s rise see in it a model worthy of emulation – a developing country with a huge population and insufficient resources about to break it into the ranks of developed economies. They also welcomed the entry of a new major international player bent on diffusing power by supporting multipolarity. In addition, through such vehicles as NDB, AIIB and “One Belt, One Road” (OBOR), they hope to benefit from China’s offer of “win-win” partnerships, getting much needed financing to meet their growing infrastructure development needs without undertaking painful and far-reaching political reforms. While China’s “no strings attached” and “no conditionalities” approach is well received especially by authoritarian regimes virtually cut off from access to international aid and finance, it is criticized by those who claim that such practice discourages said states from pursuing needed reforms to improve transparency, accountability, respect for human rights, higher environmental standards and other good governance measures. Those who hold reservations about China’s rise include entrenched powers wary of how China’s re-emergence will impact on their vested interests, as well as China’s neighbors and other members of the international community anxious of how China will abide by established rules largely written at a time when China was weak – rules that were a product of painstaking negotiations, bargaining and compromise and that are now generally observed by most states.
China’s increasing activities in the developing and underdeveloped world – from resource extraction, investments, tourism and migration – are generating more attention, with some claiming that China is engaging in neocolonialism in such regions as sub-Saharan Africa and cultivating dependency relations. Some argue that China is simply refashioning colonialism by giving it a new twist but with the motives unchanged – to secure natural resources and energy, tap new markets and export surplus capital. However, these claims, if not outright biased are premature as China’s modern overseas economic activities, especially under OBOR, are quite recent. Such claims also betray an underlying suggestion – all great powers in history pursued varying degrees of colonialism/neocolonialism so China should be no different.
Those who disagree with this view and welcome China’s inroads in the global South as beneficial may sum up the comparison by arguing that the West came with the cross and sword and instituted a one-way street economic relations, whereas China has brought in infrastructure and economic opportunities as they engage resource-rich but capital-deficient states. Relative to established powers, China may enjoy some moral high ground in that it never engaged in outright colonialism, nor interfered in the internal affairs of other states. It adopted non-alignment and refused to enter into military alliances that may be directed against third states. The absence of this baggage, the unique alternative development path of China and closer affinity as a fellow developing state has made it easier for many nations in the global South to open doors to China – to see for themselves how China is different from (or similar to) the rest and to find ways to harness the relations to benefit them. China must make good use of this window to demonstrate that its rise is indeed a peaceful one and is beneficial to the world.
In areas where China’s interests are congruent with prevailing international rules, norms and interests, it is easier to see China as a force in support of the status quo. It is when the two are at variance that revisionist views about China surface. The salient questions then are whether the disparity is decreasing or increasing over time and whether its revisionist proposals are shared by other interested states. China’s preference for ambiguity or its inability to clarify and better communicate its intent may be serving its interests – allowing itself flexibility and freeing itself from self-imposed constraints. But the same is actually a key factor that contributes to uncertainty, driving neighbors and other states to take actions that eventually trigger adverse action-reaction dynamics.
China should also guard against a growing sense of exceptionalism (“China is big and others are small”), which may alienate it from its friends and partners in the global South. It should also balance its rights and obligations. The world surely welcomes a new power which could give a greater say to developing nations in terms of managing the global economic system and a new power that is more confident and capable in taking greater international responsibilities relative to its increasing overall national power. But along with greater prestige and acclaim comes the obligation to lead in respecting rules while they stand – disregard and defiance would make China no different from other former and existing powers which only invoke global rules when it suits their interests and decide to dishonor then when they do not. Reconciling domestic law with international law (e.g. historic maritime rights with UNCLOS) and undertaking greater commitment in addressing pressing global challenges (e.g. greenhouse gas reductions to alleviate climate change) even at the cost of making sacrifices at home will elevate Chinese brand of leadership to a higher ground.
In sum, the time will come when China can no longer excuse itself or shy away from tackling critical world issues, while at the same time demand greater participation and recognition in world affairs. The ability to “walk the talk”, initiate compromise, make sacrifices and appreciate broader versus narrower interests will set a leader apart. The world is eager to see how China would respond to this call.
This article appeared at APPFI