What Does China Really Want? – OpEd


The 73rd National Day of China on 1 October brings a new reflection on its global purpose. Its future orientations remain mired in both inevitable challenges and the greatest potential, dictated by the path and spectre of its intention. Its dream of the great Chinese rejuvenation that will signal its comeback to global primacy by 2049, hinges on two indicators. Firstly, is Beijing fully equipped both in its hard and soft power calculations needed to both dislodge America’s position and to readily and capable execute the subsequent obligations? Secondly, will the responses by the other global players apart from the incumbent powers be accepting or otherwise in Beijing’s intent and purpose to create a Chinese led order?

The US and the West were looked up to as the leader and saviour in technological advancement, military dominance and economic progressiveness, with conviction of values and principles during global conflicts and confrontation in the two great wars and the Cold War. The basis of peace, freedom, openness and democracy provided the resonance and hope for large parts of the world during the era of conflicting ideologies.

Other players need those security assurances and salvation for their survival, being relatively weaker. But now, the growing middle powers and small powers look at China for the main basis of economic and financial salvation, not for the military and security guarantees and the conviction of ideological superiority.

It remains hard for China now to frame the US or the West as a threat that is equal to the threats of past powers during the conflicts in trying to sway global perception and influence. Justifying the narrative based on the actions of the West in provoking wars and in containing its peaceful rise will not be sufficient in creating a substantive and real resonance with other players and the masses to be a worthy pursuit for them to support the major global shift towards an alternative Chinese order.

In comparing historical legacies of the stability and peace that the current model provides, to the new and unproven order paraded by Moscow and Beijing, these new uncertainties and risks create barriers for others to have the trust and sufficient cost benefit calculations to accept and join the new structure. Beijing’s intent and purpose are both confusing and contradicting, firm in its quest to shape an alternative global institutional basis pillared on its model and unique design, but its actions and strategies further alienated potential partners and fuelled uncertainties.

If China chooses a low-key approach to its 2049 Dream and avoids antagonising others, through slowly adopting a gradual opening and transition to openness and democracy, the returns will be greater and faster than the conventional straight on approach. The West and other players will be restrained in their containment measures, and will devote greater support for Beijing’s historic transition, although warily. However, both Beijing and Moscow stick to their confrontational approach, inviting higher countermeasures from greater West and non West containment out of fear and anxiety.

The current economic model is based on sheer volume of almost every denominator, either on capital, resources, market, labour and others, with the medium-term returns giving China the momentum and advantage it wisely capitalised on. However, its closed system of governance and recognition of talent and openness with dwindling outlook in its demographic potential and future of resource sustainability and economic orientation remain as real barriers. Long term economic resilience and derivation depend on progressive essence and openness of value embracing reforms and self-sustaining model of open talent and innovative ventures. These principles celebrate and promote transparency and freedom based on respect for rights and merits. 

The Americans might be late at the game and at times dysfunctional and inconsistent in its approach in facing China and defending its global leadership, but they maintain the drive and higher persuasive card in calling for global action and commitment both in projecting the common fear of China and in supporting Washington’s entrenched values. 

Questions remain on the climate and structure post 2049. Will Beijing be able to set a widely adhered to influence or order as much as the Americans or the Brits have managed to in the past? What will be a post-World War III scenario like in the event of an all-out conflict resulting from the Taiwan debacle or a costly miscalculation in power manoeuvres? Will the US continue to post a protracted resistance to the new Chinese order in a new normal of anarchy and total breakdown of the global rules-based system?

Realities of geographical and geopolitical on the ground will mean that China will forever have to contend with threats from its east, south east and even uncertain north with Moscow. America, on the other hand, will only need to contend with fishes and hurricanes to its left and right in the Pacific and the Atlantic Oceans.

Until and unless China drastically increases its power projection and capacities to capably challenge America’s power structure right until its doorstep, it will remain secondary to Washington’s military supremacy and dominance for the next century at least. It presents a new quandary, where Beijing has the economic and momentum of volume and size, but to be a staying power, it requires a whole new ball game of values and conviction of principles to both persuade and enforce.

Ideological battle will be hard to be won, with historical legacies signalling the lost cause of autocratic fate as opposed to the wider yearn and triumph of freedom, openness and democracy. Does Beijing have the ability to persuade and mould the world to shift their decades long acceptance of this current rules and values-based structure? It will take a real persuasive power which needs to be trusted and proven in real actions and legacies of the benefits and viability of this order, which China does not possess for now. Just by playing the victim card and blaming the West as the pretext would be a far-fetched manoeuvre. The second factor, in using the card of leading the voices of the developing world in standing up to the established Western led rich and developed states, the basis of unfairness and unequal wealth distribution remain transcending across all spectrum.

China enjoyed a meteoric rise in its economic miracle with the greatest and most rapid reduction of poverty level as a result of its embrace of a capitalist and open economy. For the current global democratic dysfunction, Xi seized the moment to double down on his ideological expansion of China’s unique mixed socialist model. In challenging times, quick gains and embrace of a more appealing model will be easier but the eventual yearn for long term proven stability and assurances of sustainability will prevail in the long run.

If an ideological substance is good and proven, extensive propaganda or narration will not be deeply needed, it remains self-explanatory and self-accepting. Conversely, if the essence of that ideology naturally is self-defeating, a sustained effort is needed to ensure people’s forced compliance and adherence.

China needs the West and America more than the West needs China. The West needs China’s market, trade, resources and sheer volume advantage which are all primarily confined to the medium term. The West also only needs China to play by the rules and follow the established order of international law and norms, lest inviting greater challenge to the West’s dominance.

China, on the other hand, needs the West on two main factors, barring which it will pose a bigger existential threat to Beijing’s interests and survival. Firstly, on the spectrum of the economy, trade, innovation and scientific advancement and knowledge creation. Secondly, the hope for the US and the West to keep to their premise of rules-based engagement and the conviction that they will not unilaterally violate the rules to single handedly start a war with China. Beijing realises that for a major full-blown conflict to commence, it will be either that there is a serious miscalculation and mistake or the fault of Beijing itself in pushing the West to break its own norms by pushing its actions too far. 

Should China make a historic turnaround to gradually embrace the shift to democracy and adherence to rules, the returns and the impact on its global rejuvenation goal will be much quicker, minus the costs of conflicts and wars and the resources poured into its offensive measures in defending its interests and facing the containment team.

Ultimately, the question remains what is best for China and its 1.3 billion people, to remain under the long-term periphery of perpetual conflict with the West and the rest of the world while enjoying the economic prosperity for now, or to embrace the long term returns in fully adopting freedom and openness that will create an implosion of potential and strength for its people and national power.

If the current path remains the same, war is inevitable. The scope and severity of the countermeasures depend on which orientation Beijing takes, knowing that the containment team will amplify its containment measures if Beijing ups the ante. China also realises that it is too late to bog down, and that the path ahead remains an ultimate zero sum game. Decades of enemy framing and in stirring up local readiness and sentiments create an unstoppable momentum that is hard to be rewired or reshaped.

Allies and partners can be forged and won easily through sharing a common enemy or fear, bringing interests and capacities together. True friendships are harder, with the need to win global hearts and minds with trust, track record, sincerity and staying power of purpose, orientation and principles that a nation stands for.

In the end, the biggest question is will China be willing to stand up for a broader global cause and not just a Chinese cause? Is Beijing prepared to assume the global obligation of duties that are transcending in superseding its core national interests and demands of the Chinese people? Does it have the needed hard power and soft power lasting capacities, the trust and accountability of values-based approach and more importantly, the mandate and desire of its own people and cultural design to execute a different task that is predominantly different from what they are used to and be expecting? It remains to be seen.

Collins Chong Yew Keat

Collins Chong Yew Keat has been serving in University of Malaya, the top university in Malaysia for more than 9 years. His areas of interests include strategic and security studies, American foreign policy and power analysis and has published various publications on numerous platforms including books and chapter articles. He is also a regular contributor in providing op-eds for both the local and international media on various contemporary global issues and regional affairs since 2007.

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