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Making sense of China

Recent events such as a new security law for Hong Kong, a border dispute with India, an ongoing trade war with the US, and a possible China-Iran strategic partnership have renewed international focus on an assertive foreign policy that China is pursuing under the leadership of President Xi Jinping.

Together with deepening disputes in East and South China seas and over Chinese tech companies such as Huawei, the coronavirus pandemic has accelerated a sense of deep alarm at the way Beijing has been pushing forward its strong positions on several aspects of its foreign policy.

However, deeper worries about the challenges posed by a resurgent China to Western dominance emanate from its economic philosophy and unique political model that the westerners believe China will export to the rest of the world.

For long, the West in general and the United States, in particular, have championed the ideals of liberal democracy, free market and transparency as being a sine qua non for economic development and long-term stability.

The assertion was more deeply rooted in a post-cold war binary that posited the idea that authoritarian regimes were inherently incapable of achieving the democratic aspirations and ideals by virtue of the opaque nature of the decision making and the concentration of powers in the hands of a tiny elite.

On the strength of decades-old institutional reforms spearheaded by the Communist Party of China (CPC), Beijing not only achieved a remarkable feat of lifting 800 people out of poverty but also significantly raised the standard of living of its people, a fact duly acknowledged by the West.

Former World Bank President Kim noted this reality in 2018 when he said, “China has increased its per capita income 25-fold, and more than 800 million. Chinese people lifted themselves out of poverty as a result – more than 70 percent of the total poverty reduction in the world.”

China’s economic model, affirmed by its status of the second-largest economy, represents an ideological challenge to the Western philosophy that seeks to change the contours of debate by offering an alternative system of economic development with implications that go far and wide for the international order.

An assessment of an increasingly aggressive Chinese foreign policy under its current leadership that has caught the Western imagination so spectacularly will be incomplete without a reference to the Third Plenary Session of the 11th Central Committee of the CPC in 1978.

Iconic Deng Xiaoping, who succeeded Chairman Mao, not only launched ‘reform and opening’ but also, more importantly, ushered in new thinking on how China should embark on a fresh journey after a disastrous decade of the Cultural Revolution that left the country shaken and weak.

This Session laid the foundation of China ending its self-imposed isolation, reaching out to the world, setting aside maritime disputes with the neighbours, and giving primacy to the imperative of economic development. Beijing’s integration into the international economic and political institutions has its origins in the practical thinking of Deng Xiaoping.

The Western apprehensions about the future direction of China emerge from Xi Jinping’s increasingly paramount leadership role after the 19th Congress of the CPC unanimously voted to include ‘Xi Jinping’s Thought on Socialism with Chinese Characteristics in a New Era’ in the constitution in October 2017.

This elevated his stature equivalent to that of Chairman Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping, with a possibility of an indefinite stay in power beyond the second term that has been a norm for Chinese leaders in the past.

However, contrary to the general perception of aggressive Chinese policy challenging the US in an attempt to displace it from global leadership, there has not been any major fundamental transformation in Beijing’s worldview.

The Chinese global positions represent more of an adjustment than a change, thanks largely to the shifts in the economic and political infrastructure spurred by a revisionist United States under President Trump who made the retrenchment of the American role a defining feature of his presidency, a trend that has been in evidence during the past four years. The following is instructive in this regard:

First, China, under Xi Jinping, continues to be part of the regional and global alliances, affirming its commitment to the spirit of global cooperation and has not demonstrated any sign of wavering. Whether it is global climate accord, signing of the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPA), contribution to global peacekeeping missions, or funding for the UN and WHO, China has been at pains to reinforce the multilateral economic and security arrangements.

At a time when President Trump emerged as a staunch critic of globalization, China acted fast to fill in the vacuum. President Xi Jinping put up a strong defence of economic globalization, particularly on two occasions.

First, at the APEC Economic Leaders’ meeting in 2016, Xi made a case for making economic globalization ‘more invigorated, more inclusive and more sustainable’. Second, in his address at the annual moot of the World Economic Forum in 2017, he strongly rejected all assertions of scapegoating economic globalization for deepening economic woes in an implicit reference to Trump’s tirade against it.

Highlighting how globalization powered China’s growth and economic prosperity, Jinping underlined the imperatives of developing an innovation-driven growth model, a well-coordinated approach for win-win cooperation and equitable governance of the global system with the UN at the core.

China has presented the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) as a manifestation of its resolve to strengthen globalization by establishing what Xi often refers to as ‘a community of shared interests’ woven together in mutually cooperative relationships.

Western academic and political opinion, however, remains wary of China’s long-term ambitions and the kind of world it is envisioning until 2049 that marks the 100 years of the founding of the People’s Republic. They see China as leading the global political, economic, and strategic alliances shaped by its power and influence in the 21st century.

China’s oft-repeated reference to its peaceful rise is interpreted as masking a carefully calibrated strategy to increase its global footprint and clout at the cost of the Western rules, norms, and values. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is presumed as a threat to the Washington Consensus.

In the opinion of the Western strategic community, President Xi’s idea of ‘One World, One Dream’ represents a grand vision to put China as a dominant force in international politics. There is also apprehension about which aspects of the current global order China will retain and which parts it will do away with, in an effort to shape the 21st century as ‘China’s century’.

The major worry in the Western capitals about the nature and dynamics of the Chinese foreign policy under Xi Jinping is based on the presumption that Beijing is working the international system, multilateral institutions, and the regional alliances from inside out in pursuit of its strategic objectives. Their fear is that China will export an authoritarian model of government to the world down the line by showcasing its marvelous economic progress as a proof of the success of the model.

This explains why the Trump administration has described China as a “revisionist power” and a “rival” out to shape a world antithetical to US values and interests. Hence, renewed criticism of the role of the Chinese Communist Party and the possibility of a new cold war breaking out.

Amanat Ali Chaudhry, "Making sense of China," The News. 2020-07-27.
Keywords: Economics , security law , Trade war , Strategic partnership , Political model , Liberal democracy , Economic development , Economic model , Foreign policy , Cultural revolution , Economic institution , Political institution , Leadership , China , Pakistan , CPEC , US