As China has launched its massive new foreign policy movement with Xi Jinping’s “One Belt One Road” initiative, the country may now need also some kind of radical reappraisal of its position in the world.
China has been the greatest beneficiary of the globalization drive actively promoted by the US since the 1990s – more so than either the US or the West. Indeed, it could be argued that, as their GDP compared to the total world GDP has declined, American-led globalization didn’t benefit the US or the EU all that much. Conversely, China’s relative share of global GDP has increased dramatically.
As China’s development in the past 30 to 40 years occurred in an American-dominated world, it is indebted to the US, either directly (in the 1970s and 1980s) or indirectly (later and up to now). For this simple reason, China should be keen to carry on with a positive relationship with the West; and with the policy of opening up to the world that started in the late 1970s. Equally, some in the US might be concerned about continuing its old policies: American concerns about China’s rise are comprehensible while the voices in China worried about America and the Western threat are less so. If China damages its ties with America and the West, it hurts what for the past 40 years has been its lifeline, the reasons for its growth and rise.
Yet besides these concerns, which are practical, there are ideological reasons leading some in the US and in China to think differently about their relationships. In simple terms, in the US, some believe in the greater good of trade and capitalism, which although it may weaken the relative GDP of one country, helps the development of the world and the well-being of companies and entrepreneurs worldwide. In China, some ultra-realists believe that Americans are ultra-realists like them, and thus to protect the best interests of the US, they have to make sure China’s growth stops or dramatically slows down in order to avoid overtaking US GDP. Of course, not everyone in the US or China subscribes to these points of view.
However, this reality and this thinking create two options for the US and leaves only one option for China. Either America’s next President could choose to play tough, trying to stop or slow down China’s growth. Or the next President could welcome China’s rise. It should be remembered that, even if China’s GDP overtakes that of the US, it will be in a world still ideologically and culturally dominated by the US. The value system governing trade, economics, diplomacy, politics, communication and so on are all Western, based on some 500 years of Western dominance of the world. It is now accepted to a large degree by all countries, including China. Even if China were economically number one, it would still have to play according to American rules.
China, conversely, if it tries to play tough, will have to fight not only America, but also the rest of the world, which, for all practical purposes, accepts American rules. Although other countries may dislike the “US hegemony,” they may dislike even more “Chinese hegemony.” Then if China plays tough and tries to disrupt the present “American world,” it will put in jeopardy its lifeline of trade and exchanges with the rest of the world.
For these simple reasons, while the American hawks may benefit or harm US interests depending on how one sees these benefits (as narrow national interests or broad capitalist goals), in Beijing the hawks de facto endanger China’s interests, as they put at risk China’s economic exchanges with the world. More than that, they would play in favour of everyone in world who wants to put a stop to China’s growth.
Still there is a dangerous ideological twist in China. The Communist Party, which came to power on a nationalistic agenda with a xenophobic streak, is instinctively suspicious of pro-foreigner voices. These considerations are also based on the fear that foreign forces want to disrupt the rule of the Communist Party. But if the Communist Party does well, it has no reason to fear subversion. For all practical purposes, the rule of the party in China was made possible by collaboration with the world. Without it, China’s economy would have stalled and collapsed so the rule of the party would have vanished as it did in the USSR or gone mad like in North Korea.
Extremely nationalistic tendencies would therefore be suicidal for both China and the Communist Party as in the long term they would result in the weakening of ties with the rest of the world and thus the slowdown of Chinese development.
These old “usual” elements also play an important role in the domestic struggle for power and interests, where controlling access to foreign conduits can be a monopolistic privilege to gain extra power and money.
In this sense, to face the next decades of growth and not be stuck by specious and dangerous arguments, China needs some kind of real and deep “cultural revolution”; and to recognize officially that cooperation with the rest of the world is not the enemy. On the contrary: closure and suspicion are the enemy. But this may well be difficult: for centuries and particularly since the Opium War (1840), opening up to foreigners has been a recipe for disaster in China. Then, the massive arrival of foreigners coincided with the impoverishment and decadence of China.
This pattern lasted roughly until Deng reforms of the late 1970s. The question that now faces China’s policy makers is whether to continue to engage with a globalized world; or whether to revert to a nationalistic and short-term insularity. The benefits of one, and the dangers of the other, should be clear.