Understanding China’s rise

Author: Niv Horesh, University of Nottingham

The rise of China has created new uncertainties. A crucial question is whether China actively seeks an alternative to the existing US-led liberal regional order. And, if it does, what sort of order would it be?

In 2000, Aron Friedberg warned enthusiasts of multilateralism against exaggerating the ‘pacifying’ effects of regional trade. Friedberg predicted that the more economically powerful South Korea and China became, the more they would seek to undermine Japan’s regional status and eventually confront the United States.

Even if the economies of all three East Asian countries become intertwined, it seems more likely that geo-strategic instability in Asia will increase than that multilateral institutions will successfully bind the region politically closer, the argument ran. An analogy here is Europe in the World War II era: European states preferred cooperation over competition only after much devastation.

There is evidence which suggests that China will join the status quo. China’s enthusiastic acceptance of the Basel banking reforms following the global financial crisis of 2008, its contribution to the Vienna accords resolving Iran’s nuclear question, and its critical role in forging the 2015 Paris Agreement to combat climate change are all evidence of ‘normalisation’.

But there are also signs that China’s claims to ‘peaceful development’ are insincere. Critics of China are quick to point to its reclamation activities, and military deployments, in the South China Sea and the recent announcement of its intention to build a naval facility in Djibouti. China’s establishment of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is cast in the same context as a direct threat to the existing geo-political architecture. And the ‘One Belt, One Road’ initiative is portrayed as an attempt to drive the United States out of Eurasia.

One might suggest that the three East Asian giants — China, Japan and South Korea — can learn from the European experience and embrace economic if not political integration. But, as Friedberg argued, the dynamics of great power competition often override otherwise sensible, mutually-beneficial strategic choices.

The three East Asian giants today resemble early 20th-century European powers in one important way: none has been substantively re-configured by post-war immigration or the discourse of multiculturalism. Much of the European Union and North America is moving slowly toward de facto multi-cultural and multi-ethnic societies with a high degree of population mobility. By contrast China, Japan and South Korea’s national cohesion relies on ethnic identity to a greater extent, with their sense of historical insularity often purposefully heightened by ruling elites.

Still, China’s ‘nation-state’ project is a work in progress. Up to 30 per cent of the population cannot fluently speak Mandarin, the official language. And in Taiwan and Hong Kong, many still reject China’s rendition of modern Chinese nationhood. Efforts at conjuring up a shared sense of Chinese history and citizenry are far from complete. Even as the state promotes China as a unique ‘civilizational state’ that transcends ethnic, religious or ideological tension and is averse to territorial expansion, the top decision-making body of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) remains all-male, secular and ethnically uniform.

Over the past decade or so, China’s ‘nation-building’ project at home has also been subsumed by a historically-hued discourse of New Confucianism. The ancient aura of Confucius has come to play a leading role in revitalising CCP rule and legitimising the Hu and Xi eras. Hu Jintao, the previous President, promoted New Confucianism as a variant of the Singaporean leader Lee Kuan Yew’s Asian Values discourse of the 1990s that pitted collective rights over individual rights. New Confucianism is now openly promoted by Xi Jinping in a bid to amplify China’s ‘dream’ of a resurgence on the world stage.

Advocates of New Confucianism often cast it as a universalist, non-Western and non-interventionist approach to international relations. But critics describe it as apologia for one-party rule in the guise of engendering a more ‘harmonious society’ — a vacuous portmanteau with which, for example, to inculcate ‘Patriotic Education’ to Hong Kong residents and to pit the CCP’s ‘united front’ politics against America’s ‘dysfunctional’ democracy.

Could New Confucianism rally popular support outside of China and provide a viable ideological foundation for alternative global norms? Much will depend on the authors of China’s new narrative of global leadership, and their ability to craft a fresh universalist message that resonates beyond narrow Chinese ethno-nationalism. The CCP has certainly derived much vitality from the 2008 financial crisis. The ensuing Western crisis of self-confidence was grist to the Chinese meal.

Facts rather than scaremongering and preconceptions should inform analysis of China’s exercise of power on the global stage. Take China’s involvement in Africa, for example. There are currently over a million Chinese workers living in Africa, building what is often dubbed, with unnecessary alarmism, a resource-grabbing ‘New Empire’. The environmental degradation and corruption that Chinese investment in African infrastructure and resources is seen to breed is a cause for much lamentation in the Western popular media. Most visitors to Africa do not expect to witness a Chinese presence there on that scale.

Though China’s projection of power in Africa may be on the rise, it remains far outpaced by Western stakes on the continent. France alone, a formidable colonial power in the past, still accounts for a greater share of greenfield investment in Africa than China. These facts are the backdrop against which China’s rise should be measured.

Niv Horesh is Director of the China Policy Institute, the University of Nottingham, and Professor of the Modern History of China.

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