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CommentInsight & Opinion

China the subtle superpower

Tom Velk and Olivia Gong say while China shows all the usual traits of a conventional great power, the West needs to accept that the way it wields its influence is also very different

PUBLISHED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 26 November, 2012, 2:58am

If Xi Jinping wants to tackle China's "severe challenges", he needs to understand the nature of the new power China has accumulated over the past decade. So the question remains: Is China a superpower today?

A pundit recently said "no" because, among other factors, China has only one aircraft carrier in comparison to America's 11. The analysis is mistaken; it's not about the ship count, but the reality of power.

China possesses a power that is deeply rooted in tradition, ideas and cultural habits that are far more ancient than the policies connected with Western communism. What defines a superpower? It is a matter of spirit, confidence, influence, patience, determination and sophistication − all in pursuit of well-understood, long-term national interests.

A superpower stands on its own, without the need of allies (although those may be helpful at times). It influences other states, sometimes at a cost to these states' national interests. It possesses enormous reserves of strength, sufficient enough to carry it through the most severe trials of real combat or devastating diplomatic reversals. It steers events to serve its interests, by subtle, sometimes invisible means, even in distant places. It prevents others from harming its national interests, or altering its existing spheres of influence. Its culture is dominant, and it modifies other cultures. Finally, it constrains the behaviour of enemies. If talking fails, diplomacy is backed up by the threat to use overwhelming force.

China currently meets all of these traditional characteristics of a superpower. But its mix and balance is special: China is and will continue to be a very different superpower from the US.

Traditional Chinese wisdom says: "Four taels yield a thousand catties." A subtle player earns a big pay-off for a small effort. A clever wrestler redirects the opponent's clumsy strength to win the bout. This wisdom is evident in China's foreign policies. While America's profligate expenditure of blood and treasure in the Middle East may end in profitless withdrawal, China, by subtle and nuanced deals with Iran and Syria, has gained access to needed oil supplies. While the US contemplates new military intervention, Syria's sales to China provide financial lifeblood, giving China significant leverage.

By modulating the de facto aid it supplies to Syria and Iran, China can counteract or reinforce American aims in the Middle East, not by expenditure, but with less aggressive trading profits.

America and China use their superpower status vis-à-vis other nations in contrasting ways. When nuclear-armed North Korea threatens to fire a rocket, Japan shudders and the US issues a diplomatic document: yet the rocket flies. In contrast, China controls the dictator by providing marginally more or less aid. China gains influence over North Korea by its power to either offset Western force, or reinforce it. Moreover, against the US, China employs the wrestler's trick: the opponent's undisciplined power is the wrestler's friend.

In other ways, too, China wields its influence differently from the US: China's superpower style has parallels with that of the church.

China has its missionary Jesuit intellectuals: they are the overseas Chinese, found in Western universities, research institutions, banks, government bureaucracies, professional societies and military services. They are agents of change, exemplars of competence and professional excellence, who enrich the core traditions of the East with the help of the riches and liberty available in the West. Like the Jesuit missionaries of old, they plant ideas in foreign soil and undertake their intellectual obligation with zeal. With the help of these "missionaries", China needs few spies or paid secret warriors: they have more dependable spokespeople, representatives and ambassadors.

This overseas diplomatic service is well-suited to China's national interest. Like the church, it was never China's intention to occupy distant lands. The primary objective is internal stability. It is content to be understood, respected and, to some degree, feared. It believes its ideas, cultural habits and Confucian morality will survive any challenge.

This new form of superpower is old. Long-lived empires from classical Rome to the Catholic Church "gain ascendancy" with language, culture, religion, values and vast patience. China does so today, with an interesting reversal. Its elites learn the language, culture, religion and aesthetic values of the West, take them "home" and absorb them, without abandoning their own. Asia's ruling classes will be, more and more, agents of change in both societies.

China's superpower status springs from similar fertile ground: antiquity, tradition, dignity, elegance, learning and pride. The Western superpower will do well to understand that the mystical and spiritual traditions of the East demand respect and even admiration.

So: is China a superpower? Russia's UN vote doesn't count without China's support. American sanctions against Iran and threats against Syria are neutralised when China, and its faithful companion Russia, decides to veto. The US$1.3 trillion American debt held by China could threaten the US financial system even more than would a fleet of submarines and carriers.

Back when the Soviet Union still existed, Joseph Stalin, when told the Vatican was preaching against his tyranny, replied with a sneer: "So, how many divisions does the Pope have?" He made the mistake of focusing on the military side of a superpower, and failing to understand the subtle, spiritual side of power.

The time is now to build common ground and common understandings to link East and West. And, in a spirit of dignity and mutual understanding, accept the superpower status of today's Asia. The alternative is profoundly dangerous.

Tom Velk is a professor of economics and director of the North American Studies programme at McGill University. Olivia Gong is a finance student and research assistant at McGill


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As it is today, China cannot be a global superpower as it shares little or no common value with most other nations, and will remain so as long as it remains an authoritarian state. Friendship cannot be bought, not to mention China's commercial interests dominated by SOEs are often predatory: offering foreign aid in exchange of mining and exploration rights, shipping workers to countries when it buys a mine or offering aid to build railroads, highways or petrochemical plants; such being seen more as the practice of an economic juggernaut. A global superpower needs to offer "soft" power; not "hard" power which is a similar wrong path taken by the US.
Unfortunately for you, a superpower doesn't need to share any value with you.
It is YOU who needs to share values with a superpower!
It is also funny of China’s other ‘subtle way’ of expressing itself as a ‘superpower’: by updating their maps in their passports to include territories of other countries as part of their sovereignty. Oh, how subtle and innovative!!
Get your facts straight, China's map including all the territories currently in dispute has been in circulation since WWII and is now also Taiwan's official map. Since the likes of you regularly accuse China of copying. Maybe China should copy the same method the U.S deals with other countries. Send troops and forcefully take what belongs to China. Not innovative agree, but it will actually work compared to this subtle way, which I disagree with.
The article said: ‘The time is now to build common ground and common understandings to link East and West. And, in a spirit of dignity and mutual understanding, accept the superpower status of today's Asia. The alternative is profoundly dangerous.’
The time is for all countries to abide by international law – and this includes basic human rights such as freedom of speech, expression, beliefs and association, and upholding the rule of law (not one rule for the citizens and one rule for the elite in power). If we accept the superpower status of China as it is without them having respect for international law and other countries, this is very dangerous indeed. As we can see from the incidents in the South China Sea, and with the oppression of Tibetan people, a country that has power but no sense of responsibility, morality and respect for human rights is a very dangerous one for the rest of the world.
Tibet is a natural territory of China. There is no need for China to abide or uphold anything created by the likes of you with your own interests and self-agenda. Many of the protesting Tibetans around the world are related to or belonged to the ruling elites of the old Tibet who ruled 97% of the old Tibetan population as slaves and are now supported by foreign interests based in the West and India. Especially the Buddhist monk class along with their master the Dali Lama whom in the name of religion have ruled Tibet for centuries with a Theocracy state that was more oppressive than any form of governing body you'll ever see. There is no reason for the majority of the freed Tibetan slaves to protest against the Chinese government besides the minority mentioned above.
The incidents in the South China Sea and with Japan are nothing but separate incidents not to mention that none of these incidents actually involved Chinese military. The incidents are over-hyped by Western media and the U.S hoping some of these South East Asian countries to become new pawns to serve the American interest in the region. The irony is that it's the Japanese government that has initiated the aggressive purchase of Diaoyu Island and also recently instigated old territorial dispute with South Korea over Rockey Islets.
In regards to influence. China’s soft power is very weak with the international community. For example, cultural soft-power of the west, which is based on freedom that encourages creativity and innovation (as seen in music, movies, technology, etc) is something that China cannot provide since they cannot afford to give their people that freedom.
The idea of promoting Confucian ideals by the CCP is just a ironic facade. Confucius provided the ideals of virtue, morality and high-thinking which the CCP does not actually practice. Instead, they are tainted with ongoing stories of corruption, immorality and suppression of individual thinking. When has a political leader been praised for expressing their unique way of thinking? It does not happen.
In fact. Ironically. If Confucius was living in today’s China, he would most likely be labeled a ‘dissident’ and imprisoned for being outspoken against a corrupt and unjust government. So, it is just a facade that China is creating all these schools overseas with the name of ‘Confucius’ to improve their soft-power.
China, at its present time, does not have a high-deal or cultural habits which support the people’s welfare. The current cultural habits people aspire to is to get rich, power and status as quickly as possible, no matter how you get it. When that begins to fail, make sure you have an escape route into a democratic country that has protected your investments.
China's soft power is actually pretty strong, just take a look at how many country still has formal diplomatic relation with Taiwan. Besides the U.S who is desperately trying to stay relevant, none of the other countries in the West even bother to pick a side in the South China Sea disputes. Japan's prime minister has failed to lobby any of the EU member to his side on the Diaoyu island issue in recent trip to Europe.
Most of the developing countries in the world are building up their economy with Chinese invest and trade with China, South Africa, Brazil, etc. European Union's fate is tighed directly with China's economic well-being. Don't worry, through this century, as China continue to grow, China defending her national interest will become a social norm.
Continue to portray China as this evil monster out to conqueror the world while you still can.
Good job nitpicking the superficial aspects of Confucius to support your claims. The core value of Confucius was absolute obedience to your superior both at home and at work. A rigid and strict social order while granting no civil rights to women. This was why, at the turn of last century, when China was in such turmoil under these old ways, Confucius was necessary to be abolished in order for Chinese to finally wake up.
Actually, China's rise and opening up since the 80s was based on lifting people out of poverty and taking care of people's welfare to avoid a Soviet like total collapse. The only problem is China has a 1.3 billion population and growing. Evenly spread America's wealth among 1.3 billion citizens, you will be here ranting about American's poor welfare too, not to mention the people already elected a welfare state president Obama this election to reflect the fact that even the world's #1 is failing taking care of a population that is only a fraction of China's.
Again contrary to your hypocritical claims, the international business community has greater confidence in China's business environment than that of India and other developing country because of relatively more stable society and economy with a strong central government.
China's corruption problem usually remain at a local level. Politicians who are greedy for monetary gains are short sighted and fail to ascend to top key positions. You get these kinds of dirty politicians everywhere.



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