US Politics

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