Beijing is right to see an opportunity for China’s rise. So what’s gone wrong?
Vasilis Trigkas says Xi Jinping and his strategists have not miscalculated the window of opportunity that American isolationism presents. However, China’s rise will require finesse with its neighbours and a more cosmopolitan attitude both at home and abroad
China’s strategic community has been intensely contesting the direction of their country’s foreign policy amid US President Donald Trump’s unyielding determination to escalate the trade war. When Trump and Jean-Claude Juncker, president of the European Commission, agreed in principle on an EU-US trade rapprochement, there was pessimism among Chinese strategists.
At the epicentre of public criticism has been China’s proactive foreign policy, crystallised in the Belt and Road Initiative and efforts to expand Chinese influence abroad, including China’s developmental paradigm. Western think tanks have called on their governments to contain China’s “sharp power”, which they say not only aims to appropriate the West’s technological crown jewels but also subvert Western nations. Washington and the European Union have listened.
In a recent essay, Luo Jianbo, the head of the China policy centre at the Central Party School, openly challenged China’s zeal to be the “saviour of the world”, arguing for a return to Deng Xiaoping’s “keep a low profile” strategy instead. China, Luo said, is still a developing country which needs to focus on domestic structural economic issues, deepen reform – and not spend strategic resources frivolously on sensational global undertakings.
More strikingly, Tsinghua University graduates wrote an open letter demanding that Hu Angang, director of the Institute for Contemporary China Studies, be sacked for having misled China’s senior leadership with his evaluation of the country’s “composite national power”, an indicator designed by political scientists to quantify a country’s aggregate economic, military, cultural and political strengths. Guided by Hu, the petitioners said, leaders had overestimated China’s strength and locked the country into an avoidable trade war with the United States.
While China’s strategic community is suddenly critical of the nation’s foreign policy, less than two months ago, President Xi Jinping, in a 3,000-character-long statement at the Central Conference on Work Relating to Foreign Affairs, stressed that China enjoys many favourable external conditions and that the period is of great significance in the historical progress of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation. As former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd, one of the world’s most authoritative China hands, put it, with Xi’s speech, “the system was given a mandate to contest, assert and where possible to lead in the various councils of the world”.
Has Xi’s optimism about fortuitous global conditions for China been a miscalculation? Has the president been misled by acolytes to gratify his own ambition? It is hard to tell.
However, one could look closely at the central point of contention: China’s composite national power vis-à-vis that of the US. While some of the indicators’ constituent elements, such as gross domestic product, population and military spending, are easily quantifiable, its most crucial one – political leadership, which acts as the multiplier – is a qualitative variable open to subjective estimations.
Though the US continues to lead militarily and its economy remains bigger than China’s, America’s political system has been in crisis. In the past year, Trump has challenged the independence of the judiciary, clashed with intelligence agencies, and even called upon the attorney general to end Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian interference into the US election. The president has declared he could pardon himself if he was charged with a federal crime, an action which could push the country into a constitutional crisis.
Xi and his strategists have realised that America’s political predicament presents China with an opportunity to strategically fill the vacuum. After careful consideration of global structural changes, they have reached a strategic “Eureka moment”. However, the international policies that China has pursued motivated by this window of opportunity deserve a rethink.
Watch: Xi Jinping’s principles of foreign policy
While domestically it makes sense for the Communist Party to press for the rejuvenation of the nation and the great Chinese dream, this is not a notion China’s neighbours would warm to, especially when that dream promotes military installations in the South China Sea.
The American political strategist Edward Luttwak described the situation of a “fat Mr China” entering an already crowded elevator. However well mannered, his mass alone would make the other occupants uncomfortable. Add arrogance and a lack of contextual intelligence and the situation would end in a quarrel, with occupants balancing against the impolite intruder.
China needs to radically re-evaluate its neighbourhood policy, starting perhaps with calling a new conference on peripheral diplomacy and strategise more gentlemanly regional conduct.
China has acted prudently in the past. In 1997, during the Asian financial crisis, Beijing supported the economic recovery of the region when Washington’s neoliberal prescriptions exacerbated the crisis. However, as China is now much more self-assured, hubris may become a temptation. It is only by exercising regional self-restraint that China could counter US containment efforts in the region and sustain its Belt and Road Initiative for the longer term.
China has also pledged to “promote the building of a community with a shared future for humanity”. This is a powerful call at a time of an increasingly isolationist US administration. Yet China’s actions need to align with this call. To that end, Beijing should not only open up its market to foreign capital but also, most importantly, open up its society and let ideas compete. No tirades against Western values but constructive criticism instead.
China needs to attract world-class human capital, Chinese and foreign, allow for academic freedom and offer a cosmopolitan vision to counter US nationalism. Throughout its history, China had been a regional leader only when it had been cosmopolitan, with the Tang dynasty the culmination of a multicultural empire.
At the foreign affairs conference, Xi also stressed the interaction between the domestic and the external environment, whereby China actions at home will influence external conditions and vice versa. Having become the big elephant, China cannot return to the status quo ante pretending to be weak. This would only weaken the global system and eventually harm China’s own development.
Xi and his advisers have accurately evaluated the external environment. If the US political crisis deepens into a constitutional one, it will offer an opportunity to China to step in. Yet the challenge in execution demands attention.
Can Xi take China to the global stage peacefully by undertaking key obligations not rhetorically but practically and within China’s resource abilities? Is he willing to change course, open up his country to the world and endorse a truly cosmopolitan vision both at home and abroad?
Xi has not miscalculated the external front, but he may need to re-evaluate his home front.
Vasilis Trigkas is an Onassis Scholar and research fellow in the Belt and Road Strategy Centre at Tsinghua University