How China can turn the trade war into a ‘strategic opportunity’ to ascend to global leadership
- Ni Tao says the strategist behind China’s ‘peaceful rise’ is back with a new theory: Beijing can seize an opportunity to lead the next phase of globalisation
At a time like this, Zheng has been cajoled out of semi-retirement to soothe anxiety and lift morale – with a new theory on China’s “great strategic opportunity”. Speaking at Fudan University in Shanghai on October 14, he argued that despite the temporary setbacks, China is resilient enough to withstand a full-blown trade war.
Watch: US will ‘suffer more’ in trade war with China, Alibaba founder Jack Ma says
Zheng’s confidence is not unfounded. Many a Chinese economist has estimated that the export losses can be amply offset by stimulating domestic demand. China is already one of the world’s largest consumer markets, offering a wealth of opportunities to businesses selling merchandise from garments to hi-tech gadgets, from imported foods to travel products. In January, The Washington Post predicted that retail sales in China would reach US$5.8 trillion in 2018, equalling or surpassing the US.
To its credit, the belt and road plan has provided funding for an infrastructure boom, setting the stage for economic take-off in some countries. Like it or not, at a time of US withdrawal from international engagements, the influence of the belt and road will only grow, as the sea- and land-based network developed under China’s auspices links up more and more countries.
As Zheng sees it, this is exactly where China’s “great strategic opportunity” lies: by placing itself at the centre of world affairs and economic globalisation while the US is pulling out, China is building its reputation as a champion of free trade in its quest to win over hearts and minds.
China’s market and transcontinental marketplace formed under the Belt and Road Initiative are pillars of the “great strategic opportunity”. To undergird his theory, Zheng also spoke of the remarkable endurance of the Chinese people, who can turn adversity into advantage. Specifically, he invoked On Protracted War, a collection of Mao Zedong’s 1938 speeches calling for a protracted “people’s war” to wear down Japanese invaders.
The message Zheng tried to get across to his countrymen also toes the official line on the trade war: steel yourself for the looming economic hardship, and remember, whoever sticks it out to the end wins.
What pundits like Zheng have in mind is a vision of China leading the next phase of economic globalisation. And it would take more than perseverance to ascend to such a prominent role. It would be a test of China’s leadership, resolve and resourcefulness, and perhaps require a bit of grandstanding.
Watch: Xi Jinping’s vision for China’s place in the world
Zheng and other architects of the Chinese foreign policy framework have been exhibiting a new assertiveness. In contrast with their prudent, banal predecessors, they are more upfront about their ambitions for China to become a global leader.
This is the hallmark of a transition in China’s foreign policy. As a German international relations expert once remarked to me, “China used to flourish by aligning itself with international norms and standards; now it is expecting the world to conform to the rules it plays a primary role in creating.”
Trump’s trade bullying, hectoring attitude toward allies and ravings about US pre-eminence will further estrange the US from its friends. He will drive them into the open arms of China, whatever they may make of Beijing’s posturing.
Ni Tao is a Shanghai-based writer, journalist and translator. He received his Bachelor of Arts degree from Fudan University’s School of International Relations and Public Affairs