How can liberal democracies best manage China’s re-emergence as a great power?
- To cope with the redistribution of wealth and political power, democracies should strengthen defensive alliances, engage openly with Beijing and exercise strategic patience: given China’s demographic transformations, change may come from within
In late 1979, at the request of the Chinese government, the United Nations launched an aid programme in China. This initiative signalled Beijing’s intention to look outwards for support for its modernisation programme.
I was among the UN staffers dispatched to start the programme. Despite frustrations with the bureaucracy, those were exciting and optimistic days. Foreign governments and companies competed vigorously to provide aid and promote trade. Everyone wanted to be in China.
So, are liberal, democratic societies now trapped in an existential struggle with China in the marketplace of political ideas and economic competition? Or can they find ways to manage the global redistribution of economic wealth and political power that has come with China’s ascendancy without forfeiting the fundamental precepts of their own societies?
These are big challenges but not insurmountable.
Significantly, in 1979, only 18 per cent of the Chinese population lived in urban areas; today, that figure is about 60 per cent and rising. Urban populations are usually more cosmopolitan and open to change than their rural counterparts. We have seen these trends at work in East Asian countries such as Japan, South Korea and Malaysia.
None of this means that the democratic world should be complacent or less than vigilant. We know how competition between expansionary and established powers has often ended in unintended conflict.
So what policy responses should democracies deploy to manage China’s re-emergence as a great power?
Third, in dealing with China, democracies will need strategic patience. Better-educated, more prosperous and well-connected societies do not automatically produce more liberal, peaceful societies. The ruling ethos has to evolve as well. And that may come with generational change.
This does not mean China will become a Western-style liberal democracy; but neither is the country destined to remain an authoritarian, one-party state.
In the four decades since I set foot in China, the country has changed dramatically. Who is to say that it cannot or will not change equally profoundly in the next four decades?
Napoleon famously remarked that “China is a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” Well the giant has woken up and is indeed moving the world. This is a challenge for the community of democratic nations.
However, it is manageable one – provided democracies keep faith with their values and work together to sustain and remain firm in those values.
Alan Doss is president of the Kofi Annan Foundation. The views expressed in this article are his own