Who is the greatest modern Chinese statesman? Many people will, no doubt, pick Deng Xiaoping, for opening up China. For those who are more nationalistic, Mao Zedong is the man. But, at the moment, for the more ideological or opportunistic, and it’s often hard to tell which is which, you may have to pick Xi Jinping. But for my money, I would choose former premier Zhu Rongji. I had not thought about Zhu for a long time. Since retirement, he has avoided the limelight. But I was led to remembering his extraordinary achievements for China as its economic tsar after someone sent me a recent animated graphic on China’s global trade from 1980 to 2018. If efforts by some Western countries to decouple or isolate China are to fail, Chinese have much to thank Zhu for his farsighted economic policy that has fully integrated China’s economy with the rest of the world. In the long run, maybe that’s what global peace will depend on, but not for a lack of sabre-rattling by a hostile West led by Washington. The animated chart was drawn up by researchers at the well-known Australian think tank, the Lowy Institute, based on trade data compiled by the International Monetary Fund. It shows the breathtaking rise of China to displace the US to become the world’s largest trading nation. Focusing on gross trade flows – exports plus imports – the rise in China’s global trade accelerated after 2001, the year China acceded to the World Trade Organization after 15 years of often difficult negotiations. President Xi woos global business leaders with vows of ‘opportunities’ At the turn of the new century, more than eight out of 10 countries had a larger volume of trade with the United States than China. By 2018, that plummeted to about 30 per cent. That meant two-thirds of countries in the world – 128 out of 190 – traded more with China than the US. Of these, 90 countries traded more than twice as much with China as with the US. No other Chinese policymaker had pursued financial and economic reforms, of which joining the WTO was a central pillar, more consistently than Zhu. In many ways, Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative builds on Zhu’s successes. Scheduled for completion in 2049, it will make sure China has a finger in every pie. Last year, mainland companies signed contracts worth US$128 billion for infrastructure projects in dozens of countries. Building new highways and ports abroad is not only good for China’s construction sector; a study in 2018 published in Asia Pacific Business Review found that “infrastructure expansion and logistics performance improvements led to positive effects on China’s exports”, citing data in 2007, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016 from 49 countries. As one Western commentator puts it in Visual Capitalist, an online economic portal, “it’s clear the new infrastructure network is already transforming global trade, possibly cementing China’s position as the world’s major trading partner for years to come”. Zhu’s achievements, of course, weren’t confined to trade and WTO membership. He helped save and recapitalise the bankrupt big state banks, turned them into pioneering darlings of initial public offerings, and liberalised the Chinese financial markets. That in turn cemented Hong Kong’s status as a global financial hub after 1997. He streamlined state regulators. Virtually all policy debates up to now over the pace of economic and regulatory reforms – which have ebbed and flowed during the past decade – are carried out within the framework that he and former central bank boss Zhou Xiaochuan initially set out. As Carl Walter and Fraser Howie wrote in their 2011 Red Capitalism: The Fragile Financial Foundation of China’s Extraordinary Rise , “Zhu saw membership of the WTO as the guarantee of an unalterable international orientation for a China that in the past had too frequently been given to cycles of isolationism. “He believed that the WTO would provide the transformational engine for economic and, to a certain extent, political modernisation regardless of who controlled the government. His enthusiasm for engagement with the world paid off as trade with China turned white hot in the years that followed. “What is remarkable about the financial reforms pursued by Zhu was that they were comprehensive, transformational, and pursued consistently. Failure to follow through may have been inevitable, given the fragmented structure of the country’s political system in which special interest groups coexist within a dominant political entity, the Communist Party of China.” If you don’t like trading with China, well, just think of the alternative, which may be much worse for everyone In 1909, Norman Angell published The Great Illusion , which famously argued that global trade between industrialised nations made war between them counterproductive, if not disastrous; and even if there were to be wars, they were bound to be short and limited. Many people took the Great War to have disproved his thesis. But that was not necessarily the case. Perhaps the post-Bismarckian system of alliances between the great European powers made a global conflagration inevitable, no matter what levels of global trade had been attained. In an update of the Angell thesis, Richard Rosecrance, a former US State Department official, argued in his 1986 book, The Rise of the Trading State , that world trade has been the primary path to prosperity and world leadership, at least after 1945. Economic interdependence between nations enhances peace while making obvious the costs of war as to make it obsolete. He was thinking of the US, and his book was published before the collapse of the Soviet Union and the start of another great wave of globalisation. But if you read his prescient book now, you can’t but think of China. The US loves war, China fears it. If you don’t like trading with China, well, just think of the alternative, which may be much worse for everyone.