Illustration: Craig Stephens
Peter T. C. Chang
Peter T. C. Chang

China wants its moment on the world stage. Can it convince the US to share?

  • China’s determination to share the success of its socio-economic model with the world has made it a threat in the eyes of the US
  • Yet with rivalry sliding towards conflict, China must not lose sight of its peaceful aims

Over the past decade, Xi Jinping has transformed China into a global power. But grave challenges lie ahead and unless the US can be won over, Xi’s quest for “a community of shared future for humankind” may remain elusive.

With the 20th party congress poised to extend his presidency for an unprecedented third term, Xi’s already considerable impact on China and the world is likely to become even more significant, for better or worse.
In the West, Xi is deemed as part of a rising wave of autocratic rulers threatening the liberal world order. But danger is also lurking within. Across Europe, ultraconservative and far-right regimes are being elected into office. In the US, the January 6, 2021 assault on the Capitol is fuelling long-standing scepticism: is liberal democracy really the “end of history”?
More than any entity, the Communist Party of China is the most vocal defender of the world view that there are multiple pathways to achieving good governance. And China’s remarkable transformation into an economic powerhouse, according to Beijing, is evidence that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” is one such pathway.

For Xi, moreover, China’s economic success can be a model for the developing world. Thus, in a departure from Deng Xiaoping’s maxim to “hide your strength, bide your time”, Xi seeks to put China on the global stage and universalise the Chinese dream.

The Belt and Road Initiative is the centrepiece of Xi’s geo-economic strategy. Launched in 2013 in Indonesia, the belt and road has since expanded to almost every continent. China’s mega-infrastructure initiative has proved to be consequential, generating socio-economic uplift, especially in the global south.
Guests visit the Malaysia-China Digital Economy Forum 2022 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, on September 29. There are hopes the Belt and Road Initiative could help fuel the development of Malaysia’s digital economy. Photo: Xinhua
And with specialised initiatives such as the “ digital Silk Road”, “ health Silk Road”, and “ green belt and road”, China is laying the technological groundwork for countries in the developing world to better cope with the public health and ecological crises besetting humankind.

China under Xi is venturing into new frontiers. Not since admiral Zheng He’s epoch-making voyages during the Ming dynasty have the Chinese state footprints been so widely dispersed. Actually, never in human history has any empire attempted such an ambitious socio-economic undertaking.

To be sure, China’s rise is not without consternation. The one-party-state system is an anomaly in an age when most countries have embraced, in varying forms, open democracies. Furthermore, some member states of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations like Malaysia have unresolved territorial disputes with China in the South China Sea.

How Beijing’s belligerence over Taiwan is related to the belt and road

Even so, for many in the developing world, the cost-benefit analysis appears to support continuing economic engagement with China. In fact, an air of anticipation is palpable: if China, once a poverty-stricken compatriot, can remake itself into an economic superpower, nations of the global south can also realise their respective versions of the Chinese dream.

But in the US, a rising China is seen as a peril to the free world and a threat to the American way of life. With like-minded allies, Washington is waging a worldwide campaign to rein in China. Though framed as a struggle to protect human rights, this is very much a fight to preserve US global hegemony. And Taiwan is in the crosshair of this battle.
Herein lies Xi’s immediate crisis, namely, the Taiwan conundrum. Despite vows to pursue peaceful reunification, Xi is preparing China for warfare, if the US decides to discard its long-established policy of strategic ambiguity relating to Taiwan’s independence, and openly support Taiwan independence.
Xi’s crisis is compounded by a deeply polarised America, adding unpredictability to the tense rebalancing of global power. When an internally distracted incumbent superpower seeks to ward off an assertive challenger, both face a higher risk of miscalculation and increased danger of fumbling into the Thucydides Trap.
The fallout from the bitter Sino-US rivalry is far-reaching. In August, in retaliation for US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s controversial visit to Taipei, China suspended climate change cooperation with the US. And even with the tragic toll of over six million deaths from Covid-19, it is unclear whether the US and China are ready to work together to contain the next pandemic.

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The 20th party congress is an apt vantage point to assess the first decade of Xi’s presidency, which has elicited mixed reactions from a divided world. In the global south, Xi’s leadership is broadly received as an effective agent of change.


Explainer: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress?

Explainer: What is the Chinese Communist Party’s 20th national congress?
But for the Americans, China under Xi has morphed into an existential threat that must be contained. And the worsening US-China dynamic is impairing the global community’s ability to deal with looming crises afflicting humankind.

During the first two terms, Xi set out to transform the world. In the coming third term, Xi’s idealism and the Chinese dream will face a harsh reality check. The tense 21st century geopolitical reconfiguration is teetering towards the precipice of a world war. Hostilities have erupted in Europe and East Asia is in danger of suffering a similar fate.

The catastrophic risk of a ‘peak China’ and ‘declining America’

To ensure Xi’s vision of “a community of shared future for humankind” remains a viable aspiration, Beijing has got to work to prevent the tension between China and US from spilling over into open conflict. To that end, Xi must resist being provoked into a potentially catastrophic military confrontation over Taiwan.
But Xi Jinping alone cannot save the world from war. To preserve global peace, Washington has got to be won over into accepting Beijing as an equal partner. For the sake of humanity, including the well-being of Americans, the United States must agree to coexist with China.

Peter T.C. Chang is deputy director of the Institute of China Studies, University of Malaya, Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia