Visitors to China’s capital, Beijing, will notice it has a series of ring roads circling out from the centre, around the Forbidden Palace and Tiananmen Square. The first ring road vanished long ago. The second follows the old contours of the ancient city walls felled by Mao Zedong (毛澤東) during the early years of his drive to impose Soviet inspired modernity. The third, fourth and fifth gravitate out until, deep into the suburbs, the relative peace of the sixth ring road offers at least some space for the uber-rich to take their Ferraris out for a run.
In a strange way, these ring roads offer an analogy to the Chinese view of the outside world. There are the important routes, and the remote ones – the relationships that matter, and those that are more peripheral. They all serve as part of one whole though, and if even one of them were to be taken away, the city would descend into chaos.
Today’s China is a global power. This means something more profound than that it is a huge country, with a large population that has an international imprint. In ways which were simply not true in the period under Mao to 1976, the management of even the most domestic of the country’s issues reverberates into the wider world. China’s natural environment problems, through scale, are global ones. China’s attempts to create a health service to deal with its ageing population, through failure or success, matter to the world because they impact on the stability of a country that the world is now more reliant on than ever for growth. Were China’s politicians to mismanage the country, prompting it to go the same way as the Soviet Union, splitting up and fragmenting, it would hit Asia and the rest of the world like a sledgehammer.
It can be assumed that during China’s imperial histories, the ruling elite over various shifting dynasties had a Sino-centric world view. People talk often about the meaning of the characters that make up China’s name – “middle kingdom” – and take this as betraying a way of viewing the world as orderly, arranged, with Chinese principles, interests and ideas set at its heart. Chinese views of order and how the world is mapped out have mattered little for most of modern history. It was, until recently, a marginal power. But now the world is faced – for the first time since the industrial revolution – by a China that is not weak and is becoming stronger. Suddenly, understanding its views of the world matters.
The diplomatic rings around Beijing are easy enough to understand. At their heart – the first ring, as it were – is the prime relationship, with the United States. In terms of trade, links, and ability to help or hinder, there is no more crucial partner for China. And yet, since the era of Deng Xiaoping ( 鄧小平 ), it has been a link afflicted by ambiguity and frustration. China has always known the folly of trying to directly confront and challenge the US. But it also wants more strategic space. It has used the strategy of economic statecraft to try to achieve this, operating in a space where the US would be hard pressed to accuse it of trying to challenge or subvert it openly. But within the most recent big ideas about China’s global role, the Belt and Road Initiative and the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, there is one glaring commonality – the attempt to create a world where the US is absent and China has greater primacy. The modern grand challenge for China with the US is to create parity but not hostility. This is why, since 2013, Xi Jinping (習近平) as China’s chief storyteller to the world has described the first circle as “a new model of major power relations”.
In the second ring are those countries closest to China – its 14 land neighbours, and its many maritime neighbours, some of whom are in dispute with it over islands and sea territory. This region is beset with issues left over from history, some reaching back thousands of years. Japan, Vietnam, India, Russia, North Korea – a tough neighbourhood. And until Xi, China lacked a story to capture this region. With the Belt and Road Initiative it has that story – one focusing again on benign economic commonalities, and the invitation for the 60-plus current partners in the idea to think of ways of engaging more with opportunities for involvement in China, and attracting Chinese investment.
In the third ring, there stands the European Union (EU) – and greater Europe. Of course, as the 450 billion-plus euros of two-way trade in 2016 alone made clear, these two are major markets which are deeply linked to each other. But they are more than this. The EU matters to China because, unlike any other power, it has transferred huge amounts of technology and intellectual property to the People’s Republic. The simple fact is that China’s reform and opening up would never have succeeded as well without European automotive, manufacturing, computing and rail technology. China may have built the world’s most impressive high-speed train network. But without German technology, this would never have happened. The EU, with currently 28 member states, and its proclivity to lecture others about its political and civic values and their universal validity, frequently irritates China for its seemingly superior attitude. Xi’s solution to this when he became the first Chinese head of state to visit the headquarters of the EU in Brussels in 2014 was to accord the title “civilisation powers” to the two. Once more, this recognised parity, and put into focus their core shared asset – diversity within a common cultural and historic framework.
Finally, in the fourth ring is the wider world – Africa, the Middle East, Latin America, even the Artic and Antarctic Circles. For these, the core interests are resources, investment opportunities, exploring new markets, and building alliances that are useful for helping China in the United Nations when it risks being criticised over human rights or other issues it is sensitive about. For this region, at the moment there is no overarching narrative. That probably indicates that despite all the claims of Chinese ambitions to worldwide influence, its leaders do not want this. They are preoccupied with their current historic tasks – making one-party rule in China sustainable, and being the dominant power in Asia. These are the great diplomatic rings that now run around China. For now, they are running relatively smoothly. We will just have to wait and see if they become as snarled up and congested, polluting and unable to take the ever-increasing demand as the physical ring roads running around Beijing. ■
Kerry Brown’s China’s World, an overview of China’s international diplomacy, will be published by I B Tauris this month. This article is a summary of the book’s principle arguments