We look to power to be visible. We seek signs and clues about it. Xi Jinping standing surveying the vast, new naval fleet in April affirmed something many in the Pacific region suspected; this is a country that means to have impact. It was a great performance. Dressed in military gear with the grand panorama of different vessels in the water around him, his statement was simple. A great power needs a strong military, the ability to project its will, the assets to enforce its desire on the world around it.
Meanwhile, in Washington, it is clear the counter-attack has started. Donald Trump’s threatened trade wars are proxies for the power play underneath them. China has been winning too much. It has skewed the global trading system. This is an iniquitous outcome. The deal, made during the era of engagement in the past, was for it to do this but also to change – to become rich and like the West, a liberal, multi-party democratic country. Frustration at the failure of this grand Western gambit with China was the essence of a long complaint made in The Economist earlier this year. How did things get to such a pass? Economic development was meant to lead China closer to the West, to become more like the West, not so it could surround it, dictate to it, start to threaten it and still remain the same – a one-party state.
The problem for the West is that this is no cold war. In that era, at least it knew where the shadows were. There was a neat iron curtain, a line of demarcation. The Soviet Union was a more straightforward antagonist – one that clearly wanted a zero sum outcome. It got it in the end, but alas, as the defeated not the conqueror. China does not fit this template. There are no neat lines of demarcation. It operates in a capitalist mode, with a communist mentality. As a power that regards itself as exceptional, it does not want to win, not at least in the neat wars that America and its allies might like to imagine fighting. Its influence is subtle, subliminal, a shadow beneath even the shadows. It operates, so it is said, in the depths of the dark web and in the underbelly of the global system, supporting but also contesting it, playing to the rules of the game as set by entities like the World Trade Organisation, but incrementally and slowly changing them by making them almost irrelevant.
In the era of a grand psychological struggle, where most battles are virtual and in our minds rather than the physical world, we can look to the strategic thinking in Chinese texts – from the Warring States period two and a half millennia ago to the Han era that ended almost a thousand years later – to understand where we are. Everyone knows Sun Tzu and the much-translated Art of War. But there are many other works from the same era, some far darker. The stern legalist philosophy of Han Fei, for instance, with its strict injunctions to trust no one. Or the Secret Teachings of T’ai Kung with its primitive demands for complete revolution. Wei Liao-tzu’s eponymous work from the fourth century BC is striking though for its focus on two aspects of struggle in a time of crisis – the necessity of preserving and fortifying a nation’s chi or life force, and the need to win through finding, and then playing, on the doubts of your opponent.
“One whose strength is divided will be weak; one whose mind has doubts will be turned against,” the book states (in the translation, The Seven Military Classics of Ancient China by Ralph D Sawyer). Even if a plan has been decided on, even if there is clarity of purpose and favourable circumstances, “if the commander’s mind is already doubtful and troops inclined to rebellion” then success will be uncertain. The general is the mind of the army. Above all, they cannot ever demonstrate doubt. And the best way of achieving this is to have no doubt in themselves.
One of the remarkable aspects of China’s presence today is the way it has combined supreme confidence and under Xi, and exposed doubts in particular countries and communities newly exposed to it and engaging with it. In Australia, Europe and the United States, this plays alongside rising self-doubt about the values and systems that these countries have been operating for decades (even centuries). Their self-induced confusion contrasts with the image of coherent power that Xi’s leadership projects. China, many suspect, might not be quite as together and robust as it appears. But few cracks are appearing on the surface for now. Its politicians speak a uniform language. Its military seems mechanical in its loyalty. Businesspeople and academics, openly at least, mostly deliver the language of unified commitment. China is rising and soon will be risen. This is its right, a moment of justice and retribution. This is not about Communism or political values per se. It is a matter of a nation’s right.
Under Xi, as never before, China has proved good at reading the doubts of Western societies and politicians. After all, these are open societies where vulnerabilities, scepticism and questions are not buried away, but discussed and dealt with in the open. That is part of their values and identities. These polities believe that weaknesses, self-criticisms and challenges have to be faced and exposed to public scrutiny. But for a country enjoying, at least at the moment, an era of uniformity and highly focused strategic purposefulness, as China under Xi is, the openness and self-doubting nature of democratic societies is a vulnerability – a space to exploit and question. The Chinese delegation to Washington in May proved this – pitting experienced negotiators against novices, securing a reprieve for ZTE despite domestic American pressure and departing with ambiguous outcomes where China on the trade front lives to fight another day.
This is the essential clash, to which no one knows the final outcome: will the open societies which articulate their doubts prove resilient, or will the true resilience lie in the sort of strict, disciplined, enforced unity that we see embodied under Xi. The current doubts of the West are its weaknesses and China is showing that every day. But in the end, it will boil down to just how much the West is certain that doubts are a source of strength. That is the highly paradoxical situation the West finds itself in – an age in which conviction in the need to doubt and be critical and sceptical is being tested as never before. And where Western societies have to believe passionately doubt will make them not weaker, but stronger. ■
Kerry Brown is director of the Lau China Institute, King’s College, London