Why Xi Jinping's China is so belligerent

Beijing's challenge is now being acknowledged by the US much more openly than ever.

 |  5-minute read |   23-01-2018
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Chinese President Xi Jinping is visibly challenging the US strategically. He has no doubt calculated the likely US response and concluded that he can deal with it without being deflected from the ambitious course he has set for his country to be at the centre stage of international relations by 2049.

Centre stage

China is already at that position as a permanent member of the UN Security Council, a nuclear weapon state, an intimidating cyber power, the second largest economy in the world, the world’s largest exporter of goods, with over $3 trillion (Rs 19,17,000 crore) of foreign exchange reserves, not to mention its inroads into Central Asia, the Gulf, Africa, Australia and Latin America, and above all, the manner in which it is shaping international discourse through its hegemony-seeking Belt and Road Initiative. In all discussions today on international relations the focus is how China’s rise and conduct will affect a rules-based international order.

China’s 2049 timeline, therefore, masks a much larger ambition, that of displacing the United States as the world’s pre-eminent power. China has, in fact, the ambition to begin shaping the international order immediately. President Xi has repeatedly rejected Western-style democracy and Western notions of human rights and liberal economics.

Emboldened by the disarray in Europe that has engendered right-wing forces which are alienated from European values, and a politically-fractured America following Donald Trump’s election and his pursuit of self-centred policies such as "America First" which renounce the traditional US role of defending democracy and US values abroad, Xi has begun projecting the Chinese political and economic model as a more efficient alternative to the Western liberal model.

China is denigrated for its authoritarian system and the opaqueness of its system of governance. It would seem that Xi is no longer defensive about the Chinese political and economic system; he also feels that his country’s system offers a better model for the non-Western world. China no doubt understands that its highly centralised, dissent-intolerant, citizen-controlling, law deficit, hierarchical, political cult-oriented system has no appeal to the Western world.

It seems, however, that despite the Western rhetoric of democracy as a universal value and assumption that with globalisation, the influence of the social media, the greater say the citizens everywhere wish to have to run their lives and so on, democratic systems, in general, remain weak in the non-Western world. That elections are held in many of these countries help to conceal the non-democratic, tribal, military controlled, gender discriminatory and corrupt realities on the ground.

The Chinese model will have appeal for these countries. China’s unsavoury methods involve buying influence and bribing decision makers to win contracts, which is part of its “predatory economics”. Market principles do not guide its state-controlled strategy and it has no burden of accountability at home for how the communist party uses the country’s national resources.


Limits of power

China has seen the limits of US power in its own region and elsewhere. Despite US military alliances and bases in the western Pacific, the presence of its powerful Seventh Fleet in the region, China has asserted its 9-dash line claims in the South China Sea by carrying on land reclamation and militarising the artificial islands.

It has treated the judgment of the Permanent Court of Arbitration established under UNCLOS against its unlawful actions with contempt. Its diplomacy in dividing ASEAN has been more effective than any US attempt to hold it together.

Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte has shown that the US could be defied with little consequence. North Korea’s Kim Jong-un has treated Trump’s tweet bluster with rants of his own, and in the face of the dangerous complexities of the situation in the Korean peninsula, the US is compelled to seek China’s help in controlling the worst from happening. Even South Korea is defying the US calls to isolate and sanction the North Korean regime.

Defensive strategy

Despite Trump’s excoriation of Pakistan’s conduct of lies and deceit, Islamabad is defiant. Turkey is undeterred by US opposition to its military action against the Kurds in northern Syria. In Latin America too, the US is unable to impose its will. All this may explain why China is no longer coy about unveiling its hegemonic ambitions.

The China challenge is now being acknowledged by the US much more openly than ever. The Pentagon’s new National Defence Strategy unveiled a few days ago reflects this. The central challenge to US prosperity and security is the re-emergence of long-term strategic competition, primarily from China (and Russia), it says, and identifies inter-state strategic competition, not terrorism as the primary concern in US national security.

The US is concerned about the erosion of US military advantage vis-à-vis China and Russia, but states at the same time that the recently released defence strategy is not a strategy of confrontation; it simply realises the reality of great power competition and the importance of “good fences make good neighbours”. Strengthening allies and partners is part of the strategy, and that is where the Indo-Pacific concept and the role of India come in.

It would seem that the newly declared strategy is essentially defensive. It will seek to balance China, not confront it, which means that Beijing can play its long-term game to challenge Washington and make incremental progress towards that goal without risking a conflict.

(Courtesy of Mail Today)

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Kanwal Sibal Kanwal Sibal

Former Foreign Secretary

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