The Big Challenge China Poses
Covert magazine, November 1-15, 2008
The world today is at a defining moment in its history, underscored by the ongoing tectonic shifts in political and economic power and the multiple crises it confronts. For Chinese policymakers, the global imperative to revamp existing international institutions and rules offers a great opportunity for expanding China’s role and clout in world affairs. The Western calls for a “new Bretton Woods” are music to Chinese ears.
However, where China is already a privileged member of an international institution, like the United Nations Security Council, it is determined to employ its leverage to reinforce and preserve that prerogative by shutting out Asian peer rivals like India and Japan. It wishes to remain the only Asian country with a veto-empowering permanent seat in the Security Council. Security Council reforms thus have become linked to the issue whether Asia, in the years ahead, will be China-oriented or truly multipolar.
In that light, whether China is a status quo or revisionist power is merely an academic question which misses the point that, in reality, Beijing can be both, depending on the situation or the issue at stake. China clearly is a status quo power on Security Council reforms, but a revisionist power on establishing a “new Bretton Woods”. A power rising after a period of historical decline or subjugation will seek to revise the international and regional institutional structure to gain a greater say. Playing a cooperative, mainstream international role is sometimes misconstrued as status quo intent. The fact is that an active, mainstream role can only help facilitate the revision that a rising power may desire.
From the perspective of other Asian states, the key question relating to the future make-up of Asian security is whether China can continue to grow stronger in a linear fashion. There is clearly a contradiction in the two paths China has been pursuing for three decades: Political autocracy and market capitalism. In that sense, China is truly what it said it was when it absorbed Hong Kong: “One Country, Two Systems”. How long can these two systems co-exist in one country is an open question. If market capitalism has helped the People’s Republic to become the world’s back factory, political autocracy as embodied by the Communist Party is the bull in its own China shop, threatening to unleash a political cataclysm.
More broadly, China’s spectacular rise as a global power in just one generation under authoritarian rule represents the first direct challenge to liberal democracy since the rise of Nazi Germany in the 1930s. Through its success story, China advertises that authoritarianism is a more rapid and smoother way to prosperity and stability than the tumult of liberal democracy, with its baneful focus on electoral politics. The political logjam in Japan and India — Asia’s two most-established democracies — stands in stark contrast to China’s unencumbered ability to take quick decisions and think far ahead.
Yet, despite having managed to entrench itself for 59 long years, the Chinese communist system faces gnawing questions about its ability to survive by reconciling the country’s contradictory paths. The longest any autocratic system has survived in modern history was 74 years in the Soviet Union. Admittedly, China has come a long way since the Tiananmen Square massacre of pro-democracy activists nearly two decades ago. What it has achieved since then in terms of economic modernization and the opening of minds is truly extraordinary. If China manages to resolve the contradictions between its two systems — market capitalism and political monocracy — just the way Asian “tigers” like South Korea and Taiwan made the transition to democracy without crippling turbulence, China could emerge as a peer competitor to the United States by 2030. Thus, political modernization, not economic modernization, is the central challenge staring at China. If that country is to sustain a great-power capacity, it has to avoid a political hard landing.
Given China’s territorial size, population (a fifth of the human race) and economic dynamism, few can question or grudge its right to be a world power. In fact, such is its sense of where it wishes to go that China cannot be dissuaded from the notion that it is destined to be “a world power second to none”, to quote then President Jiang Zemin. Yet at the core of the challenge that an opaque, overly ambitious China poses to Asian strategic equilibrium is the need for other Asian states to engineer discreet limits that could forestall Chinese power from sliding into arrogance or strategic confrontation. China can be a positive influence in Asia and the wider world. But it can just as easily become the biggest geopolitical problem.
(c) Covert, 2008.