Deng Xiaoping, China’s leader in the 1980s, advised his country’s strategists to bide their time with regard to the country’s rise as an uncontested power in East Asia and then beyond. Today, however, several factors are compelling Chinese leaders to hurry.
The first is America’s new modus operandi in East Asia. The US has stopped trying to offer incentives to China to become a member of the existing US-designed and led global order. For many, this ambition was doomed from its beginning in the late 1990s, since any serious understanding of China’s interpretation of history leads to the conclusion that China, especially when on the threshold of becoming a superpower, will never accept a global system that does not accord it at least equal status to that of the US.
Today, the US is actively trying to encircle China through political and economic structures such as the Quad that also includes Japan, Australia, and India and military alliances such as the coming together of the US, UK, and Australia in the AUKUS group to block China’s expansion in the Pacific.
Along with this encirclement, the US has also adopted a more assertive posture in the region. It has made it clear that it is committed to stand by Japan in the face of any Chinese attempt to take control of islands claimed by both Japan and China. It has also indicated that it defines its “strategic ambiguity” regarding Taiwan to mean all sorts of support to Taiwan save direct confrontation with China.
Perhaps more concerning to China, the US is significantly enhancing its military capabilities in the area immediately bordering the so-called “nine-dash line” that China considers its sphere of influence in the East and South China Seas.
The US is also not alone. Almost all the Asian-Pacific countries have effectively sided with it in its efforts to stem China’s rise. The positions of Japan and India, two countries with centuries-long fraught relationships with China, were never in doubt, especially since each sees itself, with reason, as a regional power in its own right. South Korea’s position was also always certain, given the close military cooperation between the country and the US.
However, today there are indications that even Thailand and the Philippines are willing to align themselves with the US. Vietnam remains a unique case, keeping its distance from the US, yet clearly unwilling to accept China’s tian-xia, or order under Chinese hegemony.
The positions of these countries significantly complicate China’s ambition to achieve unrivalled influence in its immediate neighbourhood. This is important because this ambition is known not only internationally but also domestically. As a result, the more distant this objective looks, the less powerful the ruling Chinese Communist Party becomes at home, especially under Chinese President Xi Jinping, who is regarded as a generational leader expected to catapult China to a higher global status, rather than merely sustain economic growth and internal stability.
The Ukraine crisis has made geopolitics even more complicated for China. It now sees US assertiveness in supporting Ukraine as a potential scenario it could face if the US pivot to East Asia and its political and military presence in the Pacific reach the levels the US desires. For some Chinese strategists, this creates a window of opportunity for achieving dominance in the East and South China Seas that will close in the not too distant future.
China’s challenges also extend beyond geopolitics and its immediate neighbourhood. It has invested massively in Africa and in a series of infrastructure projects spanning Southern Europe, the Balkans, parts of the Middle East, and all the way to Central Asia. However, for a few years now shadows have been hanging over many of these projects.
In Africa, there is a perception that Chinese lending has had adverse economic consequences, and in China itself there has been the realisation that many of these projects will not only prove economically problematic, but that they will also fail to open up viable opportunities for Chinese companies. There is also increasing pressure in Europe and parts of the Middle East to lessen the Chinese reach. Together, these factors raise doubts about the future of the Belt and Road Initiative, China’s flagship economic programme which acts as the umbrella for most of these projects.
Economics aside, it is also intriguing that China’s colossal investments and major on-the-ground presence in different parts of the world do not seem to have even begun to build a distinctive Chinese narrative or developmental model that many in these different regions can find appealing. This low return in terms of soft power certainly resonates in decision-making circles in Beijing.
Even within China itself, the clock is ticking. Aside from noting the effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, most China observers today now say that the country is at the end of its period of impressive economic growth of seven or eight per cent per annum and that growth in the coming decade will be around half these numbers.
Even at three or four per cent, Chinese growth rates will likely exceed those of most Western countries. But the question is whether such a pace of growth will sustain domestic stability. It is important to note that although the Chinese Communist Party has created a highly controlled socio-political system in China, people’s aspirations for better standards of living have for decades been a bedrock of the system’s legitimacy and for popular buy-in. As standards of living plateau and aspirations dwindle, the party might face increasingly disgruntled feelings that could give rise to political activism against it.
The ageing of the population also complicates the internal situation. As US journalist Howard French emphasises in his book Everything Under the Heavens, in the near future China will have one of the lowest ratios of working to non-working people in the world. As a result, it faces “the paradox of growing old before growing rich.”
China has arguably the world’s longest and most patient perspective on history. But patience neither negates action nor prohibits risk-taking when a decision-maker decides the risk-reward metric is more favourable today than tomorrow. It is almost certain that because of the above-mentioned factors combined, there is a Chinese calculation that acting now to secure key objectives – particularly in the country’s immediate neighbourhood in the East and South China Seas – would have higher chances of success today than in the future. There is also the view that securing prized objectives that have wide appeal in Chinese society today could be of major value when socio-economic conditions become more challenging.
Many observers repeatedly fall for the fallacy of projecting the status quo into the future. Decision-makers, however, think differently, particularly those who see themselves as actors in their respective national histories. For such individuals, the future must be different from the present, and if it is not, they will consider themselves to have failed.
It is for this reason that their calculus is vastly different from that of others, and it is also for this reason that they often take decisions that others consider highly risky.