The 3 Known Unknowns of Xi Jinping’s China


One of the most famous comments from the Bush era, running from 2000 to 2008, came from then-Secretary of Defense Don Rumsfield who talked acerbically about “known knowns, known unknowns, and unknown unknowns.” His convoluted language was interpreted at the time as referring to the complete mess that was starting to unfold in the newly “liberated” Iraq. Even so, many realized that there was ironically a deep logic behind what he said: some things we know, and some we don’t. It is better at least to recognize the vast expanse of our ignorance than simply trying to go around ignoring it.

There are plenty of things we know about China under Xi Jinping – from the profuse economic data spewing out from its statistics agency, to the granular reports produced by journalists, analysts, and observers of the situation on the ground across the country. Then there are a massive number of very important things that we don’t know, and have no real way of easily finding out – how, for a very topical example at the moment, elite political leaders are actually going to be chosen at the imminent 19th Party Congress later this year

But on top of these issues, there are three very clear known unknowns about China – things where we have lots of evidence and analysis, and plenty of observations, but which we have no way of decisively resolving now. These known unknowns all relate to China’s relationship with the outside world.

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The first known unknown is what sort of sea power China will eventually become. As long term analysts of Chinese diplomacy and international affairs like Robert Ross of Boston College have pointed out, while China as a land power has been a factor in the world since at least the Qing Dynasty, with its expansionary movements into inner Asia in the mid-17th to the mid-18th century, China as a sea power has simply never been an issue until the recent era. Under Mao, China had no navy to speak of, nor any real sea capacity. Only under Admiral Liu Huaqing in the 1980s did the military start to devise a sea strategy for China. And only from the 1990s did they put serious resources into increasing their naval capacity. China now has one aircraft carrier, with another on the way. On paper at least it has as many vessels and submarines as the United States. But technologically, it remains many leagues away from matching America’s power. Even so, for the first time in modern history the outside world is having to work out what a China with a serious and growing sea power strategy entails. And it is doing so without any easy precedents.

The second known unknown relates to power more generally. The outside world, and in particular the United States and its dense network of allies, know well how to deal with a weak China. Since the first encounter with Western-originated industrialization and modernity from the Opium War of 1839, the default for China has been an economically, politically, and diplomatically asymmetrical relationship with the developed world. China has always been the underdog, either victimized as it was during World War II, or marginalized, as it was under Mao. Under Xi, however, we see for the first time this relationship reversing. The world is starting to have to deal with something totally new – a China that is strong, and that not only wants, but has the ability, to back its claims and aspirations up with real hard power. This too is creating demand for a whole new framework by which to deal with the country.

Finally, there is the even more complex issue of values. We know what a world run according to principles and values largely originating from either the United States or Europe looks like, because that has been the context everyone has lived in since the end of World War II. We know the kind of infrastructure of governance and rules that this involves. We know that for reasons of utility, because it suited China’s need for a predictable external environment while it concentrated on its domestic challenges under “reform and opening up” from 1978 onward, China has engaged with this system. It has benefited from it greatly, through things like the World Trade Organization, which it joined in 2001. We now see however two new phenomena. The old U.S.-led consensus is starting to show cracks and waver. Trump has brought new uncertainty. Europe and other powers have started to talk more about focusing on their own bilateral interests. In this space, China has appeared as a power that takes the lead on issues from combating climate change to forging new free trade deals.

Even so, if we were to ask the question, “What does a region or world run on Chinese values look like?” it would be hard to find a clear answer. China under Xi clearly opposes universalist Western discourse. It supports multipolarity, and it still sticks by non-interference in the affairs of others, at least rhetorically. Its critics have accused it of being a self-interested, rather than altruistic, actor. Can this complex set of qualities really offer an attractive alternative to the current situation not just for China but for others? Having never tried it, we simply don’t know.

The fact that the world doesn’t know the answer to these questions at the moment is, of course, unsettling. But there is one grain of comfort. The world might well be living behind a “veil of ignorance,” but it is in good company. China itself also doesn’t now know what it will look like as a sea power, as a strong power, or one which is able to promote its values externally. In this, we are all, inside and outside China, brought to the same level – as learners in an era of immense change. The best posture therefore is to simply prepare to learn together. Because this set of issues is not going to vanish.

Kerry Brown’s China’s World: What Does China Want will be published by I B Tauris on August 30, 2017.

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