In a recent article titled “Tortoise v Hare,” The Economist reveals (perhaps unwittingly) the ambivalence that many in the West feel about China’s rise. In this version of the parable, China is the tortoise, moving slowly but surely to win the race to become the global power. The U.S. is cast as the hare, with the Trump administration hopping erratically from one position to the next. The article observes, quite unambiguously, that “Aesop knew how this contest is likely to end.” China wins.
How do we know China is edging ahead? The Economist engages in a semantic parsing of changes in Chinese sloganeering, which would do proud any Talmudic scholar. It finds that Chinese leaders went from saying China should “make a difference” under Deng Xiaoping to adding in 2010 that China should make a difference “actively” to, most recently, Xi Jinping’s speech at Davos this January which included the sentiment that China should “guide economic globalization.” If the reader was not yet thoroughly convinced of China’s global ambitions by this analysis, there’s more: In this year’s annual “work report,” Prime Minister Li Keqiang mentioned “global” or “globalization” 13 times, compared to only five times last year! We had all better brace ourselves for China’s global domination, at this rate.
Another indicator that China is outpacing the U.S., espied by The Economist, is China’s increasing desire to set an example for other countries, reflected in its promotion of the “China solution.” As the article observes, “No one has defined what the China solution is. But, whatever it means, there is one for everything.” In contrast to the “China model,” which had been meant to show the way to developing countries, the “China solution” is meant for everyone to embrace the Chinese way, including Western countries – at least according to the one consultant cited by The Economist.
When the article turns to what China actually does, the ways it conducts itself, a rather different picture emerges. The Economist finds that China is becoming a better global citizen. It notes that “China is becoming a more active participant in the UN, but it is not trying to dominate it.” China is the third largest donor to the UN, and the second largest contributor to UN peacekeeping missions. It has an above average compliance rate with G20 decisions, and helped make the fight against climate change a priority for the G20. And, as Trump seems leaning to renege on America’s climate commitments, China is prepared to go it alone or work with other nations.
The article concludes with a rather different image than that of China engaged in a race, seeking to move ahead of the U.S.: Rather than an aspiring hegemon, China instead finds itself having to pick up some of the slack in the global system left by a retreating U.S. One could add that one need not see all big power relations as a competition to see who is first, let alone as a zero sum game. There is plenty of work to be done, loads to carry, for the U.S., China, and a whole other bunch of tortoises, hares, and all other kinds of creatures.
Amitai Etzioni is a University Professor and Professor of International Affairs at The George Washington University. His latest book Avoiding War with China was recently published by The University of Virginia Press.