What kind of a power Is China? Especially under Xi, the so-called perpetual president after the constitutional change on March 11, this question becomes particularly important — even more so given China’s substantial rises in military expenditure over recent years, and the announcement last year at the 19th Party Congress that China now regards itself as offering a different kind of model of diplomatic and political behavior for others to follow. Everywhere we see signs of intent from China. It would be like burying our heads in the sand to ignore the country’s hunger for a more central role in global affairs and not to prepare a response.
Part of what is happening now derives naturally enough from the trajectory of any rising power – or a power that after years of investment and work is feeling like its time has come. It would be odd if China, as the world’s second largest economy, were not speaking in the ambitious ways it has adopted recently. History does not record many self-effacing super-economies. It certainly has no experience of powers who just sit on their hands and do nothing when granted massive opportunity because of the poor decisions of others.
A second characteristic of the current situation derives from confusion of the outside world. The political turmoil of the Trump administration in the United States; events in Europe like the almost impossibly perverse electoral outcome in Italy in early March where no one ended up winning; the festival of self-harm that is proving to be Brexit in the U.K.; a Middle East in perpetual turmoil; a Russia seemingly existentially predisposed to undertake mean, hoodlum acts like the attempted assassination of a former spy in the United Kingdom under the cloak of being a functioning major nation. Against this background, China looks like the final house on the hill, at least able to function with an outward appearance of coherence and purpose — unlike everywhere else.
The final ingredient in this current situation is unique to China: the culmination of a great movement of modern history, in which after humiliation (at least according to the current officially sponsored national story), pain, and self-sacrifice under the Communist Party, China is finally wealthy, united, and powerful. China can claim its moment where, on its own terms (as I argued in the March issue of The Diplomat Magazine), it has won the battle of modernity. That moment will occur under the Xi ascendancy, in 2021, the centenary of the Communist Party, and time to finally mark national resurrection.
There is always a punchline in the best stories. And the story of China’s rise is about to reach the moment when that punchline is given. So what will it be? A world where the People’s Republic simply replaces the United States as the main power; or where it sits beside Washington as part of a new bipolar order? The era in which Pax Americana is dramatically usurped by Pax Sinica? Remember, two decades ago, many thought China was 50 years or more away from even being close to this sort of aspiration. Today, we have whittled that down to a matter of years. We’d better try to work out the punchline before it’s delivered, because the story we’re hearing is one that, like it or not, now involves the world.
One thing seems clear enough: If we are expecting a China like the United States, we are likely to be in for a big shock. Sometimes people, even in diplomacy, mean what they say. And for all the obfuscation and dissembling, on some matters, China has repeated itself often enough, and in such different contexts, that it needs to be taken literally. From the early era of reform four decades ago, China made it clear it did not want to be a United States. It did not want to use the United States’ political model; it did not want to operate within the parameters of power that the United States offered a template for; it did not want to be a global policeman; and it did not want to zealously promote its values as intrinsically universal in the way Washington was often accused of. Multipolarity was the vision promoted in the 1990s and 2000s. Nowadays, it is more about China Dreams and Belt and Roads – models of power that are less prescriptive, less normative, more flexible than those offered by the United States.
Does China want to be a superpower, now that the opportunity is there? Yes, almost certainly. But not one following the U.S. model. In a word, China wishes to be a status superpower. It wants the respect and the space accorded to a superpower, but it doesn’t want the trappings and responsibilities that the United States in its pomp seemed to desire. China wants to be a house on the hill, which people appreciate and gaze at with admiration without wanting to move in, or trying to construct similar places nearby. Status is at the heart of what China under Xi is seeking.
There is historic form in this. Tributary relations in Chinese history, whatever the complexities of their different contexts, were often about neighbouring courts serving some sense of imperial Chinese importance, while carrying on largely independent and separate diplomatic and national policies. They were about flattering rhetoric, rather than real action-based alliances. In the 21st century, for all that Xi’s China says, it wants that sort of rhetoric back – acknowledgement of a China that is great and powerful, because people say it is great and powerful. Beijing’s hunt for status and validation is exemplified through its military – 70 percent new kit, all gleaming and state of the art in some cases, but none of it used in any meaningful combat situation since 1979. One sometimes wonders if China’s navy and army are there to be appurtenances of symbolic power, rather than ever get soiled in actual battle. That lack of a real desire to use them, surely, is a good thing.
For the world, therefore, that means complex issues around China’s rise become a bit simpler. In the end, how much status do we want to give China? How much more admiring rhetoric do we want to shower upon it; how much love are we willing to give it; and what price tag do we place on all of this? In the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s phrase of there being no such thing as limitless love or limitless hate was one of the most popular. Contemporary China might be about to prove its founder wrong and show us what love without limits might be like, and how much it costs to give it.