Some might call this the age of anxiety or confusion, but more often than not, the main characteristic of the current situation is the illusory quality of so many things. Conflicts that occur not in the real world, but the virtual one. Leaders whose words, like those of U.s. President Donald Trump, seem to stray far from any empirical world where they can be proven right or wrong. Problems like climate change or economic transition that are so large and abstract they are hard to relate to daily life – except, of course, when natural or economic disasters strike, when things suddenly become all too real again.
In an age of illusion, China is among the chief sources of spectacle. What exactly does its power, and the power of its main leader Xi Jinping, consist of? What is real about what China’s leaders are doing, beyond the clear impact it has on the thinking, and the fears, of a lot of the outside world? The recent case of the claimed construction of a Chinese military asset on Vanuatu in the Pacific is a good example. Nothing has happened, nothing has been said; there are simply a few clues (the construction of port infrastructure with Chinese money ) and supposition added on top of that. But this has been enough to whip up a storm of uneasy commentary and political opposition in Australia, the closest major country to the island nation. If we are talking of psychological wars, China seems to be winning without doing much, in the real world at least.
There are three principle features that illustrate the nature of China’s often shadowy power now, and the way these weigh on the minds of the outside world. Understanding them allows for a better understanding of China’s influence and its likely future trajectory.
First, for all the self-lacerating criticism of Europeans and Americans over their ineffective and dysfunctional political systems, and the loud declarations about the gulf dividing the belief systems of ruling elites and those they lead, no one seriously claims in modern China that the ideology of the Communist Party – Marxism-Leninism – is really believed in by anyone beyond the confines of the inner elite in Zhongnanhai. China is at best a marketplace of belief systems now, with Buddhists and Christians, Daoists and Confucianists all vying with each other. There is a good dose of nihilism and complete lack of belief too, along with healthy (or unhealthy, depending on how one looks at it) dashes of nationalism.
In Europe or the United States, critics might say that elites have standards and ideas that are unrepresentative, biased, or simply out of touch, in places. Nowhere do we see as complete a disconnect between the belief systems of the leaders and those they lead as exists in contemporary China. Politicians in the West at least have to try to sound like people living in the real world. In China, leaders sound like they are from someplace else, despite all the efforts under Xi to make their language more appealing and friendly. Just tell the average Chinese person they are building the “primary stage of socialism to construct a middle income country in an all around way” and see the response you get!
Second, for all the excitement and speculation about China’s military prowess and newfound hard power, we have to remember this: it might have the world’s second best funded army, and one of the largest in terms of assets and personnel, but this is a force that has not seen a single day’s proper combat since 1979 (when it fought, highly unsuccessfully, with Vietnam). It has not had a successful war since 1962 (against India) and no large scale war, happily, since Korea in 1950-1953. Stunning as it is to consider this, the U.K. and French militaries, with a weekend’s work in Syria striking alleged chemical plants, have more international combat experience in the last month than China in almost four decades.
With this record, it is incredible that China has managed to create such a formidable amount of fear and worry among so many. At the moment, at least, its military ability is abstract, unproven, and largely the subject of speculation. We have more to fear from its inexperience and misuse of equipment it does not know how to deploy properly than from its immense strategic prowess and ability at war. No one, least of all China itself, has the faintest idea how it would do if confronted with a real-life combat situation beyond its borders.
And finally there is the greatest illusion of all, the amorphous, grand, abstract idea of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) – an idea with no common grounds for dispute resolution, no normative power, no common values beyond pragmatic engagement focused on China, and no cultural, security, or political commonality. Even a collection as confusing as that of the Commonwealth can appeal to one point of unity at least – all were at times in their history colonized or under British rule. The BRI could be anything, but might well be nothing. It is without boundaries, structure, or unifying content. This might be its great strength, but if so that is a spectral strength, not a real one.
If we ignore the words said by China and focus on the actions that the country actually undertakes, in the real world, then there are some conclusions one can draw from the three “great shadows” above. First, for all the claims made about China and its new prowess and power, even under Xi it is a very cautious actor. It has not deployed massively larger amounts of investment, nor looked even remotely like it was going to start to try to deploy its troops abroad. All this might change tomorrow, of course. But as of today, if China is an emerging super power, it is still a very cautious one. It is also hesitant, continuing to act in concert with others, like Russia, over issues in the Middle East, or even issues as close to home as North Korea (see China’s strong preference for the Six Party Talks). And while Xi may talk of a more proactive stance on foreign policy issues, the underlying actions still betray the same traits – caution, hesitancy, and a desire to work in consort with others, except on issues like Taiwan or the South and East China Sea, which are seen as belonging more to the country’s domestic space.
This is a different set of qualities than the ones usually attributed to China – but in this shadowy, illusory world, they still seem to be enough to have inspired an at times frenetic and panicky response from the world around it.