Will the real China please stand up? In the US media, most stories about China raise questions that amount to threat-mongering. How can China’s “aggressiveness” in the South China Sea be stopped? Is China forming a new alliance with Putin’s Russia? Has China hacked its way into the most sensitive US industrial and military secrets? Is China on the verge of displacing the West from Africa and even Latin America? Are the Chinese about to become a military rival of the US in terms of naval and air power? At the same time, we now see pictures of an historic meeting of the Chinese and Taiwanese presidents in Singapore, and of a trilateral get-together among Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean finance ministers in Peru to consider a free-trade agreement. The images of China that emerge from these diverse stories are clearly quite opposite.
China without question has a powerful new-found presence in world affairs. It is now one of the world’s great trading nations, and it has become the top trade partner with countries such as South Korea and Japan whose trade once was dominated by the US. China provides loans and grants to numerous developing countries, where its currency is slowly becoming a rival to the US dollar. In fact, according to one recent report, “The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of China now provide more loans to the [Asia-Pacific] region than the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank combined.” But the Chinese leadership’s most important accomplishments may be in China. It has become the world’s foremost example of poverty reduction. It is a leader in solar and hydro energy technology. President Xi Jinping has taken aim at official corruption in the party and army, though not in his own family and inner circle.
Abroad, besides the diplomatic initiatives with Taiwan and Japan mentioned above, China has become the most active major power in Africa, dispensing loans and making investments that have contributed to public health, local employment in manufacturing, and transportation. The Chinese military is becoming an important part of UN peacekeeping operations, for the first time including those that involve combat. China’s voice at international conferences on climate change is influential, and its agreement with the Obama administration on reducing carbon emissions will be noteworthy if both sides follow through. And its influence in North Korea may be critical to any prospect of reaching a new agreement with Kim Jong-un on nuclear weapons.
Nevertheless, as I’ve written in Will This Be China’s Century? China’s growing international impact is not (yet) equivalent to leadership. On some of the major international issues, such as the Middle East conflicts, the refugee crisis, military spending, human rights (religious, ethnic, political), development assistance that promotes human security and civil society, and Iran’s nuclear program, China follows the lead of others and has little to say, much less proposing pathbreaking ideas and practices. The so-called China Model may be attractive to some developing-country leaders because aid is not conditioned on the austerity or structural adjustment demands of the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. But the essence of the model is support of the strong state, that is, centralized authority, and the quid pro quo of China’s aid and investment often is free rein for Chinese companies to extract valuable resources, notably minerals, food, and tropical forests. Little wonder that nongovernmental organizations, such as unions, environmental groups, and small business, are among the strongest critics of Chinese development assistance in (for example) Brazil, Peru, Sri Lanka, Niger, and Kazakhstan. We hear the charge of Chinese “neocolonialism” with increasing frequency.
In some cases, China is a free-rider, dependent on others yet not paying for the service—for example, its mining operations in Afghanistan that rely on the US military for protection, and its oil imports from the Middle East that are secured by the US Navy. China is clearly bent on having a modern military establishment, a blue-water navy in particular, that can protect vital nearby interests. But it still lags well behind the US in all military capabilities and seems mainly intent on having a reliable deterrent to the US in East Asia. Unlike the US, which has a worldwide network of security alliances and basing arrangements, China has no formal allies— its seemingly tight relationship with Putin’s Russia hardly qualifies as a reliable security partnership. But Beijing does have deeply troubled relations with several neighbors, including India, Japan, Philippines, Vietnam, and Myanmar.
The real China lies within—the one that, like any other large and dynamic country, has a wealth of problems as well as problems of wealth. An insecure leadership worries about challenges to its authority, hence is busy arresting lawyers, journalists, and activists while concentrating power around Xi Jinping. Environmental protection is weak: water quality is declining, forests are being destroyed, deserts are expanding, fires and floods are increasing, and threats to public health are multiplying, casting doubt on the much-touted GNP figures. Economic growth claims are further questionable because of weaknesses in the banking sector, state enterprises, and stock markets. The rich-poor gap and protests by workers and ethnic minorities reveal the limits of growth to quell popular dissatisfactions. Employment is a major challenge because of limited opportunities for university graduates and mounting numbers of rural migrants. China has just abandoned its one-child policy in urban areas, but that may be too little, too late to affect its ability to cope with a rapidly aging society and demands for skilled labor in coastal industries.
If we try to put all this together, what kind of China emerges? For one, it is a country whose leaders must, by force of both history and current circumstance, pay foremost attention to domestic problems. If those problems are reasonably well addressed, leaders will have the resources and time to devote to international matters. But if they are not solved, or handled with a strong emphasis on police power, as now seems most likely, China’s leaders will continue to be preoccupied with social unrest and challenges to the party-state’s legitimacy.
Second, China’s rise has not occasioned a new grand strategy or even a clear direction. What may appear to be aggressive Chinese moves abroad may have a less ominous context, including defensive reactions to others. For example, in the South China Sea, China’s land reclamation and port and airport construction in islands under its control, and its refusal to submit the territorial dispute to international arbitration, deserve criticism. But the US has helped raise the level of tension in those waters by announcing a “pivot” of US military power to Asia in 2011, conducting military surveillance flights and cruises close to Chinese territory, gaining military access points in the Philippines and Vietnam, sending ships on “show the flag” missions on the pretext of upholding freedom of the seas, and failing after all these years to sign and ratify the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea. So there is plenty of blame to go around, on that issue as on others.
The world today is extraordinarily insecure, and appears to me to be on the precipice of enormous upheaval. US-Russia relations have all the look of another Cold War. The refugee crisis in Europe has created the basis for a deadly right-wing reaction (Germany 1933, a European said the other day) as well as an uncontrollable humanitarian situation. The US has military forces in three Middle East countries on missions impossible. And we may already be beyond the tipping point in global warming. The last thing Americans, Chinese, and everyone else needs is blindness to the necessity (and opportunities) for cooperative engagement, and instead the tendency to see every move by the other as threatening.
When China’s President Xi Jinping asks for a “new type of great-power relationship” with the US, he wants recognition from Washington of China’s equal status, in keeping with his emphasis on strengthening the nation, overcoming past humiliations, and thus fulfilling the “China dream.” His historic meeting in Singapore with Taiwan’s president on November 6 may be interpreted not simply as a clever way to influence Taiwan’s upcoming elections or as a component of smile diplomacy, but as a message to the US and others that China can take care of its “core interests” peacefully and without foreign interference. The South China Sea dispute would fit that frame of reference. The current and future US president should evaluate Chinese actions with Xi Jinping’s notion in mind, even as it reserves the right to criticize. US-China differences will persist for some time, but they need not become the basis for dangerous miscalculations.