A long essay in the Economist discusses what China wants. It opens “Matthew Boulton, James Watt’s partner in the development of the steam engine and one of the 18th century’s greatest industrialists, was in no doubt about the importance of Britain’s first embassy to the court of the Chinese emperor. ‘I conceive’, he wrote to James Cobb, secretary of the East India Company, ‘the present occasion to be the most favourable that ever occurred for the introduction of our manufactures into the most extensive market in the world.’ In light of this great opportunity, he argued, George Macartney’s 1793 mission to Beijing should take a ‘very extensive selection of specimens of all the articles we make both for ornament and use.’ By displaying such a selection to the emperor, court and people, Macartney’s embassy would learn what the Chinese wanted. Boulton’s Birmingham factories, along with those of his friends in other industries, would then set about producing those desiderata in unheard-of bulk, to everybody’s benefit. That is not how things turned out. The emperor accepted Macartney’s gifts, and quite liked some of them—a model of the Royal Sovereign, a first-rate man o’ war, seemed particularly to catch his fancy—but understood the whole transaction as one of tribute, not trade. The court saw a visit from the representatives of King George as something similar in kind to the opportunities the emperor’s Ministry of Rituals provided for envoys from Korea and Vietnam to express their respect and devotion to the Ruler of All Under Heaven. (Dealings with the less sophisticated foreigners from inner Asia were the responsibility of the Office of Barbarian Affairs.) ‘We have never valued ingenious articles, nor do we have the slightest need of your country’s manufactures’ The emperor was thus having none of Macartney’s scandalous suggestion that the Son of Heaven and King George should be perceived as equals. He professed himself happy that Britain’s tribute, though admittedly commonplace, should have come from supplicants so far away. But he did not see it as the beginning of a new trading relationship”.
The writer goes on to mention “In retrospect, a more active interest in extramural matters might have been advisable. China was unaware that an economic, technological and cultural revolution was taking place in Europe and being felt throughout the rest of the world. The subsequent rise of colonialist capitalism would prove the greatest challenge it would ever face. The Chinese empire Macartney visited had been (a few periods of collapse and invasion notwithstanding) the planet’s most populous political entity and richest economy for most of two millennia. In the following two centuries all of that would be reversed. China would be semi-colonised, humiliated, pauperised and torn by civil war and revolution”.
He goes onto write “Now, though, the country has become what Macartney was looking for: a relatively open market that very much wants to trade. To appropriate Boulton, the past two decades have seen the most favourable conditions that have ever occurred for the introduction of China’s manufactures into the most extensive markets in the world. That has brought China remarkable prosperity. In terms of purchasing power it is poised to retake its place as the biggest economy in the world. Still home to hundreds of millions mired in poverty, it is also a 21st-century nation of Norman Foster airports and shining solar farms. It has rolled a rover across the face of the moon, and it hopes to send people to follow it. And now it is a nation that wants some things very much. In general, it knows what these things are. At home its people want continued growth, its leaders the stability that growth can buy. On the international stage people and Communist Party want a new deference and the influence that befits their nation’s stature. Thus China wants the current dispensation to stay the same—it wants the conditions that have helped it grow to endure—but at the same time it wants it turned into something else”.
While this is broadly true it is also something of a misnomer. China is not as open and free as the writer seems to think. The evidence is that China has not obeyed vast swathes of the WTO regulations. Not only that but the Chinese government still holds huge sections of the Chinese economy which allow the highest officials to become vastly wealthy. The problem with this is course is twofold, firstly these companies cannot compete globally and secondly, they cannot be reformed as it would make hundreds of thousands redundant which would gravely threaten the power of the CCP and the stability of the regime itself.
Worryingly he goes on to write that “The post-perestroika collapse of the Soviet Union taught China’s leaders not just the dangers of political reform but also a profound distrust of America: would it undermine them next? Xi Jinping, the president, has since been spooked by the chaos unleashed in the Arab spring. It seems he wants to try to cleanse the party from within so it can continue to rule while refusing any notions of political plurality or an independent judiciary. That consolidation is influencing China’s foreign policy. China is building airstrips on disputed islands in the South China Sea, moving oil rigs into disputed waters and redefining its airspace without any clear programme for turning such assertion into the acknowledged status it sees as its due. This troubles its neighbours, and it troubles America. Put together China’s desire to re-establish itself (without being fully clear about what that might entail) and America’s determination not to let that desire disrupt its interests and those of its allies (without being clear about how to respond) and you have the sort of ill-defined rivalry that can be very dangerous indeed”.
This has been commented on with many hoping that China will have greater dilaouge with the United States and the rest of Asia but as has been noted before, this is optimistic based on past performance.
He importantly writes that “The structural reasons for China’s subsequent decline and the empire’s demise have been much discussed. Some point to what Mark Elvin, a historian, calls ‘the high-level equilibrium trap’; the country ran well enough, with cheap labour and efficient administration, that supply and demand could be easily matched in a way that left no incentive to invest in technological improvement. Others note that Europe benefited from competition and trade between states, which drove its capacity for weaponry and its appetites for new markets. As Kenneth Pomeranz, an American historian, has argued, access to cheap commodities from the Americas was a factor in driving industrialisation in Britain and Europe that China did not enjoy. So was the good luck of having coal deposits close to Europe’s centres of industry; China’s coal and its factories were separated by thousands of kilometres, a problem that remains trying today. For some or all of these reasons, and probably others too, China did not industrialise in the way that the West did. Europe had learned of gunpowder from China in the Middle Ages, but by the 19th century Europeans were far better at using it to get their way”.
Crucially he argues “Much of what has taken place since—republican revolution in 1911, the rise and victory of Maoism in 1949 and now ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’—has been a reaction to the loss of wealth, power and status, and a desire to regain the respect China’s leaders and people feel to be their country’s due. The reformers and revolutionaries of the late 19th century came to believe that traditional Chinese culture was part of the problem. In an attempt not to be carved up by the colonial powers, they began to ditch much of China’s cultural heritage; to save themselves as a nation, many believed they had to destroy themselves as a culture. In 1905 the Confucian examination system that had been the focus of governmental training for two millennia was abandoned. The last emperor and the entire imperial system were overthrown in 1911. With no modern institutions to support it, the new republic soon collapsed into chaos. After Mao reunited China in 1949, the Communists stepped up the assault on Chinese culture yet further. China’s institutions, and the mindsets they created and embodied, were replaced wholesale by ideas from elsewhere. This was the equivalent of Europeans throwing out any vestiges of Roman law, Greek philosophy or Christian belief. Under Mao, Confucius became the enemy. And yet the sense of China as a great civilisation persisted, and persists to this day—leaving the country with a deep identity crisis that it is still struggling to resolve”.
He argues that “China is not bent on global domination. It has little interest in polities beyond Asia, except in as much as they provide it with raw material and markets. Talk of China’s ‘neo-colonialism’ in Africa, for instance, is much exaggerated. The country’s stock of direct investment there still lags far behind Britain’s and France’s and amounts to only a third of America’s. Though China’s influence is undoubtedly growing, its engagement is not imperial but transactional, says Deborah Brautigam, of Johns Hopkins University. When a Japanese company bought the Rockefeller Centre in the 1980s, ‘Americans thought they were buying all of Manhattan,’ says Ms Brautigam. ‘The same is true of China in Africa. It’s all about perception.’ In a forthcoming book, she investigates 20 media reports of land acquisitions by Chinese firms in Africa, claimed to total 5.5m hectares. She found the real figure to be just 63,400 hectares. Chinese foremen have abused African workers, Chinese companies have run illegal mines and annoyingly undercut local traders with cheap Chinese goods. But these are the problems of bad business, not of grand strategy”.
The author should know however that the two are closely interlinked and it would be naive to think that China’s plans for Africa will remain static but will in all probability grow significanctly as time goes on.
He does make the point that “China is ‘neither a missionary culture nor a values superpower,’ says Kerry Brown of the University of Sydney. ‘It is not trying to make other people into China.’ The rhetoric of American foreign policy—and frequently its content, too—is shaped by claims to be the champion of democracy and liberty. The Communist Party is less committed to universal values. Alliances often grow out of shared values; if you don’t have them, friends are harder to find. Awe can be a respectable alternative to friendship, and China has begun to awe the world—but also to worry it”.
Yet with Chinese belief in American “decline” rife they could and indeed are acting out at least regionally in ways that are unsettleing and should be stopped. China may not be a missionary power but it is only interested in itself, as every state is, but it will go to extreme lengths and upset the trend for greater democracy and and greater free trade both of which China is either against or has lukewarm support for.
Interestingly he does note “there is a tension in Chinese foreign policy. The country wants to have as little involvement abroad as it can get away with, except for engagements that enhance its image as a great power. It will act abroad when its own interests are at stake, but not for the greater or general good. Its navy has started to take part in anti-piracy operations off the Horn of Africa and in UN peacekeeping in Africa. In 2011 it sent a ship to co-ordinate the evacuation of 36,000 Chinese workers from Libya. More such actions may follow as its companies get more deeply involved in the world, but only if they are seen as either low-cost or absolutely necessary. Acute awareness of its domestic weaknesses acts as a restraint, as does the damage China sees done by the militarisation of America’s foreign policy in recent years. In a wide range of fields, what China is against is a lot clearer than what it is for. It vetoed the interventions Western powers sought in Syria and Darfur and has taken no position on the Russian annexation of Crimea (despite having a dim view of any sort of centrifugalism at home). At the 2009 climate summit in Copenhagen China made sure no deal emerged that would even suggest it might have to slow its industrial growth. There and elsewhere it showed itself ready to block but not ready to build. As a former senior official in the Bush administration says of Chinese engagement at the G20, ‘They love to show up, but we’re still waiting for their first idea.’ The former official argues that the world needs more Chinese engagement and initiative, not less. Chinese leaders dislike the existing system of alliances, he says, but offer no alternative system of collective security”.
He adds “A lack of engagement is not unusual in a rising power. It took a world war to draw America irrevocably onto the world stage. And the absence of an articulated agenda does not stop China wanting more standing. Despite being one of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council—a position it achieved as one of the victorious powers in the second world war—it is frustrated by what it sees as its lack of influence in international organisations and is leading the other large developing nations in pushing for a better deal”.
He adds later “China’s armed forces are, if not technologically first-rate, certainly large and impressive, not least because they include a nuclear-missile force. But some of Mr Yang’s small countries have a big friend. With troops and bases in Japan and South Korea, America has been the dominant power of the western Pacific for 70 years. Its regional presence has not declined much since it won the cold war a quarter of a century ago. On a trip to Asia in 2011 Barack Obama announced a “pivot” of his country’s policy away from the Middle East and towards Asia. China’s leaders are convinced that America is determined to prevent their country from increasing its strategic and military influence in Asia—that it is trying to contain China as it once sought to contain and eventually crush the Soviet Union. The irony is that China is the only country that really believes the pivot is happening. South-East Asian nations express a fair amount of scepticism at the idea that America’s attention has been newly fixed on their region, and his opponents in America claim Mr Obama has done far too little to follow through on what he said in 2011. That said, the recent Shangri-La Dialogue did nothing to dispel China’s fears. Japan’s prime minister, Shinzo Abe, offered to assist China’s neighbours with military hardware, and has been pushing, within the constraints of Japan’s pacifist post-war constitution, for a more robust defence policy in the region”.
He goes on to mention When Mr Xi said, at his 2013 California summit with Mr Obama, that ‘the vast Pacific has enough space for two large countries like the United States and China,’ it was an expression not so much of the possibility of peaceful coexistence that must surely come from being separated by 10,000km of water, as of the idea that the western Pacific was a legitimate Chinese sphere of influence. And if Mr Xi’s words, repeated to America’s secretary of state, John Kerry, in Beijing in July, seemed to imply a symmetry between the countries, China knows that, in fact, it enjoys various asymmetric advantages. For one, it is a unitary actor. It can drive wedges between America and its allies in the region. Hugh White, an Australian academic, argued in a recent article that, by threatening other Asian countries with force, ‘China confronts America with the choice between deserting its friends and fighting China.’ China’s armed forces are much less proficient than America’s. But China enjoys the advantage of playing at home. America can dominate these seas only through naval and air operations. If Chinese anti-ship missiles present a serious threat to such operations they can greatly reduce America’s ability to project power, without putting China to the expense of developing a navy of its own remotely so capable”.
Worryingly he makes the point “China also thinks there is an asymmetry of will. It sees a war-weary America as unlikely to spend blood and treasure defending uninhabited rocks of no direct strategic importance. America may speak loudly, but its big stick will remain unwielded. China’s people, on the other hand, their views shaped not just by propaganda but also by a nationalism that needs scant encouragement, look on the projection of power in the China seas very favourably. And its military-industrial complex yearns to be paid to build bigger, better sticks of its own. Even if party leaders wanted to succeed in their stated desire for a peaceful rise and to remain within international law, the way they have shaped the spirit of their country would not necessarily let them”.
He ends “China is no longer the “crazy, first-rate man o’ war” described by Macartney in 1793. In spite of its many problems, it is a sleeker, more modern ship. Over 200 years, through much pain and suffering, it has transformed the very core of its identity, changing itself from an inward- and backward-looking power to an outward- and forward-looking one. Since 1978, it has shown both flexibility and unwielding resolve in its continued pursuit of wealth and power. Now those goals are within reach and China stands on the verge of greatness. The next few decades may prove to be the most difficult of all”.