Everywhere you go, whether in developed or developing countries around the world, it is impossible to ignore the impacts of China’s rise. Almost reflexively, parallels are drawn between the Cold War and the new bipolar world order. However, lessons learned from the Cold War cannot be directly applied to this new Sino-American bipolarity. Parallels between the Great Firewall and the Iron Curtain are superficial at best – China is not the isolationist, economically unstable challenger that Soviet Russia was. It is in contrast an integral part of the international economy and is as dependent on US-China trade as its counterpart. However, as China becomes increasingly powerful and we move towards a new kind of bipolarity, the burning question is: what does China want?
“The empire, long divided, must unite”
In the introduction of Superpower Interrupted, Michael Schuman answers the question simply: “China wants what it always had.”
The relevance of looking back to history older than the twentieth, or perhaps the nineteenth century isn’t always obvious. However, in comparison to China’s history which spans millennia, the last two hundred-or-so years of rapid technological development and Western influence is an inconvenient blip in the narrative. Up until the industrial revolution and rapid expansion of the British Empire, China was a bonafide superpower. Not only was China an early experimenter with philosophy, literature and technology, it was also an economic and military powerhouse. Admittedly, no history, especially one as long as China’s, is flawless. As Schuman remarks, although Chinese civilisation sometimes fractured, it was always knit back together following such rifts. This undulating history of its empire may help explain the centrality of the “One China” policy for the CCP.
In an ironic twist of fate, the “One China” policy was developed when the US accepted China as a legitimate state following the Cold War. It is also a key sticking point for the ongoing disputes over Taiwan’s independent status, and why recognising Taiwan as separate to China would be an audacious foreign policy move in 2021.
The “One China” policy is a modern mechanism for restoring China’s historic empire. These ambitions include not only Taiwan, but also Hong Kong, Xinjiang Uighur Autonomous Region, Tibet, and the South China Sea (SCS). China has also claimed territory in Myanmar, North Korea, Pakistan, Russia, and most recently India. All of these regions hold both strategic and historical relevance. China expert Michael Pillsbury notes that the CCP intends to have fully integrated Hong Kong and Taiwan into CCP-administered China by 2049 – one hundred years after the end of the Chinese civil war.
Integration with the People’s Republic of China is deeply unpopular in Taiwan, with 83 percent of the population identifying as “Taiwanese”, not “Chinese”. Nevertheless, the CCP has taken a multi-pronged approach in its unification efforts. This includes deploying ships and aircraft in the Taiwan Strait in order to intimidate Taipei, as well as using public opinion, tourism, economic interdependence, and legal measures as an attempt to bind Taiwan to mainland China. A military offensive would be the CCP’s last resort, and policymakers in Beijing are acutely aware that an invasion could very well trigger a US response. Taiwan is becoming a symbolic territory in the shifting status quo. A hot war between the US and China is an eventuality no one wishes for, thus Taiwan’s bid for independence, especially after the suppression of the pro-democracy movement in Hong Kong, has the potential for being something of a Cuban Missile Crisis.
Xi Jinping’s leadership of the CCP has been heralded as increasingly assertive by alarmed analysts and policymakers for years. Despite all of the concerned commentary, no significant international action has been taken to intervene in the reeducation of Uighurs in the decreasingly autonomous Xinjiang province. The new security law introduced in Hong Kong and human rights transgressions in Xinjiang over the past couple of years have shown the CCP as intolerant of ethnic, religious, cultural diversity within China. It has also made clear that criticism of the CCP or their goals of reunification and regional hegemony are not to be borne.
The recent influx in efforts to reaffirm Chinese borders and present a unified front to the international order comes at a key time; July 1, 2021 is the centenary of the CCP.
“Grounded in history, but orienting to the future”
China’s foreign policy is justified on historical grounds. The Silk Road, originating in China at the end of the third century BCE, stretched from China across the Eurasian continent to modern-day Baghdad, before extending further to Rome and Western Europe. These international trade routes were the origin of globalisation and interdependence in Eurasia. Today, the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) connects trade routes across Eurasia, which seeks to promote development in China’s neighbourhood and address regional disparity.
The Asia-Pacific region has been underwritten by a continuous US presence since World War II, but many Central Asian states have lacked support and faced developmental challenges. It is in China’s best interests to maintain a stable, developing and resilient regional neighbourhood, and it has the capital and excess capacity to fund this development. Furthermore, China is competing with Western states for technological and engineering patron-status in many Central Asian countries.
Not only is this evident in its trade corridor in Pakistan, which encircles India (longtime rival of Pakistan and regional competitor for China), but Beijing has also expanded its ambitions of economic influence beyond its neighbourhood. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), established in Beijing and complementary to the BRI, has forty-five regional members, thirty-eight non-regional members, and twenty prospective members. Even noted critics of the BRI, including India and France, are members of the AIIB.
The BRI and the global pervasiveness of the AIIB increases China’s regional economic influence, where the US has long been an extra-regional hegemon. The international scope of both the AIIB and BRI is broad but does not extend to the Western Hemisphere, where China has limited historical ties. Much of China’s ambitions stem from the fact it is tired of being subordinate in its own region, and wishes to resume superpower status without contestation.
The “Asian Century”
Where do the fears of Chinese “world domination” stem from? Narratives of the Cold War still linger in our modern consciousness, and the Red Scare bubbles below the surface for many democratic states to this day. Much of Chinese wolf-warrior diplomacy, wherein they take a more forceful approach to foreign policy against perceived competitors, is less about gaining international approval than it is about asserting dominance and consolidating the CCP’s popularity domestically and in diaspora communities. Domestic surveillance measures and the notorious “Great Firewall of China” are further measures to ensure domestic support for the CCP and their vision of China’s future.
China wishes to resume its role as an international superpower, which would create a bipolar world and perpetuate conflicts of interest which have manifested in trade embargoes and naval posturing in the South China Sea and Indian Ocean. As I have argued elsewhere, China’s ambitions, whether they be geopolitical, strategic, or economic, are incompatible with the prevailing rule-based, US-led world order. There would perhaps be fewer concerns about China’s increasing influence and the eventuality of standing on equal footing with the US if China was a democracy. However, China makes no pretense of democracy, flouts international rules and fora, and does not wish to have Western liberalism imposed upon it any longer. As we all know, the spread of liberal democracy did not mark the end of history, and the world order is shifting yet again.
Fears of Chinese ambitions for “world domination” stem from recent memories of US unipolar hegemony. In recent decades, the US has been the undisputed heavyweight champion of international affairs, and the influence of its foreign policy and the world order it promotes has touched every corner of the globe. But unipolarity is not the world’s default setting. Civilisations, superpowers and regime types have coexisted before. China wishes to reassert its regional dominance across Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific, and contend with the US on the international stage. Trade wars are the new Cold War; the only likely cause for a hot war would be over flashpoints such as Taiwan and the SCS. A hot war between two nuclear-armed superpowers would have disastrous global consequences.
Both Taiwan and the SCS are ideological battlefields as much as they are geopolitical – both are fragile footholds of liberal democracy and multilateralism in Asia. Allowing China to have its way with both areas would be to give up ground held by the US-led liberal world order in Eurasia and the Asia-Pacific. This could contribute to weakening global liberalism, and it will be an uphill battle for the US and its allies to fight. It is easy to understand what China wants: what it perceives as its rightful place in international affairs. The more difficult questions are what Western liberal democracies, led by the US and its allies, are prepared to do about it.