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China may regret Xi abandoning its traditional policy

One of China's two aircraft carriers, the Liaoning (right of picture) in Hong Kong waters. Picture: ANTHONY WALLACE/AFP via Getty Images - Credit: AFP via Getty Images

PAUL KNOTT on the Chinese leader’s reckless overreach.

For several decades, China’s rise to global power followed wily former premier Deng Xiaoping’s maxim to ‘secure our position but keep a low profile and bide our time’. But that was Deng and this is now. The current Chinese leader, Xi Jinping’s more belligerent approach is provoking opposition from countries all around the world. China may come to regret changing its subtly successful formula and alienating so many potential partners.

China is the world’s most populous country. Deng understood that its return from impoverished obscurity to global power status would cause anxiety amongst other nations – and spark resistance if it threw its considerable weight around too aggressively.

He and his successors did not shy away from asserting what they saw as essential Chinese interests. But, for the most part, they recognised that China was best served by focusing on building its own economic and military strength. Policing the world should be left to others whilst China steadily put itself in a position to exert greater influence over global affairs.

Following such a strategy was possible because, unlike most rising powers throughout history, China did not want to overturn the existing world order. Its prosperity depended upon maintaining the globalised trading system and the security needed to support it. Rather than revolution, China sought steadily to acquire a greater say in the way the system was run.

And this plan was working. China is a much greater presence in the world than it was before Deng’s time in office in the 1980s. It is on track to overtake the USA as the world’s largest economy during the next decade. China is comfortably the world’s second biggest spender on its military, behind the US, and is rapidly increasing the capabilities of its forces. It has also discreetly expanded its influence by steering many of its officials into senior roles in international organisations such as the United Nations.

Xi, though, seems to have decided that China’s power has reached the point where restraint is no longer necessary.

Just in recent months, his regime has revoked Hong Kong’s ‘one country, two systems’ special status by enacting a new Security Law that ends the freedoms enshrined in the treaty governing the territory’s handover to China from Britain. It has provoked a military skirmish with India across their disputed border by encroaching into the mountainous region of Ladakh. And as part of a longer standing campaign of unilaterally asserting control of the South China Sea, including the territorial waters of its neighbours, its forces sunk a Vietnamese fishing boat.

These actions form part of a wider pattern of aggression incorporating increased threats against Taiwan, adversarial relations with the US and ‘Wolf Warrior diplomacy’ (named after a popular Chinese action film with strong nationalist themes).

This style of diplomacy involves spreading baseless conspiracy theories and attempting economic blackmail against those governments who refuse to bend to Beijing’s will.

The many targets of Chinese bellicosity include leading democracies such as Australia, which has seen its substantial trading relationship with China curtailed for political reasons, and Canada, which has had two of its citizens detained in China on dubious criminal charges.

The triggers for China to lash out include criticising its handling of the Covid-19 pandemic, condemning its authoritarian actions in Hong Kong and questioning the brutal concentration camps it operates against the Muslim Uighur people of its western province, Xinjiang.

Some of China’s current conduct can be explained by its historical insecurity rooted in its ‘century of humiliation’ – the period from 1839 to 1949 when the Chinese empire was subjugated by other powers including Britain, Russia and Japan. This bitter experience makes China unusually sensitive to being challenged and is combining unhealthily with its growing hubris.

But the change in foreign policy is also a product of Xi’s own rise. Since being appointed to the top job in 2012, Xi has centralised power in his own hands and cracked down on any opposition or independent thought.

This approach contrasts with most of his predecessors since the death of the megalomaniac founder of communist China Mao Zedong in 1976. Whilst being about as far from a democracy as it is possible to be, Chinese communist party leaders have usually governed on the basis of collective Central Committee responsibility and allowed some shading of opinion within the system (although the narrow limits of this were grotesquely illustrated by the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre).

Strict authoritarianism eliminates dissenting voices and the discussion of issues on their merits. In its place, it generates a competition amongst officials to show political loyalty to the leader by being the most militant proponents of the party line.

Under Xi, that line reflects the nationalist wing of the Chinese ruling party, from which he cultivated support during his rise through the ranks. Their worldview adheres to the words of the founding father of international relations analysis, the ancient Greek Thucydides, that ‘the strong do what they can and the weak suffer what they must’.

For them, global politics is an adversarial contest between powers, rather than an opportunity for mutually-beneficial cooperation.

In Xi’s eyes, China’s main adversary is the United States and its allies. He has expressed intense dislike of what he sees as the West’s inclination to interfere in the internal affairs of other countries (Chinese interference and bullying around the world is apparently less of an issue for him).

The Xi-ites have a particular aversion to the containment policy the democratic world used successfully against the Soviet Union and fear it being reprised against China.

The conundrum for China is that overtly going on the offensive makes it much more likely that it will face the type of coordinated resistance and attempts at containment that it so resents.

One of Beijing’s biggest weaknesses is that it has few substantial allies of the sort that long underpinned the US’ superpower status. Countries such as Pakistan and Cambodia only hew to China for what they can get out of it financially.

They would not be much help in a global power struggle. Russia is heftier but its greatest value to China is as a natural resource supplier. Surface bonhomie masks Russian resentment at China overshadowing it and fears about the impact of its rise on Russia’s vulnerable far eastern regions.

There is a fundamental disconnect beneath their alliance of convenience too. Russia is only able to influence the world by disrupting the very globalised system that China relies upon to thrive.

China’s lack of friends mattered less whilst it was following Deng Xiaoping’s advice to be patient and keep a low profile. Until recently, most countries, including US allies in Europe and Asia, were happy to acquiesce in what China touted as its ‘peaceful rise’, while profiting from the burgeoning economic opportunities it offered.

The Xi government’s domineering behaviour is changing all that. The ramping up of this approach since early 2020 suggests a decision by Xi to push back hard against the opprobrium China was receiving for being the source of the Covid-19 outbreak and bungling its initial response to it.

It also looks like an attempt by the Chinese regime to exploit the world’s attention being consumed by the pandemic to increase its control over Hong Kong and the South China Sea.

Perhaps most of all, Xi seems to see
the feebleness, insularity and incoherence of the Trump administration as a golden opportunity to turn China’s new power into greater global dominance.

But Trump will not be around for ever or even, one hopes, beyond this year. And US misgivings about China’s conduct will persist after he has gone. Worse for China, its belligerence is forcing other countries to pick sides.

Few of the most politically and economically significant of them are likely to choose Beijing. The beginnings of this process are already clear in instances such as the UK’s cancellation of Chinese company Huawei’s involvement in its new 5G network, the EU and India’s adoption of more protectionist measures against Chinese interests and Australia’s decision to increase its defence spending.

The increasingly confrontational atmosphere poses grave risks to the world, particularly if China decides to follow through militarily on its threats against Taiwan or Japanese-controlled islands.

The US is committed to defending those nations and a conflict would be disastrous for all sides. Even if Xi does tone down his nation’s aggression, China’s recent posture has already made the world much more wary of it and guaranteed greater resistance to its rise. Xi’s gamble on changing his wise predecessors winning formula may be one China comes to regret.

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