In any discussion of current affairs and international relations, there is always one topic that always crops up – China. Whether it be through Trump’s bizarre obsession with the country or the threat it poses to the European steal industry, we are constantly being warned about the danger posed by China to the West. But what do all those warnings actually mean? How is it that China is becoming such a scary prospect for western leaders?
Xi Jinping is the current leader of China, having taken office in 2013. Xi’s leadership style is certainly different to that of his predecessors – several western commentators have noted that he seems to be attempting the mimic Mao’s dictatorial style, though just stopping short of a personality cult. He has promised to rid China of corruption and inefficiency on all levels, and his recent army reforms have not only done that but also given him much more control. On top of these successful domestic policies to centralise power in the country and to reduce corruption Xi has begun a new and more confident foreign policy that is forcing the west to take notice.
In a speech to the British parliament in 2015, Xi Jinping spoke about the ‘rule of law’ – a traditionally British value that he also attributed to China. Whether or not this is a reasonable statement, it demonstrates something interesting that Xi is trying to do to make China seem more appealing to the West. By taking western values like the rule of law and universal suffrage and changing them to fit his own purposes, Xi is able to maintain the authoritarian leadership that has defined recent Chinese history whilst also seeming like an alright guy. It is unfortunately unlikely that these ideas will ever be fully adopted in China (at least not in Xi’s premiership), so we have to take all such pronouncements with a grain of salt.
Over the years, China has become embroiled in quite a number of territorial disputes including territories in Northern India and the recent disputes in the South China Sea. Xi has taken a no-nonsense approach to these disputes, hence why we hear so much about the South China Sea in the news.
In fact, China’s movements in the South China Sea signal something much larger than simply wanting to defend borders. The amount of territory claimed by China is truly extraordinary, and is obviously unfair on the 7 other countries, which surround the sea. The first reason that China is so desperate to control the area is trade. Almost all shipping to East Asia passes through straights of Malacca, and in order to reach China (and therefore China’s rivals: Taiwan, Japan and South Korea) is must pass through the South China Sea. Having control of this area, and the ability to cut of trade if necessary, would significantly increase China’s leverage against it’s neighbours.
The second reason is China’s long-term dream: to become a world superpower. In order to become a world superpower a country needs to be able to project it’s influence around the globe, and to do that it needs something called a blue water navy. A blue water navy is one that can travel anywhere in the world to project a countries influence (this differs from a green water navy, which remains within a countries territorial waters and serves mostly to defend borders). To make a global navy like this work, you need to have bases around the world to refuel and restock. China is building a considerable number of bases on islands in the South China Sea, but that’s not all.
These South China Sea bases are just the next step in a Chinese strategy called ‘string of pearls’ – to create a chain of bases all across the Indian ocean, from Sri Lanka to Djibouti and down the east coast of Africa in order to control trade and to protect the large investments that China is making to the developing economies of Africa and Asia.
And those large investments make up another important part of China’s grand strategy. In Xi’s government, the idea of ‘One belt, one road’ has become a popular one. This is a strategy that –on the surface- seeks to end China’s dependence on capital from Europe, Japan and the USA. However in reality it seems to be an attempt to promote the Chinese economic model and force the economies of Asian and Pacific nations into dependence on the Chinese economy. Massive infrastructural projects around the world such as canals in Nicaragua and Thailand, as well as South America’s twin ocean railroad connection show China are examples of this. China seems to be aiming for an effect similar to that of the USA’s Marshall plan after WW2.
Of course, the USA is attempting to contain China, in order to prevent the massive change that will accompany China’s rise to the top, however the likelihood of this being successful is slim. China knows and understands the USA. In fact, China’s new foreign policy seems to be an attempt to mimic the previous moves of the USA. China is not afraid to test the USA, is certainly not willing to let itself be contained. China is determined to become a world superpower, and is not going to let the US stand in its way.
If we are going to prevent eventual Chinese ascendency, we need something stronger than the USA, something that China has not prepared for and cannot predict – we need a federal Europe. And that will be the subject of a future article.