Over the last decade, murmurs grew frequent. And as this decade draws to a close, the disquiet over China’s insidious rise is clear.
In March 2018, for instance, in the wake of autocracy-turned-dictatorial signs visible in president Xi Jinping’s decision to abolish the presidential term limits, the Economist . Nine months later, the last year of this decade saw the international relations journal Foreign Affairs describing China as the “stealth superpower”, with Oriana Skylar’s how China hid its global ambitions.
Now, the first year of the new decade will likely ensure that the realities of reordered international politics were not a subject of scholarly reflection, but that of harsh realisation.
The danger of China’s increasingly unacceptable, even rogue, international conduct has become inescapably clear to different stakeholders in the international community. However, there are signs of a pushback against the Chinese hegemonic designs from the larger part of the world. This pushback, and not random acts of backlash, may very well be one of the more significant subtexts to how global politics will unfold.
As Harsh Pant, a professor of international relations at King’s College, London, : “As the 21st century ends its adolescence and enters a new decade, the year 2020 has powerfully underscored what transition from adolescence to adulthood often looks like. The turbulence of 2020 is not merely a turbulence of a difficult year but a culmination of certain trend lines, the contours of which were being shaped over the last 10 years.”
2020 finally exhausted the illusions that a powerful authoritarian regime would be content being a superpower in a world order premised on economic globalisation, multilateral institutions, and a democratic consensus. The hopes of having such benign supremacy were dashed in the last 12 months. It isn’t only China’s dubious handling of the information related to the outbreak of the Covid pandemic in Wuhan, or the semantic quibbling over naming the virus after the city. It’s the rank opportunism it showed in a period of global misery that alerted the world to the actual nature of its current regime’s hegemonic designs. While it sought to consolidate the economic edge that it had after belatedly acknowledging the nature of the pandemic, its military adventurism against neighbours like India was timed to drive home the advantage.
The latter move, however, didn’t go according to China’s script.
However, this doesn’t mean that China will be focused only on the potency of its hard power to achieve global leadership. Like all big powers, it has the ambition to present its formidable position in the garb of a moral claim as well as moral imperative. So, the realist approach is pitched with an avowedly moral reasoning.
As Rana Mitter, a professor of history and politics of modern China at Oxford University, : “The use of rhetoric that draws on traditional thought suggests that China, like all states, would prefer its choices to be understood as moral and not just realist ones...That vision of a fundamentally moral China supports another ambition: China’s wish to position itself as the leader of the global South. This aim is not original; during the Cold War, China sought to portray itself as a champion of what was then called the Third World.”
In the last few years, and particularly this year, the grounds for such claims have weakened. But more challenging is the fact that could hit its hard power as substantially as its soft power. The increasing global scrutiny of its internal and external affairs, including the recent unrest in Hong Kong, has meant that the authoritarian nature of its current regime would hurt the key drivers of its remarkable rise in the last four decades.
As Mitter wrote: “The biggest obstacle China will face is not the hostility of the United States or other adversaries. It is instead China’s own authoritarian turn. Beijing’s commitment to that aspect of China’s core identity will make it far harder for the other three nucleotides — consumerism, global ambitions, and technology — of its DNA to recombine successfully, stoking hostility abroad and raising barriers between China and the world it strives to remake.”
In the last few months, the efforts at consolidating Chinese power has been met with growing alertness to the nature of power that China is seeking and the need to countervail it. In the US, Donald Trump’s approach to calling out China on different fronts might mellow with the Biden administration, but the stand seems irreversible now. As foreign policy analyst Indrani Bagchi : “The incoming NSA, Jake Sullivan, has already warned the EU against going ahead with its investment treaty with China. France has backed out, as has Poland.”
On another front, contrary to what China would wish, the growing recognition of the Indo-Pacific as well as the Quad is another indicator of an antidote being attempted against China’s plans of new normals in geopolitics. China’s formidable rise in the global tech business, and the attendant security risks it posed, is also being addressed by big powers like the US with sanctions against Chinese tech firms. Moreover, Tibet is finding its way back into US foreign policy deliberations and various countries seem to be showing signs of Taiwan outreach.
For China’s immediate objective of Asian hegemony, India remains the only significant challenger. Hence, China’s ploy this summer seemed to be a desperation to show a dominant position in settling border issues. The Chinese efforts at making advances in eastern Ladakh and Arunachal Pradesh, and augmenting logistical activities and infrastructure-building in these areas, were met with a resolute Indian reply. China didn’t achieve the dominance it wanted in settling the border issue in its favour, and though the India-China standoff continues, India seems to have made up its mind to prepare for a long confrontation.
Despite its old designs of encirclement and string of pearls as well as South China Sea adventuring, the open-combat readiness of the Chinese force will be tested for its rustiness as its combat role has been limited in recent decades.
In the flux of international power politics, 2021 will mean different things to different prisms of looking at the nature of Chinese power and the making of an effective counter to it. While that might await the hindsight that only a longer time-frame will offer, one thing is clear: that the era of mollycoddling China’s rise seems to be over. The western capitals and the dispersed centres of the global South have found their own reasons to be wary of its hegemonic worldview.
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