China's inexorable rise being helped by US' retreat

But there are concerns about what a growing Chinese empire based on hard power means for the world

The first stop on French President Emmanuel Macron's trip to China last week was, curiously, not Beijing.

He arrived in the central Chinese city of Xi'an, a town fabled for its imperial tomb filled with terracotta warriors, as well as its role as the historic gateway to the Silk Road.

The President was deliberately pandering to China's sense of its past. "Our relationship is anchored in time and, in my opinion, is based on civilisation, in the sense that France and China are two countries with very different cultures but which both have a universal calling," Mr Macron told the Chinese media.

"They are two countries that have always been eager, across distances, to meet and recognise each other. It's for all these reasons that I wanted to start my state visit in Xi'an - it's a way to experience ancient China."

Mr Macron used the occasion to extend a hand to Beijing: "What I came to tell you is that Europe is back," he said, signalling a contrast between the "America First" nationalism of President Donald Trump and the openness of China's other interlocutors in the West.

In turn, Chinese President Xi Jinping stressed his desire to "protect multilateralism" and the pillars of the global economy.

The rhetoric is already a dramatic illustration of how far China has come.


ST ILLUSTRATION: CEL GULAPA

For decades, the ruling Communist Party has publicly groused about the "century of humiliation" endured by China at the hands of imperial European powers from the mid-1800s to the mid-1900s.

Resentment over this experience of colonial bullying and coercion, subjugation and war remains a crucial plank of Chinese nationalism. But it is being superseded by another, more confident nationalist narrative, one based in reasserting China's historical primacy.

The country's leadership sees its ambitious new economic projects as tools to restore Beijing's traditional role as the leading trade power in Asia, casting a shadow over a network of lesser tributary states.

China's gross domestic product is projected to surpass that of the United States by the end of the next decade. The country's leadership sees its ambitious new economic projects - such as its vast One Belt, One Road infrastructure initiative across the landmass of Eurasia - as tools to restore Beijing's traditional role as the leading trade power in Asia, casting a shadow over a network of lesser tributary states.

"Of the global powers that dominated the 19th century, China alone is a rejuvenated empire.

"The Communist Party commands a vast territory that the ethnic-Manchu rulers of the Qing dynasty cobbled together through war and diplomacy," wrote Mr Edward Wong, a former Beijing bureau chief for The New York Times. "And the dominion could grow. China is using its military to test potential control of disputed borderlands from the South China Sea to the Himalayas, while firing up nationalism at home."

China's critics see its assertiveness on the seas and geopolitical manoeuvring from Africa to Central Asia as the work of an expansionist, authoritarian state flexing its muscles.

Even Mr Macron urged Beijing to be fair as it presides over the creation of the 21st century's new Silk Road.

"These roads cannot be those of a new hegemony, which would transform those that they cross into vassals," he said last week.

No serious thinker believes that China is about to supplant the US as the world's leading superpower.

But China's inexorable rise has been brought into sharper focus by the ostensible American retreat declared by Mr Trump, who scrapped an Obama-era project of economic integration with Asia and has approached Mr Xi and China with a largely incoherent set of agendas and impulses.

"With China's economic footprint across the Asia-Pacific region already large, countries in the region are now increasingly concluding that the US is consigning itself to growing economic irrelevance in Asia," former Australian prime minister Kevin Rudd wrote last month.

"US financial institutions will, of course, remain important, as will Silicon Valley, as a source of extraordinary innovation.

"But the pattern of trade, the direction of investment and, increasingly, the nature of intra-regional capital flows, are painting a vastly different picture for the future than the one that has dominated post-war Asia."

This is not necessarily a source of jubilation among Chinese strategists. The Chinese economy flourished while the US, with its far-reaching military presence, anchored the regional order in the Pacific. Beijing is not ready nor interested in replacing Washington in this global role.

"It seems Donald Trump's view is, 'If China can take a free ride, why can't we?' But the problem is that the US is too big.

"If you ride for free, then the bus will collapse," Professor Jia Qingguo, dean of the department of diplomacy at Peking University, said to The New Yorker journalist Evan Osnos.

"Maybe the best solution is for China to help the US drive the bus. The worse scenario is that China drives the bus when it's not ready. It's too costly and it doesn't have enough experience."

Professor Yan Xuetong, the dean of Tsinghua University's Institute of Modern International Relations, told Mr Osnos: "I think Trump is America's Gorbachev."

That is not a kind reference, as the New Yorker journalist explained: "In China, Mikhail Gorbachev is known as the (Russian) leader who led an empire to collapse."

But there are still fears about what a budding Chinese empire means for the world, no matter when it fully arrives.

Under Mr Xi, hopes for Chinese political liberalisation have vanished, the space for civil society has shrunk and China's rulers have set about crafting the most technologically sophisticated and far-reaching security state ever seen. Mr Xi's rosy language of common dreams and a shared destiny belie a darker edge.

"Chinese citizens and the world would benefit if China turns out to be an empire whose power is based as much on ideas, values and culture as on military and economic might," Mr Wong of The New York Times wrote.

"It was more enlightened under its most glorious dynasties. But for now, the Communist Party embraces hard power and coercion, and this could well be what replaces the fading liberal hegemony of the US on the global stage.

"It will not lead to a grand vision of world order. Instead, before us looms a void."

THE WASHINGTON POST

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on January 14, 2018, with the headline 'China's inexorable rise being helped by US' retreat'. Print Edition | Subscribe