When media around the world mention China’s new “Silk Road” initiative, it is often portrayed as a sinister strategy by the Chinese to pull various countries in Asia, Africa and Europe out of the West’s sphere of influence and under the patronage of China. Through extensive infrastructure projects and generous loans, many fear that China is aspiring to create a proxy Empire that can rival the global hegemony of the US-led Western world order.
Source: The Daily Conversation
However, this is a one-dimensional view and a more nuanced look at the dynamic factors within China’s borders could cast China’s vast project intentions in a whole new light. To do so, we must examine what drives the Chinese government and what does it view as its existential priorities.
Hong Kong’s Umbrella protests in 2014 exposed an internal vulnerability of China’s Communist Party (CCP). The very idea of collective action and protest was viewed as a bad omen by the party’s upper echelons . If allowed to propagate and spread to the mainland, Chinese elites feared these protests could prove to be an existential threat to the whole system and the CCP did not want another Tiananmen Square massacre.
Any explicit struggle for democracy and a shift in power structures could be the death knell of CCP’s monopoly on political supremacy. Several instances of turmoil and bloody power struggles from the past two hundred years remain fresh in the minds of those in China’s power centre – two Opium wars fought against the British imperialists, the vicious Taiping revolution, the fall of the Empire and foundation of the Chinese republic, years of humiliating Japanese colonialism, the Long March and Civil War with the Nationalists, the Hundred Flower movement, the Great Leap Forward, the chaotic Cultural Revolution and, most recently, the Tiananmen Square Protest.
While the Western media is prone to simplify China in the news – focusing on its economic growth, its industrial megaliths, its vast populations and it aspirations for greater territorial control – Chinese leaders are more aware of the volatility of its domestic political reality. The Chinese Communist Party looks inward with constant vigilance. They are fully aware that their mandate (in place since 1978 reforms under Deng Xiaoping to rule the country) derives mainly from economic performance, no longer communist ideological legitimacy as promulgated by Chairman Mao.
CCP is constantly engaged in an intricate juggling game. It is the first political party to design a system strong enough to “resolve the contradiction between a decentralised economic bureaucracy with a centralised one-party political system” (De Rambures, 2015:7)
Examining these internal factors more closely, it is difficult to agree with the narratives often broadcast by foreign media and analysts, which reduce China to one-dimensional unitary, rational actor with one goal of hegemonic supremacy.
Some of the indicators of China’s hegemonic aspirations – such as China’s blockbuster Silk Road initiative – take on a different meaning when one analyses them in terms of domestic motivations. Using the Two-Level games metaphor for domestic-international interaction as outlined in 1988 by Robert Putnam, Political Scientist at Harvard University, we can see that political actions are usually as a result of balancing between international and domestic goals; trade offs between these competing interests in always necessary.
From a domestic standpoint, Xi Jinping, President of China, could be using annual increases the military budgets each year for reasons that foreign observers may not fully understanding. Rather than higher military spending indicating that China anticipates a conflict in the region, one could actually view a fatter military budget as an indicator of confidence by the government in the military and to calm all military personnel who fear anti-graft purges. If military elite fear they may be abandoned by the CCP, they could switch loyalty away from the core Party apparatus. This is the last thing that political elites would ever want. (President Dwight D. Eisenhower foresaw in his farewell presidential speech nearly 50 years ago. Eisenhower warned the nation to beware of the “Military Industrial Complex” – an “iron triangle” of intertwined relationships between government, the armed forces and the industrial sector that manufactures arms and profits from them. Given this light, it would be erroneous to view the increased military spending as a definitive declaration by China to wage conflict against hegemonic forces.)
As a second example, rather than examine the belligerence of China in the South Sea through the domestic as an indication that China has grand military aspirations, rather, issues such as the Diaoyu / Senkaku islands dispute with Japan represents a symbol of resistance from Japanese colonialism and a way for Chinese people to “rally round the flag” and flex their nationalistic muscles. Of course, this is not the only reason for military expansionism in China, but it is important to keep cognisant of these factors.
Such internal dynamics may come to the foreground if the trend of economic slowdown continues. Pei (2013) argues that Beijing is preoccupied with maintaining high GDP growth in order to fulfil its mandate of economic growth. A slowdown in China’s investment-driven economy would mean less FDI. This would directly translate into fewer spoils to be divided among the ruling elite, possibly precipiating a Party mutiny.
Many writers have demonstrated over the years that it has never been the goal of CCP to charge forward for hegemonic dominance (Shambaugh, 2013: 29). Rather, the Party wishes to focus on its ‘core interest’ of political survival. In 1989, Deng Xiaoping argued that China should not seek leadership. Rather, it should “bide time while hiding capabilities” (taoguang yanghui). The fear of upsetting other countries or raising suspicions led Chinese leaders dropped the use of the phrase “peaceful rise” in favour of “peaceful development” (Glaser & Medeiros, 2007). Stiglitz (2015) highlights how China does not want to stick its head above the water and take on all the global responsibilities associated with being a world leader. In the past China has been accused of being a “free rider” that is reluctant to take on international burdens like investing more in the United Nations (Kleine-Ahlbrandt, 2009).
Another problem with current misconceptions of China’s motives is the fact that our understanding of power today is very different to the idea of power in previous generations. with the increase in globalisation, economic interdependence and integration of supply chains and markets, the concept of power is shifting. For example, while the US may still have leverage to influence many countries it now has far less leverage over the whole global system than it has had in the past. The hegemon cannot act unilaterally anymore, but must acknowledge its exposure to the intricate channels of interdependence, increased communication, solidarity, international norms and allegiance and economic integration.
Joseph Nye, Political Scientist from Harvard University, argues that “we need to think of a new definition of power in the world. Power lies not in resources, but in the ability to change the behaviour of states (Nye, 2004: 155). A county has soft power if it can use attraction rather than coercion to convince other states to do what it wants. Zhao (2009) highlights how China has embraced the notion of “soft power” because it offers a “ready solution to ease the anxieties around the world about China’s rise” (Zhou, 2009: 248). There has been a lot of discussion and speculation generated by the plans outlined by Chinese government to construct a new ‘Silk Road’ to promote interconnectivity and international trade. The ostensible aim of the New Silk Road Economic Belt and Maritime Silk Road policy is to economically unite the region in a vast network of infrastructure and provide transportation corridors (railways, roads, oil and gas pipelines sea ports, airports and telecommunication infrastructure) for goods travelling from China to markets in the Middle East and Europe, estimated to cost China US$40 billion. The Road will connect China with the European Union, China’s number one trade partner (in 2013, total trade was US$559 billion)
The Silk Road policy has grown in importance throughout 2010s to become the key instrument of China’s foreign policy, especially in the areas of public diplomacy, cultural exchange and inculcating an image of Beijing’s “softer” side. The New Silk Road will be an alternative point of reference to the US dominance and Russian integration projects in these regions. Domestically, the Silk Road will boost the development of China’s central and western provinces. Countries which have already expressed they are ready to participate in the project include: Kazakhstan, Cambodia, Laos, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Poland, Lithuania, Russia, Israel, Austria, Greece, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkey, Indonesia and Egypt.. with Beijing footing the bill for much of the requisite infrastructure development, the vast trade network would increase the number of regional governments that view China as a patron and benefactor rather than a threat.
To use China’s favorite foreign policy catchphrase, it’s a “win-win” situation – China can foster a softer image for itself even while boosting its regional influence. This new influx of “win-win” outcome policies come in addition to the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) proposal that 21 countries have already joined, the BRICs alternative version of the IMF, called the Development fund. Whereas IMF provides loans to its member nations under the conditions that these states meet certain criteria such as conducting financial reforms, which may not be consistent with the debtors’ national development blueprint. The BRICS Development Bank would not set such criteria for its members,
Given China’s historical memories of autonomy over the centuries, Political Scientist Jospeh Stiglitz from Colombia University argued in 2015 that China will not passively accept the global system as it has been for the past century nor will they consent to unamenable rules set by the West (and the West’s corporate interests). Rather than waging a war to ascend to hegemonic supremacy, China is choosing another route to escape the confines of US agenda. Looking forward to a post-American, multipolar world, China and other countries are choosing an alternative path of regional integration in order to remain indispensable to its neighbours for their own economic successes. The BRICS and ASEAN policies and institutions are offering an alternative to, rather than a replacement of, US policies and institutions. They provide the global system with a choice rather than a hegemonic monopoly. In the future, we will see the continual threat of transnational phenomena such as climate change and terrorism, which do not have any respect for state borders or sovereign rights to non-interference. These impending threats will require co-operation, not isolation. The idea of China initiating war to achieve its ends of international authority would prove to be chimeric and ultimately self-defeating for all players on the international stage.
In conclusion, the maritime route created by the Silk Road policy may intensify the presence and activity of the Chinese navy in the South Sea under the pretext of protecting Chinese trade and Beijing will continue to try to undercut America’s influence in China’s Seas. Taiwan will be a lasting arena where its wrestles with US for influence.
The current US strategy reflects this implicit paranoia that China is being duplicitous in its interactions and promises. US foreign policy should aim at encouraging China to play a constructive role in the region, while concomitantly “hedging bets” in case cooperation with Beijing can’t prevent conflict (Acharya, 2013). However, US must not use their so-called pivot to Asia as a thinly disguised attempt to contain Chinese power (Pei, 2014: 143).
As any sign of retreat of US from Asia will invariably make many of China’s neighbours anxious, the only viable remedy China’s neighbouring states have is increased economic interdependence and sincere membership to ASEAN free trade agreements and other multilateral institutionalised agreements to constrain China.
China is not a monolithic, insulated economy; it gains from its involvement in the current international order. Its capabilities are dependent on inflowing capital, natural resources and technology that come from outside the country. China needs trade and access to markets, especially within the region. It is entangled in dense global supply chains and production networks (Pan, 2012).
China has allowed for this high level of integration and interdependence because it must maintain high growth rates, social harmony and ultimately political legitimacy (especially to placate the Party’s elite base). Therefore it must remain an obliging contender in the world system. Nye cautioned “the rise of China recalls Thucydides’ warning that the belief of the inevitability of conflict can become one of its main causes” (Nye, 2002: 19)
Mistaken or erroneous beliefs about the intentions of “rival” powers may be a dangerous self- fulfilling prophesy. It is important to understand the sheer connectivity of the world and waging pre-emptive conflicts will not help anyone. China, and those who are suspicious of China, must not foment belligerent hype or advocate unnecessary sabre rattling. In the long run, it will only result in Pyrrhic victories at best or, at worst, complete destruction.
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