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China's Narrow Path to 21st Century Dominance
China's Narrow Path to 21st Century Dominance
China is working to dominate the global system. Yet, contrary to what we are led to believe, China is poorly positioned to achieve global dominance.
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In nearly every area ranging from defense to technology to trade, China is working to dominate the global system. And the resulting disruptions will shape the world in which we live for generations. Yet, contrary to what we are led to believe, China is poorly positioned to achieve global dominance.

As Gordon Chang and others explain, China’s distorted economy, collapsing demography, and political fragility preordains that Beijing’s challenge to American preeminence, its own geographical constraints and to the international system will almost surely fall short.

And ironically, the imperial-era notions of China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, will cut-short the rise of the Chinese nation rather than extending it.


Today’s popular conception of China rests on a gross misreading of the past. Contrary to revisionist history, China has never been dominant on “the world stage.” As Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania explains, “The idea that China was somehow a great Asian hegemon at some point in the past, so that all she is doing now is resuming her traditional position, is a total misunderstanding of how nations in pre-modern Asia interacted.” In reality, China “avoided contact lest that lead to disorder, as globalization is doing in China today.”

Chinese emperors were powerful only within their domains. Moreover, that was true of other East Asian societies: China’s geliguojia or “separated country” system was matched by Japan’s sakoku system, which literally means “shackled country,” and Korea’s swaegug identity as “the hermit kingdom.”

As Waldron also points out, “Asians did not engage in foreign relations, they avoided them.” Multinational empires like Rome, Greece and Persia were alien to east Asia with the brief exception of the Mongol Empire.

The recent rise of China, therefore, is not the story of a “return” to glory, but more of an emergence from millennia of self-imposed isolation. The Qing dynasty first tried to fend off foreigners and eventually came to terms with modern ways. Its successor, the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, was fatally weakened by an existential struggle with Japan, an Asian society that had embraced western doctrines earlier and more enthusiastically than imperial Chinese rulers had seen fit.

On one level, Mao Zedong, who chased Chiang off the mainland of Asia to Taiwan, embraced Western ideas with a rhetorical acceptance of Marxism. But he quickly closed off his People’s Republic from outside influence. Many spoke of “the Bamboo Curtain,” but Mao’s barriers were far sturdier than that term implies.

China’s “rise,” is the result of Mao’s eventual successor, Deng Xiaoping, reversing Maoist isolationism by pursuing “reform and opening up.” More fundamentally, Deng rejected Mao’s assertion that he had the right to remake the world in China’s image.

Mao’s ambitions were boundless. The first leader of the People’s Republic of China had hoped to establish “an Earth-management committee in the future to carry out a united planning for the whole Earth.” A year after starting the Cultural Revolution, Mao had even charged assistants with drafting a plan “for the whole of humankind.”

Tellingly, in 1950 he replaced the ritualistic “Long live the central people’s government,” which had been carved on the Gate of Heavenly Peace in Beijing, with “Long live the grand unity of the people of the world.”

“Grand unity” sounds benign, but Mao was evoking tianxia, the notion that the world was “united” and that the Chinese ruled it, presiding over “all under Heaven.” It was this “China Order” concept that conceptually underpinned two millennia of the imperial system.

Fei-Ling Wang of the Georgia Institute of Technology argues in the book The China Order: Centralia, World Empire, and the Nature of Chinese Power that Chinese society flourished in three brief golden periods: the centuries before the first emperor of a unified China; the three-hundred-year Song dynasty; and the period beginning in the late 19th century. And notably, it was during these times, when society was “politically pluralistic,” and not dominated by the totalitarian tianxia system.

Many would argue that China has also enjoyed “a fourth golden era,” begun by Deng. During this time, the Communist Party abandoned its tianxia-like goals of reordering the world, embraced the existing Westphalian international order, and thrived while absorbing technology and capital from others.

Deng may have shared Mao’s goal for world domination. After all, in 1989 and 1990 he famously issued instructions to Chinese officials to, among other things, “hide our capabilities” and “bide our time.” Yet, despite any such ultimate goals for China, he ruled with much less ambition and far more caution than Mao, as did Deng’s chosen successor, Jiang Zemin.

Then, Hu Jintao, who followed Jiang, set his sights slightly higher, invoking tianxia by incessantly talking about “harmony.” Foreigners, like Kissinger, perceived the emphasis on the word “harmony” to be a sign that Chinese leaders accepted the world as it was. Yet during Hu’s rule, generally coinciding with the first decade of this century, “harmonized” took on sinister overtones, especially inside China, where the tianxia-era term came to mean “coerced” and “silenced.”

More recently, Xi Jinping, Hu’s successor, has not been that subtle. He has thrown caution to the wind, making it clear he believes, as did Chinese emperors, that he is the world’s only legitimate ruler. Echoes of the worldwide tianxia concept were embedded in the slogan for the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing, “One World, One Dream.” Notably it was Xi who was then the Politburo Standing Committee member responsible for the Games.

The Olympic motto, when viewed side-by-side with Xi Jinping’s signature concept, “the Chinese Dream,” suggests that the aspirations of China’s leaders are now all-encompassing. Xi’s Beijing believes its destiny is to unify humankind. As Georgia Tech’s Wang points out, its goal is to make, “the China Dream into the World Dream.” Since the Olympics, Xi has employed more direct tianxia language.

As he declared in his 2017 New Year’s Message, “The Chinese have always held that the world is united and all under Heaven are one family.”

And Xi’s underlings have removed all doubt about the revolutionary nature of his message. For instance, Foreign Minister Wang Yi, in Study Times, the Central Party’s School newspaper, in September 2017 wrote that Xi Jinping’s “thought on diplomacy”—a thought in Communist Party lingo is a body of ideological work—“has made innovations on and transcended the traditional Western theories of international relations for the past 300 years.” Wang with his time reference is almost certainly pointing to the system of sovereign states established by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. His use of the terms “transcended,” consequently, indicates that Xi wants a world without other sovereign nations.

Xi’s recent comments warn us that he has no intention of living within the current Westphalian system. To quote Chang, “His words in this context, are revolutionary.” Why? Because it sets China at odds with the rest of the world, with a mission of dominating and reshaping the world system to meet the objectives of the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party.

Given this trend we offer the following forecasts for your consideration.

First, the system of tianxia will undermine the developments which have enabled china to progress so rapidly since the early 1980s.

The system Xi contemplates has been tried before with disastrous results. According to historians it has a record of suboptimal performance that features despotic governance, stagnation of the economy, suffocation of science and technology, retardation of spiritual pursuits, irrational allocation of resources, low and declining living standards for the masses, mass death, destruction, and great depreciation of human dignity. Xi, following Mao and the emperors before them, is developing what has been described as a modern-day “controlocracy.” Xi demands that the Communist Party have absolute control over society and that he has absolute control over the Party. As Nicholas Lardy of the Peterson Institute for International Economics observes, “the engine of China’s rise, the economy, is stumbling in large part because Xi, has placed a greater emphasis on Party control than on growth. There are even indications that, due to his policies, the economy is now contracting.”

Second, Xi’s provocative external policies will drive away friends and provoke hostile responses from other nations. According to Charles Burton of Brock University, Xi’s “pervasive flaunting of international norms of governance and trade” are a reflection of his tianxia mentality. These policies are fast-eroding the country’s support in capitals around the world. Xi’s moves to restore what he sees as China’s dominant role in the world are, naturally, convincing others to flee Beijing’s fan club. That’s a disastrous trend for a China that still depends heavily upon outside trade. As Burton states, Xi’s actions are “leading to major internal and external challenges to China’s sustained rise to power.”

Third, further militarizing China will make the country less secure by inviting explicit countermeasure by other military powers.

Until recently, U.S. defense strategy has focused primarily on asymmetrical threats from Islamic terrorists and second-tier nation-states such as North Korea and Iran. But increased Chinese provocation has refocused U.S. strategic planning on China, as well as Russia. The United States is already leveraging the Chinese threat to build tighter trade and military relationships with India, Korea, Japan, and the Philippines. Obviously, China’s industrial and military might is easily eclipsed by a joint alliance of those nations.

Fourth, China’s provocations will motivate the United States and other major powers to recognize and ally with Taiwan.

Expect the United to sell at least 60 state-of-the-art F-16V fighters to Taiwan this year. This will be followed up by other defense contracts in the years to come. With China fortifying islands in the South China Sea and Chinese Admirals “joking” about sinking U.S. Aircraft carriers and invading Taiwan, arming Taiwan and even establishing a U.S. naval base there represents a dramatic and cost-effective response to Chinese provocation. A NATO-like alliance between the United States, the Philippines, Taiwan, Korea, and Japan could effectively seal off Chinese sea routes.

Fifth, Russia is the only major military power that will be drawn into China’s web.

Russia’s weak economy, coupled with its enormous legacy nuclear stockpile, makes it strong complement to China. It’s diplomatic “pariah status” also gives Russia few other natural allies. Because of shared borders and common economic interests, Russia and China can create considerable synergy. Expect the two to work together for at least the medium term. But with both countries facing a demographic cliff, the long-term prognosis is uncertain. Second and third tier countries hostile to the United States have relatively little to offer China. (e.g. North Korea, Syria, Iran, Cuba,Bolivia, etc.)

Sixth, China will unsuccessfully attempt drive a wedge between the United States and the EU.

China’s deepening involvement in Europe is now registering at multiple levels—financial, technological, political, and increasingly military. And this could theoretically reorder the foundations of Euro-Atlantic relations. If current trends continue, one consequence may be the bifurcation of Europe into one area, in which the Transatlantic link remains strong, and another, in which China will increasingly shape not just the economic but also the political and military security environment. Though the outcome of China’s accelerating competition with the United States is by no means preordained, one thing is clear: China has become a power in Europe, increasingly capable of shaping Europe’s relations with the United States. By using the specter of a growing Sino-Russian alliance coupled with the power of U.S. energy and consumer markets, the Trends editors expect the United States to minimize and contain this threat.

And, Seventh, as rumors of Russian influence tarnished the 2016 election, stories of Chinese influence will impact the 2020 race.

Already former Vice President Joe Biden has been targeted for paving the way for his family’s “sweetheart deals” with China. Expect similar stories to dog other Presidential, Senate and House candidates, particularly on the Democrat side of the aisle.

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