A rising China is remaking global politics

Not many countries want or can afford to have the Chinese as an enemy.

China’s ascendancy to be a global superpower is inevitable in spite of four years of the former Trump administration’s adversarial policies and the threat of using anti-China alliances and coalitions for containment from the new Biden administration.  By Lee Kok Leong, executive editor, Maritime Fairtrade

There is no denying that China is rising and sooner rather than later, is going to be a superpower.  After years of going against the established world order, 2021 is the turning point when China is strong enough not to suffer any meaningful repercussion from western countries and their allies and in fact, has conditioned the world to expect and accept its belligerent behavior.

Recent examples, among many others, included refusal to provide the WHO team probing the origins of the pandemic with raw data on early COVID-19 cases; accusing, without evidence, a US lab in Maryland as being a potential source of the virus; France president’s warning on the lack of information about China’s vaccines and saying they might even lead to virus variants if they are not effective; and the sending of two armed ships into the disputed waters of Senkaku Islands to intimidate Japan.

But there is no country strong or brave enough to really stand up to China, not even the US.  Yes, there are the usual strong condemnations but these are just mere rhetoric.  In fact, the former Trump administration’s trade war had the unintentional effect of making China stronger by hastening internal economic reforms.  

During 2019 at the height of the trade war, China’s domestic retail sales for the first time reached US$6.2 trillion, an increase of more than 42 per cent from 2015, a year before Trump took office. 

National interest before ideology

Not many countries want or can afford to have the Chinese as an enemy.  It is important now to work with the reality that China is going to be a superpower.  This will only be more important in the future in a post-pandemic world where rebuilding the global economy takes precedence.

The US, as it is, is looking at a host of problems: a still ravaging pandemic with no end in sight, the distribution of vaccines is not going smoothly, many people are suffering economic hardship and to top it off, the fallouts from the recent Capitol Hill insurrection and deep bi-partisan divide.  

Instead of using China as a bogeyman to pander to Trump’s supporters, the Biden administration will do well to cast aside partisanship and work with China on common problems such as the pandemic and economic recovery.  Constant berating of China makes the US weaker, not stronger.

Every country does what is in its best national interest.  A fair number of countries want to work with China to drive economic growth and share the financial benefits.  On 15 November 2020, China signed the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP), a new trade deal with 10 Southeast Asian countries, Japan, South Korea, Australia and New Zealand.  

As of November 2020, EU companies had invested around $118 billion in China, while Chinese companies had invested about $80 billion in the EU.  In December 2020, just weeks before the Biden administration was inaugurated and despite a senior US official telling the EU not to, the EU went ahead and signed a new investment agreement with China. 

According to a survey by the EU Chamber of Commerce in China, the pandemic has not shaken the confidence of European companies in investing in China.  About 89 percent are willing to stay in China and two thirds of them list China as among their top three investment destinations.

A world-class military and a strong economy

General Secretary Xi Jinping announced in 2017 that China wants to have a “world-class” military by the end of 2049, possibly one that is equal to or even superior to that of the US.  

And it seems China is on track to do just that as even the Pentagon admitted in 2020 that China “has marshalled the resources, technology, and political will over the past two decades to strengthen and modernize the PLA in nearly every respect”, and has surpassed the US in certain areas including shipbuilding, land-based conventional ballistic and cruise missiles and integrated air defense systems.

China has the largest navy in the world with an overall battle force of approximately 350 ships and submarines including over 130 major surface combatants. In comparison, the US Navy’s battle force is approximately 293 ships as of early 2020.  China is also the top ship-producing country in the world by tonnage and is increasing its shipbuilding capacity and capability for all naval classes.

On the economic front, the Chinese economy, second largest in the world with deep influence as both a source of investment and a market with 1.4 billion population, is poised to overtake the US in the near future.  In 2020 when the pandemic was decimating economies worldwide, China was the only major global economy to see growth.  

On 15 February, Eurostat, the EU statistics agency, announced that China had overtaken the US as EU’s biggest trading partner in 2020.  The value of trade between China and the EU was worth €586 billion (US$711 billion), compared to €555 billion (US$673 billion) for the US. 

EU exports to China grew by 2.2 percent to €202.5 billion and imports increased by 5.6 percent to €383.5 billion. In comparison, exports to the US dropped by 13.2 percent and imports fell by 8.2 percent. 

With this achievement, the Chinese economy defied a wider trend because trade with many of Europe’s other major partners had dipped due to the pandemic.  China, on the other hand, after being battered in the first quarter, managed a V-shaped recovery and then bounced back with consumption exceeding that of a year ago by the end of 2020.

The curse of being a wolf warrior

However, diplomatically through words and actions, the Chinese authority, in recent years under the reign of Xi, is behaving more like a gangster than a senior statesman whenever there are disputes with other countries.  

This has to stop as it is doing more harm than good.  China can help itself by responding in a logical and responsible manner.  The wolf warrior tactic, a tactic that largely failed to accomplish much policy change in regards to the disputed issues, comes across as crass and uncouth.  

As it stands now, there is already a lack of trust in the leadership of Xi and China does not enjoy a good reputation.  So, if Xi still does not order the stand down of the wolf warrior tactic, then he is in fact scoring an own goal by giving ammunition to critics, and further inflaming the already prevalent anti-Chinese sentiments worldwide. 

Indeed, China has the right to take positions based on its own national interests but this does not mean that it has to use aggression and insults every time to defend these positions or when there is any perceived slight.  

With its military and economic supremacy, many countries will naturally want to advance their own interests by finding common grounds with China.  Therefore, it is much more constructive to have dialogues than diatribes.

In a manner befitting the status of a superpower, China has to act with decorum to respect the rule of law, champion free trade, defend multilateralism, and uphold universal values.  The Chinese authority also has to be magnanimous enough to embrace different opinions and views and treat every country with dignity.

This dignified manner of diplomacy should be the finishing touch to complement the twin pillars of military and economic might.  

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