Everyman’s Strategic Survey: Is China Challenging?

downloadThere is an excellent article in The Economist headlined: “Tortoise v hare, Is China challenging the United States for global leadership? Xi Jinping talks of a “China solution”, without specifying what that means.” The article makes the important point that “AS DONALD TRUMP prepares to welcome Xi Jinping next week for the two men’s first face-to-face encounter, both countries are reassessing their place in the world. They are looking in opposite directions: America away from shouldering global responsibilities, China towards it. And they are reappraising their positions in very different ways. Hare-like, the Trump administration is dashing from one policy to the next, sometimes contradicting itself and willing to box any rival it sees. China, tortoise-like, is extending its head cautiously beyond its carapace, taking slow, painstaking steps. Aesop knew how this contest is likely to end … [because, while] … China’s guiding foreign-policy principle used to be Deng Xiaoping’s admonition in 1992 that the country should “keep a low profile, never take the lead…and make a difference.” This shifted a little in 2010 when officials started to say China should make a difference “actively”. It shifted further in January when Mr Xi went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and told the assembled throng that China should “guide economic globalisation”. Diplomats in Beijing swap rumours that a first draft of Mr Xi’s speech focused on the domestic economy, an uncontroversial subject that Chinese leaders usually like to talk about abroad. Mr Xi is said to have rejected this version, and brought in foreign consultants to write one dwelling more on China’s view of the world. Whether this story is true or not, the speech was strikingly international in tone and subject matter … [and] … A day later Mr Xi made it clear whom he had in his sights. At the UN in Geneva, he talked about a “hegemon imposing its will on others” and warned America about a “Thucydides trap”—the disaster that befell ancient Greece when the incumbent power, Sparta, failed to accommodate the rising one, Athens. In February Mr Xi told a conference on security in Beijing that China should “guide international society” towards a “more just and rational new world order”. Previously Mr Xi had ventured only that China should play a role in building such a world.

Over in Foreign Affairs, Graham Webster reports that the Mar-a-Lago meetings last week were “a false start” because, while “the first U.S.–Chinese presidential meeting of the Trump administration went remarkably smoothly. There were no major blunders in protocol, and Trump even mustered some self-effacing humor, saying that he’d “gotten nothing, absolutely nothing” out of Xi at a dinner early in their talks. The friendly atmosphere and lack of speed bumps, however, doesn’t mean that the meeting produced major progress. Thanks in part to the Trump administration’s lack of preparation, the summit accomplished little aside from allowing the two leaders and their teams to get acquainted.

It wasn’t all a waste. The Financial Times reports that “China will offer the Trump administration better market access for financial sector investments and US beef exports to help avert a trade war, according to Chinese and US officials involved in talks between the two governments … [and] … US President Donald Trump and Xi Jinping, his Chinese counterpart, decided at their first meeting in Florida last week that they needed rushed trade negotiations to produce results within 100 days. The two concessions on finance and beef are relatively easy for Beijing to make … [further] … At present, foreign investors cannot hold a majority stake in securities and insurance companies in China. The country’s largest companies in these sectors, such as Citic Securities and China Life Insurance, have achieved enormous scale in the 15 years since the world’s second-biggest economy joined the World Trade Organisation, making them formidable competitors for new entrants to the market …[and] … The concession to allow majority foreign ownership was discussed during Barack Obama’s administration, when Chinese and US negotiators held several rounds of talks about a bilateral investment treaty, or BIT.

So, is China challenging America? Yes!

But the challenge is muted, nuanced, even modest in the details but the scope is global. China is, in my opinion, playing a “long game” and trying to position itself as a trusted world leader in fields ranging from  military dominance to promoting and protecting free(er) trade ~ in the face of apparent American isolationism and protectionism.

I have said before that I believe that China practicing a soft power strategy, emulating America in the 1920s, ’30s, ’40s, and ’50s, and while I don’t think Robert Kaplan’s fears have or will come true, with regard to China, I think Xi Jinping is intent on putting aside Deng Xiaoping’s legendary caution about foreign policy and assertiveness and becoming a global superpower.

Challenging America is always fraught with risks … but this is not 1940 or even 1950 and I am not convinced that America’s national will is up to a serious, global, broad-based challenge that has actually been thought through.

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