A strategic choice: Wise words about China from a couple of trusted sources

Several days ago I wondered if this was the end of the American era … is it the end of about a century during which America always played a leading and, sometimes, more often than not, the leading role in world affairs? I said that “Only the West and China have the capacity to keep the “virtuous circle” of peace and prosperity alive and working for the benefit of all. China can, perhaps, become the de facto global leader … but I’m not sure we will like the course it charts.

trump-tweeting-1-300x224Now, in a somewhat similar but better expressed vein, The Economist newspaper warns that while “The United States is still the world’s most powerful countryits leader [President Donald Trump] is weaker at home and less effective abroad than any of his recent predecessors, not least because he scorns the values and alliances that underpin American influence … [but, it says] … The president of the world’s largest authoritarian state, by contrast, walks with swagger abroad. His grip on China is tighter than any leader’s since Mao. And whereas Mao’s China was chaotic and miserably poor, Mr Xi’s is a dominant engine of global growth. His clout will soon be on full display. On October 18th China’s ruling Communist Party will convene a five-yearly congress in Beijing (see Briefing). It will be the first one presided over by Mr Xi. Its 2,300 delegates will sing his praises to the skies. More sceptical observers might ask whether Mr Xi will use his extraordinary power for good or ill.

xi_jinping_chinanewapThe Economist goes on to explain that “On his numerous foreign tours, Mr Xi presents himself as an apostle of peace and friendship, a voice of reason in a confused and troubled world. Mr Trump’s failings have made this much easier. At Davos in January Mr Xi promised the global elite that he would be a champion of globalisation, free trade and the Paris accord on climate change. Members of his audience were delighted and relieved. At least, they thought, one great power was willing to stand up for what was right, even if Mr Trump (then president-elect) would not … [and] … Mr Xi’s words are heeded partly because he has the world’s largest stockpile of foreign currency to back them up. His “Belt and Road Initiative” may be puzzlingly named, but its message is clear—hundreds of billions of dollars of Chinese money are to be invested abroad in railways, ports, power stations and other infrastructure that will help vast swathes of the world to prosper. That is the kind of leadership America has not shown since the post-war days of the Marshall Plan in western Europe (which was considerably smaller).

After discussing China’s growing military power, bullying of its neighbours and tolerance (or worse) of North Korea’s troublemaking, The Economist, acknowledges that “Unlike Vladimir Putin, Russia’s president, Mr Xi is not a global troublemaker who seeks to main_900subvert democracy and destabilise the West,” but that’s cold comfort because, The Economist concludes, “Mr Xi may think that concentrating more or less unchecked power over 1.4bn Chinese in the hands of one man is, to borrow one of his favourite terms, the “new normal” of Chinese politics. But it is not normal; it is dangerous. No one should have that much power. One-man rule is ultimately a recipe for instability in China, as it has been in the past—think of Mao and his Cultural Revolution. It is also a recipe for arbitrary behaviour abroad, which is especially worrying at a time when Mr Trump’s America is pulling back and creating a power vacuum. The world does not want an isolationist United States or a dictatorship in China. Alas, it may get both.

The Financial Times reports that “The prospect of a wave of “America First” protectionism and US tax reform in the US has loomed large over this week’s annual meeting of the International Monetary Fund and World Bank. Yet across Screenshot 2017-10-14 12.09.11dozens of public events a Trump administration that has been advertising its disregard for multilateral institutions has been largely absent … [but] … Filling in is a China eager to assume the US’s place as the new advocate for economic openness and international co-operation in the world … [and, even as] … Preparations and manoeuvrings ahead of next week’s Communist Party Congress in Beijing prompted many senior Chinese officials to send deputies to sit in for them in Washington this weekBut they have still come in numbers and armed with a message.” That Chinese message is simple: America is retreating, abandoning the world to focus, singularly and selfishly on “America First!” China, on the other hand, is here to cooperate, to help, to lead … so Xi Jinping’s acolytes say, anyway.

At the risk of repeating myself: “China needs to be balanced by a (generally) liberal West. The West is too fragmented to act in unison without a clear leader. America is in trouble; therefore the world is in danger.

That being said, China is a great and still rising power; it is a HUGE market for Canadian resources and services and even, potentially, for some manufactured goods. It is not and should not be made into an enemy ~ but it is a competitor in every field, including in the realms of ideas and values. Canada should be seeking free(er) trade and warmer relations with China ~ but China is unlikely to ever be the sort of trusted friend any ally that countries like America, Australia, Britain and New Zealand have been and still are … not in my lifetime, anyway. But in the face of America’s return to blind, selfish, “know nothing” isolationism, a posture which could extend until 2024, Canada should be ready to make a strategic choice, but engaging with China, which is a good choice, in my opinion, must be done only with our eyes wide open to China’s many flaws and the inherent weakness of one-man rule.

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