A French expert assesses Xi Jinping’s planetary project for the next decade, which may well end up with China’s decline, and its dangers.
by Christophe Stener*
* Translated and adapted by the author from his paper, “La Chine peut-elle dominer le monde ? (T 1346)”, “Revue de défense nationale (RDN),” 9 December 2021.
In the 1970s, Western strategists dreamed that China would adopt human rights and democratic values simply because Chinese people would make more money. The world is waking up today in the same bed as a giant whose leader, perhaps “for life,” Xi Jinping, alternates Bandung-flavored pacifist pledges and wolf warriors’ speech.
In 2020, the trade war initiated by Donald Trump, the triumphalism of a China claiming to have tamed the COVID-19 pandemic (with provocative complacency when the origin may have been at home), the “normalization” of Hong Kong, the terrible and avowed genocide of the Uyghur people (after the Tibetan one, and for the same real-political reasons: Belt and Road, natural resources, a buffer to India), aroused Western mistrust and fear of China.
Joe Biden, and the European Union key leaders (Macron, Merkel) acknowledged China as a “strategic competitor,” and tried to strive, hastily, to form alliances containing the rise of China, to dissuade it from any military adventurism in the China Sea, and especially from the military option to force Taiwan to come back to the “mother country.” Does this new “Cold War” spirit reduce China’s ability to dominate the world, or does it set off a dangerous spiral, that of the Thucydides trap of an America anguished by the Chinese rival, but also of a China pushed to adventurism by an obsessive complex, and tempted to take advantage of the acme of its power in the face of an inevitable decline?
Does China have the capacity to dominate the world?
The power of China is experiencing the acme this decade but is condemned to decline thereafter. PRC is not, and will not be tomorrow, the equal of the USA for several key reasons:
(1) China is not self-sufficient in the field of energy;
(2) its population declines and will halve by the end of the century, creating the gigantic financial and social burden of an aging elderly population;
(3) its growth will be slowed by a reduction in the labor force that is not offset by sufficient productivity gains, and by the reduction in its competitive advantage. Independence and technological leadership are “the” challenge. The Wall of Debt is illustrated by Evergrande. The unbundling of supply chains is underway. “Dual circulation” (2020) is a slogan, not a reality. Xi’s interference in Chinese unicorns threatens innovation. The risk of the middle-income trap is the major risk, see Xi’s quote: “Our ability to affirm our return to the international scene and step over the middle-income trap depends largely on our ability to innovate in science and technology;”
(4) the reinforcement of Chinese military capacities can make China the equal of the America in this field, but not before several years;
(5) China is a very unequal society (1% of the Chinese own 30% of the national wealth), a problem addressed by Xi’s propaganda counter-measure slogan “common prosperity.” The end of the CCP’s meritocracy and nepotism is, according to “Virus Alert” (2021) by Xu Zhangrun, the source of a long-term collapse;
(6) the environmental emergency;
(7) Chinese soft power has never been so ineffective.
The USA and China each claim their competitor’s inevitable decline.
– Each bets on the other’s failure
The Chinese leadership is convinced of the American decline (as evidenced by the financial crisis of 2008, and the inglorious withdrawals of the USA from Iraq and Afghanistan) a vision theorized by Wang Huning’s book “America Against America” (1991).
But will China maintain a capacity to support a 2-digit growth rate to buy social peace, as the Chinese population accepts the no-freedom regime as the counterpart of a very significant and continuous rise in its standard of living?
– The Sputnik moment, a risk for peace
Time is running out for Xi (born in 1953). “America is back” singularly complicates his personal agenda. “The moment is unique,” and this urgency is per se a risk as it may drive Xi to invade Taiwan, a promise from Mao which, if carried out by Xi, would enter him definitively in the Chinese Hall of Heroes. Between hubris and the trap of Thucydides, will Xi have the patience to wait for the USA’s predicted decline, or will he want to be the master of the clocks at the risk of provoking a conflict?
– Can China rule the world?
In Southeast Asia, no regional power is strong enough to thwart China’s dominance over its historical area of influence. China is building back a millennium-old tributary system with the Belt and Road project. It acts unilaterally in the China Sea as Admiral Ming Zheng-He did. China wants to dominate the Indo-Pacific space. Biden intends to counter this Chinese hegemonic temptation in a space that the USA historically considered the backyard of American power.
– Does China want to dominate the world?
That China wants to “dominate the world” is dubious. China considers that its regained greatness legitimizes its key objective to get free from the American order and manage its future. Securing China trade routes and energy supplies and rejecting any right of interference in its internal affairs (Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Taiwan) are part of the same game. China claims the success of its political system but does not seek to export it, it’s all about rejecting the Western one. Xi does not pretend that China may dominate the world, his only ambition (and this ambition is unacceptable to the USA) is to ruin American governance and to enforce a de facto Sino-American duopoly on world affairs, a duopoly promoted under the friendly flag of multilateralism’s peaceful order.
Discarding Deng Xiaoping’s motto “Adopt a low profile and never pretend to take the leadership,” Xi advances boldly. Xi vassalizes Hong Kong and utters undisguised threats of war against Taiwan. Through the removal in 2018 of the two-five-year term limit of the CPC presidency and by the resolution of the CPC Central Committee (10/11/2021), Xi wants to challenge the primacy of both Mao and Deng as historical Chinese leaders.
– The End of American and Western naiveté
The normalization of 1971 between the two enemies was only Realpolitik. Bill Clinton justified China’s accession to the WTO in 2001 with “the freedom and openness of the Chinese people.” In reverse, China’s obvious phenomenal economic success legitimates the CCP’s discourse about the virtue of the Chinese political model. Obama understood that the bet on convergence was a decoy, that China was threatening American hegemony, and that the field of competition was the Indo-Pacific and no longer Europe nor the lost wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, pointing out in 2011 the “Atlantic pivot” as the most important issue. Trump scuttled the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) deal and treated the regional US allies (Japan, South Korea) as vassals with his one man show with North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un. China filled the “America First” diplomatic void.
Joe Biden is reconstructing Indo-Pacific solidarities in the primary interest of the USA, causing “the diplomatic tsunami originated by the brutal announcement of the AUKUS alliance.” Will “America is back” twist Xi’s arm? I do not think so. “America has always had an oversized opinion of its ability to influence the Chinese path,” according to Kurt Campbell and Ely Ratner. China is confident in its ability to resist American pressure. Yuan Peng wrote before the outcome of the US election: “Even if Biden wins, America will struggle to reclaim its role as world leader and America’s China policy will only be more hyper-sensitive, inflexible and arrogant in the double effort of containment and suppression (of the CCP’s role).”
A new Cold War
– A new Cold War climate
“The confrontation between the United States and China is the main risk weighing on peace in the world today, coming before Putin’s maneuvers in Europe, the terrorist threat, and the destabilization of the Middle East or the pressure increasing migration from the African continent,” according to Admiral Jacques Lanxade.
Joe Biden demonstrated through the inglorious withdrawal from Afghanistan his willingness to disengage the US from wars that were not winnable. If he intends to influence by example, Joe Biden is not an internationalist but follows up Obama’s well-understood strategy of selfishness: “Today, despite Biden’s commitment to ‘help lead the world towards a more peaceful and prosperous future for all,’ the truth is that the American people wants to have the benefits of the world order without doing the hard work of building and maintaining it.” If the continuity of objective is real, there is a break is in the means of reducing the Chinese risk: ideological posture, (re)building alliances, engage B3W counter project to Belt and Road, and a COVID diplomacy.
– Biden and Xi blame each other for the Cold War climate
Xi states that China is pacifist, in the face of American provocations, denounces the alliances organized by the USA, and pursues Chinese entry into regional (PRC candidacy for the TCPPP) and global organizations. Biden symmetrically denies at the U.N. tribune to be the cause of a new Cold War but strengthens the QUAD by rallying India, delivers nuclear submarines to Australia, raises the “ambiguity” of the American military commitment in support of an attacked Taiwan, multiplies the naval maneuvers in the China Sea to affirm the principle of free maritime circulation.
– The clash of two ideologies
Joe Biden turns the systemic rivalry of the two superpowers into an ideological, civilizational clash. Xi affirms the superiority of the Chinese model. He claims that “The Chinese are completely confident that China offers a solution to humanity’s search for the best social system,” while affirming that if China “will not import a foreign model, it does not seek to export its model or to ask other countries to copy Chinese methods.”
This is not angelism, it is simply not necessary for China to win its partners over to its model, because any neo-Marxist internationalism would have the opposite effect of preventing it from carrying out its economic diplomacy based on the assertion of non-interference. The country hawks of each country are convinced that the other seeks not only to weaken it but to bring down its political system.
– Necessity and limits of a consultation between the two superpowers
Henry Kissinger called “co-evolution” the situation, inevitable according to him and not dramatic, where “the two countries pursue their domestic imperatives, cooperate when possible, and adjust their relations to minimize the conflict.” Consultation between the USA and the PRC is not desirable, it is mandatory. It is required to de-escalate incidents, particularly in the China Sea. It is necessary in the face of risks such as the Chinese real estate crisis (Evergrande). It is essential on climate issues, realistic to appease the trade war, the only option to contain the adventurist North Korean dictator-leader. According to Kurt Campbell and Jake Sullivan (the current Security Advisor to President Biden), “The rivalry between the USA and China is not a problem that we solve but a situation that we manage.”
Nixon’s decision to normalize relations with Communist China was motivated by the evidence of China’s weight in international affairs, an evidence emphasized by General de Gaulle as early as 1964, and the key objective to contain the Soviet Union. The granting of the most favored nation clause (1980) then the entry of the PRC into the WTO (2001) made possible the extraordinary growth of China.
The Western countries, out of ideological naivete, believed in a political opening of China by virtue of its economic openness. The unbridled competition between Western democracies to gain access to the Chinese market, and subcontract entire industries there, were short-term calculations and blindness. The Chinese leadership, learning from the fall of the Soviet empire, did not reduce but strengthened the CCP’s control during this period.
China is a “revisionist” power, which does not want so much to co-govern the world order as to free itself from the American order, and this for a single and irrefutable reason: the American hegemony objectively threatens the strategic interests of China, which wants, at all costs (and this formula entails a belligerent threat) to preserve its supplies of raw materials and its international trade.
With a domestic market of 1.4 billion consumers, China can, eventually, but only in the long term, and if it succeeds in avoiding the doldrums of the “middle-income trap,” rebalance its growth, driving domestic consumption. The terrible paradox is that in the event of economic failure, the Chinese leaders can endorse the Thucydides’ syndrome, cede to populist nationalism and warlike adventurism attempting to seize Taiwan by force and, at the same time, any Chinese success in its plan to match American power would cause Xi to lose all caution.
Chinese diplomacy is primarily economic diplomacy. Strengthened by Chinese power and the iron order reigning in China, Xi wants to mark the history of his country by asserting China as the only power capable of yielding nothing to the USA. China’s deconstruction of the American world order is underway. The United States strives by all means to contain Chinese power but does not have the means to decouple China from the world.
China can probably dominate its historical zone of influence, Southeast Asia. I don’t think it can dominate the whole Indo-Pacific region, at least in the short term. It cannot dominate the world, although it already constitutes a pole of challenge to the American order.
Everything is at stake in the next ten years because, after the acme of Chinese power, its decline is inevitable. The immediate danger is that Xi, bewildered by his hubris, considers the present decade to be China’s “Sputnik moment,” running out of time, and, at the height of his power, in the face of ongoing decline, yields to the military adventurism of an invasion of Taiwan.
The videoconference of November 17, 2021, between Joe Biden and Xi Jinping only recorded irreconcilable agendas. In his introductory remarks, Biden expressed the hope that the “simple and direct competition between the two countries would not lead to an intentional or unintentional conflict.” Xi invoked “the common responsibility of the two countries to contribute to the harmonious development of the world.”
For China, the duopoly is obvious. The USA still rejects it, but for how long? Richard Nixon, who cannot be suspected of angelism, declared in 1972: “I believe that the world would be safer and a better world if we had strong and energetic United States of America, Europe, Soviet Union, China and Japan, each balancing the others.” France believes, and it has been a constant practice since 1945, in the virtue of a multipolar world, the only space where France’s influence can flourish.