'China's ambition not quite a 'plan

2015-02-27 16:06Asia Times

The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower by Michael Pillsbury

There are very solid and reasonable concerns in Michael Pillsbury's book The Hundred-Year Marathon, besides the easy slogans and catchy phrases that sometimes make it sound like a modern version of the Protocols of Sion, applied to Beijing as the sham Protocols were applied to Jews to justify the Shoah (see also here

In a nutshell, the question is this: will China succeed in overtaking the US as superpower number one sometime before the middle of this century by peaceful means without even waging a war as the US itself did with Great Britain?

Pillsbury warns there is such a plan, which has been there for over 80 years. However, it is unclear whether it is a definite plan or rather a vague ambition harbored by all states and people alike to one day become great.

Plan or no plan, China's rising economic weight is an objective challenge to the world order as it is. With a larger GDP, Beijing could start an arms race that could eventually bankrupt Washington, as the US did with the USSR at the times of the Cold War. But perhaps this is just tunnel vision, as the world is made of many countries besides these two powers.

At the time of the Cold War, both competitors had allies and played a complex game were states were won or lost to the other side. Here, if it is this game, China plays alone, it does not have any ally, whereas the rest of the world basically sides with the United States, if the US does not make too many mistakes.

But where is the Chinese plan? Pillsbury brings in documents attesting it, yet many facts seem to contradict this interpretation.

China's recent fast development hinges on the adoption of capitalist methods and market rules that have radically transformed Chinese society, making it more similar to Western society. This is something contrary to the intentions of the official propaganda after, say, the violent crackdown of the student movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989.

Then the government started a campaign against “the peaceful evolution” (heping yanbian), which was considered an evil plan hatched by America to transform China into a capitalist country. Beijing then declared its determination to fight against that plan. And yet, a few months after the crackdown it was clear that the only way for China to develop was to accept this peaceful evolution, which China basically did so far with its economy.

So what is the actual content of this plan? When did it start? Was the plan to transform China or keep it as it is, was? Yes, it might well be a mix of both, but where and how? If the plan is only to beat America, why does the leadership not change the political system into a democracy that could be better at racing the US politically? If it does not change the politics what is the plan?

Moreover, as Pillsbury argues, now China wants to overtake United States by peaceful means, and this idea perhaps should be analyzed by dividing it into two parts. First, Western countries including America should be happy that the Chinese competition is peaceful and not military, which is better than the opposite, as happened with the USSR.

Secondly, there is one hard fact, which is the reality brought about by the adoption of the Western value system: individual Chinese want to have the same living standards as individual Americans. They want to have a comfortable home, a car, good schools, and good hospitals - what is wrong with this ambition? But certainly there are more Chinese than Americans, so sooner or later, if their goal for a good living standard is reached, China's economy will be larger than that of the United States.

The only way to prevent this from happening would be for the United States to push back normal Chinese to dire poverty. Is this what America wants? In fact, it seems that the ambition for a good life is not just held by the Chinese - it is held by the Indians, the Indonesians, the Nigerians, the South Africans, etc. To try to prevent this development could be extremely hard to achieve as it would force most of the world into destitution and political submission.

The rise of the developing world, triggered by the United States in the early 1990s after the fall of the Soviet Empire, is radically changing the whole global arena, and of this the US should be rightly concerned. To face these new realities, Washington, as Pillsbury suggests, should have short- and long-term objectives, which have to be carefully examined and tuned.

Sometimes historically if one doesn't calibrate clearly these different goals, it is possible to achieve short-term aims while completely failing to reach the long-term ones. This happened with England just one century ago.

England tried in the first half of the last century to stop Germany from becoming a superpower and overtaking Britain in Europe, then the center of the world. England succeeded twice in barring the ambitions of Germany, in World War I and World War II.

However, now Germany has an economy way larger than that of England despite the defeats in the two world wars, Germany is the single most powerful country in Europe, England has lost its status in Europe and the world, and Europe itself is no longer the center of the world. Why did this happen? There are many reasons for this, but in the end, it is because England and Germany fought two very painful, suicidal wars one after the other, and the first one, which kindled the whole process, could have been entirely avoided.

A similar mistake, on a much smaller scale, was made by the United States in Iraq in 2003. Yes, with its attack America put a stop to the threat from the Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, but the reality is that it unleashed evil forces that now in the form of the Islamic State, for instances, are threatening the stability of the Middle East at unprecedented levels. If the US had not attacked Iraq, as it did not attack North Korea, things would certainly be better for everybody.

The growth of China took place because of an unstoppable dynamism of the individual Chinese people, which was allowed and channeled by the government.

This dynamism of individual Chinese is present in Chinese communities abroad but in China is perhaps turbo-charged by the survival instinct of people who outlived the huge famine of the Great Leap Forward in the late 1950s and the gigantic disruption of the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976). It is hard to think that America or any other country can make China or the Chinese suffer more than Chinese leaders did in the past. If Mao Zedong did not manage to halt the growth of China, will America manage?

In fact, the 30 years of Maoism were the greatest ally to the West as Maoism stopped the growth of China, and China began to grow again only once it got rid of Maoism. Without the 30 years of Maoism, China's GDP might have overtaken that of the US in the late 1970s.

This is the result of a simple multiplication of Taiwan's per capita GDP, which one might assume would have been the per capita GDP in China without communist rule, per the Chinese population at the time. The present problem would have arisen 40 years earlier, at the time when Washington was confronting the USSR, and the rise of Japan, which was perceived as threatening a few years later.

So was Mao working for the US and against China? Or perhaps there is no big plan …

Yet even if a plan exists now that is not 100 years old but only in its infancy, the question remains as to whether China will become superpower number one following its economic size.

This is extremely difficult to answer. Following, even closely, and becoming number one are very different things. The US has peacefully overtaken England as the dominant superpower, yet despite this England remains number one in many very important fields. Its universities (Cambridge, Oxford) and its media (the Financial Times, The Economist, the BBC) remain arguably more influential than the corresponding American institutions.

Rome in a similar fashion remained the spiritual and cultural center of the Western world even many centuries after the fall of its empire. Then even an economic overtaking by China would not mean that America's power would be left behind.

The real problem is perhaps even more complex and risky than Pillsbury's take: how can the West adapt itself to a situation where its value system, unchallenged for hundreds of years, is now shaken by the global rise of a civilization/state so different from itself? The challenges are as big or even bigger than the fall of Rome.

China puts a question mark on all the Western value systems in unprecedented levels. Muslims, who were the enemy of Christian West of hundreds years, are actually a spinoff of Judeo-Christian and Greek tradition. Communism was a close relative of capitalism - Marx took Smith, Ricardo, and Hegel as his teachers. With China, everything is completely different. Can the West and the world adapt to the rise of China? Can China adapt to the West enough to avoid a clash?

China in the past 100 years has faced similar challenges and so far it has been able to digest Western values and become something else. However, China did not become the West, and it is no longer ancient China - it is something completely different, something difficult to reconcile for both China and the West.

Pillsbury is right in the final chapter to suggest long- and short-term strategies, but both have to be very carefully thought through because there may be no 100-year plan, but in many ways the challenges posed by China are far bigger than this alleged plan, and in many ways they are independent from the government in Beijing. The many counter-measures against China may worsen, not improve, the US situation.

For instance, Pillsbury suggests a policy of encirclement of China. However, this policy of encirclement has not been working. Trying to get Japan against China managed to get South Korea and Taiwan closer to China on the delicate issue of the disputed Senkaku islands. Trying to get Vietnam and the Philippines against China in the South China Sea is drawing Indonesia and Thailand closer to Beijing, as they are more worried by Hanoi.

In fact, in every encirclement there are counter-encirclement strategies, and the Chinese, inventors of wei qi, Beijing's traditional chess, may be difficult to beat in this particular game.

Perhaps it is worth looking at China not only through the glass of the bilateral ties. As we saw, there is a rise of a new world, filled with people trying to bring the Western living conditions to their home in Asia or in Africa. The talk is that India will grow economically faster than China in 2016. If this growth were sustained for a decade, would this make India enemy number one in 10 years?

Perhaps for the US it is not just China or India, or whoever else; it is a world where the total control enjoyed in the decade after the fall of the USSR is slipping because America started globalization. Trying to reassert total control might not be the way to go. It has failed by direct and indirect means in the Middle East, first with the Bush wars in Afghanistan and Iraq, then with the failed Arab springs of the Obama tenure.

If total control could not be asserted in a relatively small area, can it be achieved on a global scale? This seems to beg for a new vision of the world and of China in America. Here Pillsbury might have given the wrong answers but perhaps asked some of the right questions.

The Hundred-Year Marathon: China's Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower by Michael Pillsbury. Henry Holt and Co (February 3, 2015); ISBN-10: 1627790101. Price US$22.10; 336 pages.

Francesco Sisci is a Senior Researcher associated with the Center for European Studies at the People's University in Beijing. The opinions expressed are his own and do not represent in any way those of the Center.

(Copyright 2015 Francesco Sisci)



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