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The sleeping giant wakes

By David Armstrong


Napoleon’s famous remark about China — “There lies a sleeping giant. Let him sleep! For when he wakes he will move the world” — has achieved a new lease of life in the context of China’s remarkable growth since the death of Mao in 1976. Since then, China has registered a real GDP growth of more than 2,000%, it has some $2 trillion in foreign reserves, a million Chinese emigrants now work in Africa on behalf of Chinese economic interests there, China’s military power (land, sea, and air) is growing at around 12% annually, and its non-financial overseas direct investment is currently in excess of $330 billion, to mention just a few of the statistics that usually appear on this topic.

But over and above such facts and figures, some observers detect more assertive Chinese foreign and defence policies. At the same time that China engages in joint naval exercises with Russia, those two states are blocking Security Council resolutions on Syria. Increasing naval patrols coincide with aggressive acts by its fishing fleet around islands in the South China and East China Seas, where it has ongoing territorial disputes with the Philippines, Japan, and other states. All such moves are backed by more oppressive policies against any signs of internal dissent and “punishments” ranging from diplomatic snubs to economic sanctions for states daring to receive the Dalai Lama as a visitor or criticise China’s human rights policies. Amongst other consequences, such manoeuvring has prompted a stronger response from the United States, including more naval excursions to the region and a clear statement from Secretary of State Hillary Clinton that the US has “a national interest in freedom of navigation … in the South China Sea.”

Another aspect of China’s rise that concerns some Western commentators is the possibility that China has developed a politico-economic approach that, for the first time in 500 years, poses a fundamental challenge to the foundations of Western dominance — so-called state capitalism, where, as Chinese premier Wen Jiabao put it in 2008, the “complete formulation of our economic policy is to give full play to the basic role of market forces in allocating resources under the macroeconomic guidance and regulation of the government.” Fukuyama’s End of History rhetoric assumed that the combination of capitalism and Western political values, including democracy, the rule of law, and civil and political liberties had finally won the day over all alternatives. In effect, China is saying, especially to developing states, that there is in fact an alternative, one with a particular appeal to elites. It brings prosperity without the need for troublesome attempts to build “good governance” along Western lines, a policy that tended to accompany Western economic aid after the end of the Cold War.

So are we facing as some in the West fear a threat that, like the Soviet Union in the Cold War days, possesses formidable military power, but unlike the Soviet Union, has discovered a politico-economic model that poses a fundamental challenge to the West? Might that challenge include the possibility of a major conflict in the next few decades over issues like China’s claim to Taiwan or its territorial disputes, a conflict that China would probably win?

While China will always defend its interests robustly and its economic and military power will continue to grow, there are several reasons for being cautiously optimistic about both questions. First, China’s prosperity is heavily dependent on its trade and it has therefore been careful not to allow its disputes to damage that. Taiwan is more valuable to it as an independent entity, although China will always resist the possibility of a sovereign state of Taiwan emerging. Similarly, Beijing has recently begun negotiating a free trade pact with Japan and South Korea, while in the case of another potential regional foe, China is India’s largest trading partner. Secondly, China’s version of state capitalism has begun to encounter significant problems. There is massive corruption amongst the officials charged with administering the system and there have been mounting difficulties with the various technological and environmental risks that inevitably accompany rapid expansion. China has also gone from having one of the most equal distributions of wealth in the world to having one of the worst, with more than 100 million people living in extreme poverty. If it maintains its ban on families having more than one child, China faces a demographic timebomb by 2065, when current estimates anticipate that 54% of the population will be over 60 and only 22% working.

Thirdly, economic growth has produced a growing middle class whose demands for better educational facilities for their children, more freedom, and possibly, much greater democracy will increasingly dominate the political agenda. Until recently, when issues relating to the transition of power this year led to a crackdown on dissent, Chinese leaders (especially Premier Wen Jiabao) have tended to call for greater democracy and other political reforms. Finally, although China has attempted to build up its “soft power” by various means, including its sponsorship of Confucius Institutes around the world, it is not, in this respect, in the same league as the United States, nor is that a foreseeable possibility for many years. For all the unpopularity of some of its recent military ventures, the United States still has some ten times the military might of China and retains in its political system, the dynamism of its form of capitalism, the attraction of its language and culture, and its global dominance of the internet, factors which all amount to vastly greater soft power resources than China.

David Armstrong has held academic positions at Birmingham University, where he was co-founder and first Director of the Graduate School of International Studies; Durham University, where he was Research Director; and Exeter University, where he was Head of Department. He is founder/editor of Diplomacy and Statecraft, editor of the Review of International Studies, and Editor in Chief of Oxford Bibliographies in International Relations.

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  1. [...] through the veils of geo-political categories, one might well ask in what sense is the present-day People’s Republic of China continuous with the Tang Dynasty? More specifically, in what sense are contemporary Buddhist [...]

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