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Experts Reflect on China’s Trajectory, from Fledgling State to Global Giant

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The People’s Republic of China (PRC) turned 70 last month. At its birth, China was poor and relatively isolated, with the Soviet Union as its primary international ally. Today, it is a rising power and economic heavyweight with allies around the world, including many developing nations in Africa and elsewhere. But its remarkable transformation from a struggling communist state to a major global player has also made it some enemies, or, at the least, frenemies. That includes the United States, which under Donald Trump considers China a geostrategic competitor.

For years, China’s steady military buildup has concerned U.S. policymakers and presidents from both sides of the political aisle. But it is the country’s economic growth — and its trade deficit with America — that has consumed President Trump, who launched a tariff war against the nation of 1.4 billion to address Beijing’s allegedly unfair trading practices, which include massive state subsidies, forced technology transfer and intellectual property theft.

As the planet’s two largest economies go head to head in a trade showdown with worldwide repercussions, The Washington Diplomat asked two experts to give us a big-picture overview of China’s evolution, from its early days under communist revolutionary Mao Zedong, to the current, complex state of its domestic politics and international relations.

Michael Green, senior vice president for Asia at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) and director of Asian studies at Georgetown University, and Timothy Heath, senior international defense researcher at the RAND Corporation, take a look at China, then and now.

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The Diplomat: Can you summarize the evolution of China since the founding of its republic?

Michael Green: When China replaced the discredited Qing Empire with a republic in 1912, the Chinese elite were inspired by a range of modernizing examples, including Japan and the democratic United States, which was one of the first countries to recognize the new republic under Woodrow Wilson in 1913.

But the West destroyed itself in the First World War, opening a new power vacuum in Asia that Japan filled, largely unchecked by the United States.

The brutal power politics of the early 20th century debased China’s first experiment with democracy and created the conditions for Bolshevism and the eventual victory of the Chinese Communist Party in 1949.

American presidents, from Wilson to Franklin D. Roosevelt, had believed that China would converge with the United States as a champion of democratic norms. While that hope evaporated between 1949 and 1971, it steadily re-emerged after Richard Nixon’s opening to China and then Deng Xiaoping’s campaign of reform and opening.

Were American presidents throughout the 20th and 21st centuries naive about China’s future? Are the seeds for democratic convergence — what CCP [Chinese Communist Party] propagandists would call “Peaceful Evolution” — still somewhere in the soil? Was reform and opening under Deng simply about self-strengthening and returning China to the center of power under the rigid Leninist control of the CCP? These are questions that will be hotly debated over the coming years.

Timothy Heath: Since its founding in 1949, the People’s Republic of China has experienced three distinct periods of change.

In the first period, corresponding roughly with Mao Zedong’s rule as the first chairman from 1949 to the late 1970s, a new radicalized government struggled to achieve rapid modernization and communism for an impoverished nation through extreme politics. This period was characterized by the consolidation of CCP rule, intense political turmoil and massive political campaigns to achieve utopian ends that often ended in catastrophe.

Beginning in 1979, China entered a new period of history, characterized as “reform and opening up.” Under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping and his successors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao, China abandoned the radical ideology of Mao and embraced a more pragmatic style of rule, featuring an embrace of market economics and loosening of party control.

Over the decades, lasting through 2012, China experienced phenomenal economic growth, developed a modern, more pluralistic society and improved the PLA’s [People’s Liberation Army] technological prowess and strength. However, the same period saw an increase in problems stemming from the rapid growth, such as widening inequality, environmental despoliation and pervasive corruption.

Xi Jinping’s ascent to power in 2012 marks a third period in the history of the PRC, one in which the country grapples with the challenge of becoming a world power. The past few years have seen a more ambitious China outline plans to integrate the Eurasian landmass under the Belt and Road Initiative, overhaul the country’s economy, increase China’s role in global governance, build a world-class military and step up the promotion of Chinese influence worldwide.

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The Diplomat: Where does China stand today as a regional and global power?

MG: The CSIS China Power Project attempts to quantify an answer to that question — and opinions vary widely. CSIS polling of elites in 2015 in Asia suggested that most still see China as behind the United States in aggregate power in Asia but catching up.

On a global scale, China is still far behind the United States. China can challenge traditional U.S. security commitments in the Western Pacific as no other power has since 1945 and aspires to dominate key technologies such as 5G. However, China ranks far below the United States in terms of alliances, nuclear weapons, soft power, the hegemony of the dollar and global reach.

TH: China has established itself as a dominant power in Asia, and it is increasing its power at the global level.

In Asia, China has become central to economic trade and production, and its military might has surpassed virtually all of its neighbors. China’s diplomatic influence has grown substantially as well, in part due to its economic strength and the opportunities Beijing offers through trade and investment.

At the global level, China’s economy has become central to global growth, and Chinese leaders have pushed for a greater role for the country in global governance accordingly.

However, the country’s military presence has only increased marginally, with its first base in Djibouti announced in 2017, and China continues to struggle with expanding its soft power appeal as a rising nation. 

The Diplomat: Does China want to change “the way things are done” away from the U.S.-instituted global order (for example, World Trade Organization rules)? If yes, how, and will, they be able to pull it off?

MG: China has defensive interests in protecting a more predatory form of economic policy in the same way Japan did in the 1980s or 1990s. The difference is that China approaches the contest from a much more adversarial ideological and military perspective than Japan ever did.

China has some support for revisionism at the global governance level from India, Russia, South Africa and other developing countries, but faces stiff opposition to regional revisionism from India, Japan and other middle powers.

Under Xi Jinping, Chinese declaratory policy and coercive actions aimed at weakening U.S. leadership and alliances in Asia have been unmistakable. However, governments are beginning to push back, and it is still not clear how much Beijing is willing to risk in order to supplant the United States in the region.

Rising powers in history — the United States, Japan and Germany — all tended to free-ride on the global hegemonic power — Britain — while using diplomacy and military coercion to achieve hegemony within their own regions. China is not so different, but neither is the United States to Britain [when it was hegemonic power]. Alliances and institutions give American hegemonic stability greater depth.

TH: China seeks to both uphold and renovate aspects of the international order.

On the one hand, China remains a firm supporter of key institutions such as the United Nations, International Monetary Fund and the World Bank.

However, Beijing has also sought to change aspects of those institutions to favor Chinese interests. It has long pushed, for example, for greater voting rights in the IMF and for more influence over how and where the U.N. deploys peacekeeping troops worldwide.

Where existing institutions have proven insufficiently responsive to Chinese demands, Beijing has established alternatives more amenable to its preferences. Examples include the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, which duplicates the function of the Asian Development Bank, led by the U.S. and Japan.

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The Diplomat: Do you think the U.S. and China will be able to get past the latest tariff war, or is this a turning point in how each country stands as an economic power in the world?

MG: I suspect the two leaders will negotiate a ceasefire to avoid damaging Chinese economic growth and Donald Trump’s re-election campaign.

However, key negotiators in the United States do not believe China will honor any agreement and are demanding assurances Beijing will never deliver, while key leaders in Beijing do not believe Donald Trump will keep his word with respect to tariffs.

And so both sides will take steps to limit the damage from the trade war without substantially resolving structural problems or reducing overall tariffs. That seems the most likely scenario, though a breakthrough cannot be completely ruled out.

TH: Due to the economic damage wrought by the tariff war, it is very possible that a future U.S. leader other than Trump might choose to scale back the tariff war. However, the shift toward a more hardline policy regarding China enjoys bipartisan support and thus is probably here to stay.

The U.S. feels threatened by China’s efforts to seize technological leadership and marginalize the U.S. in the Asia-Pacific, which is widely anticipated to be a key driver of the global economy in coming years.

Similarly, U.S. efforts to shore up its leadership in Asia has antagonized Beijing, which has grown vocal in its demand that the U.S. end its alliances there.

Regardless of who the next U.S. president may be, I expect the continuation of some China policies undertaken by Trump, such as the restriction of Chinese tech companies in the U.S., including Huawei, and defense policies to strengthen the U.S. military presence in Asia.

The Diplomat: Xi Jinping is 66. He could conceivably live for another 20 or so years. If he continues to hold onto the reins of power, what does this mean for China for the duration?

MG: I think his authoritarianism will be his downfall if he does not adjust.

[Mikhail] Gorbachev’s softness caused the collapse of the Soviet Union, but Xi’s hardline could cause the collapse of the CCP some day.

But that said, the pressures on him from within the Politburo will mount before his second term is over, and I would not be surprised if he relented and shared power in the coming years — for example, retaining the “presidency” but losing the top party post.

Xi has amassed power unlike any leader since Deng.

TH: It appears Xi Jinping intends to stay in power for many years, and no one knows when he might resign. This means the current trajectory of Chinese policies regarding tough stances on maritime disputes, artificial island construction, tech transfer, industrial policies to build “national champions” and the strengthening of Chinese Communist Party power and influence worldwide will continue for the foreseeable future.

For China, this means the country will likely continue to experience a stifling political atmosphere, featuring repression of voices critical of the party, propaganda that adulates Xi as a leader and extols the CCP, and an overall strengthening of authoritarian rule even as the country seeks to overhaul the economy to a more sustainable basis.

The Diplomat: What do you predict will happen to China as a regional and global power after he passes the baton of leadership, or dies before doing so? Does he have a succession plan? Anyone vying to take his place?

TH: China is already so large it will continue to impact global and regional politics regardless of who becomes leader. Given the reality of slowing growth, a deeply held aspiration for national revival and an intensifying rivalry with the United States, any successor of Xi Jinping would have a strong incentive to continue many of the policies. And in terms of potential replacements for Xi Jinping’s rule, there may be some dissatisfaction among elites about Xi’s policies, but there is currently no evidence that a competitor threatens Xi’s rule.


About the Author

Aileen Torres-Bennett is a contributing writer for The Washington Diplomat.

Last Edited on October 31, 2019