These are tense times for China. As I blogged elsewhere, its political model will need a fundamental shift in order to remain stable, huge economic challenges are coming, and the Gu Kailai trial underscores the insecurity and sensitivity of the political system. It remains to be seen whether the CCP will be able to muster the leadership to deal with these issues. But not only China is in crisis. The current European malaise in the field of economics and the seeming impossibility in the United States to heal its broken political system reflect deep faultlines in society, related to the distribution of privilege, wealth and opportunity – illustrated by the global elite’s ability to store trillions of dollars of personal wealth in off-shore fiscal havens. Obviously, this is a good time for politicians and pundits to play the external enemy card, a tendency that, where China is concerned, has been particularly strong in the United States.
It is therefore not strange that voices of concern arise in China with regard to the challenges that the international environment will pose to China’s continuing development. Hu Jintao famously referred to “international hostile powers” with a “long-term strategy to Westernize and divide China”. The latest to add his voice to the fray is Yuan Feng, the head of the United States Department at the China Contemporary Institute for International Relations. In an op-ed in the People’s Daily (see translation hereunder) Yuan opines that over the next few years, the “main international large countries” will try to each overcome the respective difficulties they face, in order to prepare for the ultimate showdown of national strength. If and when the US and the EU regain their initiative, Yuan argues, they will have an opportune moment to attack China. In preparation for this, the United States is – among other things – alleged to support bottom-up initiatives, aimed at target groups including rights-defence lawyers, “on-line leaders”, underground churches, dissidents and the disaffected masses, to foster subversion and destabilize Chinese politics.
Obviously, it is always difficult to deduce how op-eds like these are situated in China’s intellectual community, and how they relate to or influence policymaking. However, there are a few clear disturbing notions in this text. First, Yuan seems to imply that conflict is inevitable, as Europe and the US are bent on attacking China when they get the opportunity. He also seems to imply that naturally, China would never engage in such aggression, but needs to plan to respond against it. Nowhere in this article does Yuan allow for the possibility that there might be a great willingness in Europe or the US to cooperate with China in a mutually respectful and beneficial manner. Secondly, Yuan’s statement that the abovementioned groups are no more than tools in the US arsenal to attack China completely obviates the fact that they might have a genuine bone to pick with a political structure that is often corrupt, mendacious and violent. Certainly, the leadership would have much less to fear from the “disaffected masses” if there were fewer reasons for them to be disaffected in the first place. Lastly, the article perceives international initiatives to provide minimum standards in a number of areas as an effort to isolate and weaken China. While it certainly is a good idea to critically deal with actors’ stated intentions (but isn’t this always the case?), there is no escaping the fact that in this day and age, there are huge problems that are global, and that do require action from all major members of the international community, including China. However, from this article, it seems as though China doesn’t even consider the idea of a community to be beneficial, let alone that it would want to be part of it.
It is true that there are many voices around the world that are fearful or critical about China’s rise, they are often irrational and unfair. China will have to deal with that, it is the price for being the biggest kid on the playground. However, it would show wisdom on the Chinese side to open dialogue and enhance understanding, rather than proceed on the basis of cynical preconceptions and Cold War assumptions.
China’s Real Challenges Are the Next Five to Ten Years
China should maintain self-confidence concerning the strategies and opportunities for development, but must also fully understand where its challenges are. In fact, the real challenges for China are not in the present, but in the next five to ten years; the real difficulties are not international or peripheral tendencies, but are internal structural reform and social ecology; the real threats are not military conflicts, but are financial, social, network, foreign affairs and other non-military troubles.
In the next five to ten years, the Sino-American power contrast will further realize a leap from quantitative change to qualitative change. International authoritative organs generally estimate that China’s economic size will exceed America’s around 2020. At that time, China’s military, scientific and technological strength will also see a substantive increase. The American strategic circles are presently concentrating on considering three basic issues relating to China’s rise: how to deal with the challenges in resources, energy and economy brought about by the rise of a large country with a population of 1.3 to 1.5 million? How to deal with the challenges in political system, development model and value concept brought about by the rise of a large Socialist country? How to deal with the challenges in military security brought about by the rise of a large country that has not yet completely resolved issues of sovereignty and territorial integrity?
This means that, the present Sino-US chess game is only a prelude, the real strategic trial of strength is still in the future. How to adjust mentalities, adjust strategies, analyse and explain the above difficulties as quickly as possible, and welcome Sino-US relations after China’s economic size exceeds America’s have become large strategic questions that must be considered.
The next three to five years are a key period for all main large countries to overcome difficulties and heal wounds. All countries at present are coincidentally doing one thing: internal deepening of structural reform, and external search for strategic openings. The United States reflect this in Obama’s “new politics” and strategic return to the Asia-Pacific; Europe reflects this in structural and mechanism reform centring on the debt crisis and its vigorous intervention in the crisis in West Asia and North Africa; Russia uses the “Putin-Medvedev System” to seek internal economic revitalization, and forge a “Eurasian alliance” externally, and to simultaneously consolidate the fare east.
Whenever the American and European countries cross their passes of difficulty, complete a new round of structural reform, supplemented by a new round of technological reform and industrial reform that is brewing now, they will have a real strategic opportunity to attack China. How to calmly observe peripheral tendencies, focus work on perfecting domestic structural mechanisms and give the economy and society a new lease of life, and win the ultimate comprehensive national strength competition, is the true test awaiting China.
In the next three to five years, the focus of the realization of the American strategic centre of gravity shifting to the east is that it benefits the rebalancing of the Asia-pacific structure dominated by the United States, and to not completely confront China; the importance of utilizing China’s sovereignty disputes with corresponding countries to complete a new round of Asia-Pacific strategic structuring as soon as possible, and to not prematurely get involved in military conflict with China.
During this phase, America will use even more non-military methods to slow down or disturb the process of China’s rise, obtain strategic gain, realize a regeneration of national strength, and ensure its hegemonic position. Its main methods include: using the Renminbi exchange rate as break-through point, and using financial and insurance market opining as temporary objective, completely infiltrating China’s tertiary industries, hoping to gain huge economic and financial benefits at the same time as controlling the development lifeline of China; with “network freedom” as their banner, reforming the “top-down” model to push the traditional model of democratic liberty forward, with rights-defence lawyers, underground religions, dissidents, network leaders and the powerless masses as core, hoping to infiltrate China’s grass-roots through the “bottom-up” method, and to create conditions for China’s “change”; with strengthening links with allied countries, promoting partnership relationships, dividing and driving a wedge between China’s relationships with North Korea, Pakistan and Burma, resetting the US-Russia relationship and other methods, creating disadvantages for China’s foreign relationships, and toning down the foreign environment for China’s rise and compressing the strategic space for China’s rise; with “sea, air, space, network” and other “global public territory” problems as handhold, promoting corresponding dialogues, formulating corresponding norms, hoping to substantively weaken China’s strategic challenge to the United States in the abovementioned areas.
Thus, it can be seen that China’s right transformation of traditional thinking methods and strategic concepts will shift the centre of gravity of national security protection from partial external military attack risks to comprehensive internal structural reform. This is where the key of whether or not China will be able to again successfully respond to the immediate strategic challenges lies.