What explains the geopolitical antagonism between the West and China today?
Economic progress has given China the means to challenge the global power structure and the rules-based international order. Socialist ideology is important to consolidate the domestic power of the Chinese Communist Party, but it is Beijing’s desire to assert China’s status as a great power and its commitment to authoritarian rule that motivate foreign policy. As China challenges US dominance, and a new bipolar international order emerges, other actors may resist the style and substance of Chinese power.
Power and ideology seem to be the two major forces driving the fear and geopolitical antagonism the People’s Republic of China (PRC) and the West entertain towards each other today. International relations realists would insist that the PRC’s rise and, for some, the shift of power in China’s favour, have been the unique drivers of the growing rivalry between the first and the second world economies. Liberals would find the source in the difference of political systems, ideologies and world-views.
Without trying to reconcile these two schools of thought, it is fair to say that the rivalry stems from China’s growing power on the international stage and the characteristics of its political system; a one-party system and increasingly one-man rule. To this is added an anti-Western political discourse on the world stage.
Chinese authorities often refer to cultural differences to explain the East-West antagonism or what they often prefer to qualify as a ‘misunderstanding’. However, the author has some doubt about the validity of this claim since many eastern and even Confucian countries such as Japan and South Korea feel the same anxiety towards the PRC. This form of culturalism, which will be discussed below, is actually one of the ideological arguments regularly put forward by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
During the last ten years, the PRC’s growing economic, diplomatic and military power has dramatically shaken the foundations of the global order and world politics. Its rise has been the major game-changer of the post-Cold War era, far outweighing in importance the emergence of new economic powerhouses such as India or Brazil. It has not only benefited from the end of the Cold War and the demise of the Soviet Union, but from its accession to the World Trade Organisation (WTO) in 2001, and more generally its integration into the world economy and continued economic globalisation.
Having become the planet’s second economy in 2010 and aspiring to overtake the United States by 2040, and even perhaps 2030, China has logically started to claim a bigger role in international affairs. Gradually side-lined under Hu Jintao, Deng Xiaoping’s low-profile diplomacy (taoguang yanghui) crafted after the events of Tiananmen to attenuate the Chinese regime’s isolation, was buried for good after Xi Jinping came to power in 2012. Today, Beijing wants to occupy a larger place on the world stage, exert more influence in multilateral international organisations, become more active in world affairs, and shoulder more international responsibilities.
Since 1978, the PRC has reformed its command economy, opened itself to the outside world and developed in an unprecedented manner. These changes have laid the groundwork for a greater participation in the United Nations (UN) system, its growing involvement in UN peacekeeping operations, an increased voter share in the International Monetary Fund, and enthusiastic participation in the G20 summits. They also paved the way for international initiatives like the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) in 2013 and the Asian Investment Infrastructure Bank (AIIB) in 2014.
The PRC’s economic rise has also allowed it to rapidly modernise its military. This has had a major impact on the balance of power in East Asia and more generally in the Indo-Pacific region. It also allows Beijing to pursue more actively its long-term ambitions: taking full control of the maritime domain that it claims (and which it inherited from the previous political regime, the Republic of China); reunifying with Taiwan; and better protecting its nationals overseas. In other words, any nationalist Chinese government equipped with similar military capabilities, whatever its political nature or inclination, would be tempted to pursue such objectives. We therefore should not be surprised that, having today the capacity to project power ever further away from the country’s shores, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) is trying to impose a new status quo: in the South China Sea, through a more robust naval presence and the construction of several artificial islands; across the Taiwan Strait, by multiplying its air and sea military intimidation operations around the island; and in the East China Sea where it contests Japan’s control of the waters surrounding the Senkaku (Diaoyu) islets, and creates a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) that overlaps with the Japanese (and South Korean) ADIZ. Likewise, great power logic explains China’s decision in 2015 to open a naval base in Djibouti, perhaps to be followed by one in Gwadar, Pakistan, a proposal which Beijing had adamantly dismissed until very recently.
In many respects, China’s objectives seem to be inspired by the United States’ own achievements and designed to ensure that it can claim as its own the attributes of the world’s former ‘hyperpower’ and still only superpowerFootnote 1 . China is the only nation in the world that, owing to its economic weight and diplomatic influence, can contemplate overtaking the US, even if the PLA will probably lag behind the US military in the longer term. China’s behaviour is both contributing to build, and determined by, the growing structural bipolarity of the world order. Beijing is promoting all the while the idea of a peaceful transition of power, avoiding the Thucydides trap and other challenges outlined in other power transition theories, even if many analysts, both inside and outside China, have some serious doubts as to the reality of this transition.
In the view of many Chinese leaders and experts, international norms are established and imposed upon other countries by great powers (and the winners of world wars). They believe it is therefore time for Beijing to modify these norms and bend them to serve its own interest. Its interpretation of the Law of the Sea (Montego Bay Convention) offers one such example: it intends to ban any foreign naval vessel from the Economic Exclusive Zones claimed by it and refuses to recognise the legitimacy of the law’s arbitration mechanisms.
In other words, China’s growing antagonism towards the US and the West in general is the direct and logical consequence of the PRC’s economic, diplomatic and military rise, its growing ambitions and its structural, though asymmetrical, rivalry with the US.
However, the PRC also wants to be perceived as being different from the US and argues that it will be a much fairer great power than its predecessors or competitors. It argues that because of its painful past and its socialist nature, it will always refrain from becoming a hegemon or an imperialist power. As a modern socialist country and developing economy of the South and an Asian country, China aims to demonstrate that it will do a better job. This brings us to the other major feature of the PRC’s antagonism towards the West: ideology.
To what extent does the nature of the Chinese political system dictate the PRC’s international goals and behaviour? This question is harder to answer than it appears at first glance. There is a precedent, in the case of the Soviet Union, whose antagonism towards the West was very much enshrined in its socialist project, one-party rule, nationalisation of the means of production, as well as its ambition to expand communism around the world and defeat Western capitalism. Moreover, it also enjoyed great power status and impressive conventional and nuclear military forces.
China, however, seems in many respects to harbour very different objectives. Its economic structures are much more diverse—allowing private businesses to prosper side by side with a powerful state sector. Far from being isolated from the West, its economy is more and more integrated into the world economy. Furthermore, the CCP’s ideology has largely distanced itself from its original objectives, replacing communism with common prosperity and Marxism-Leninism with nationalism and Confucianism. Beijing has stopped exporting its revolution for quite some time now. And while keeping its one-party system, it does not shy away from intensively interacting and peacefully coexisting with other types of polities, including liberal democracies.
Yet the CCP cannot fully abandon its ideological precepts, its belief in socialism, and its steadfast determination to remain the unique channel of political promotion. It therefore must repress any dissenting voice promoting constitutionalism and democracy at home. It prioritises the state sector, seeks to rule the private sector and will likely continue to limit full access to its domestic markets by foreign actors. China’s growing power has allowed the CCP not only to better protect the regime but also to become more active and aggressive on the international stage. Since the 19th Party Congress held in October 2017, Xi Jinping’s thought and own status have clearly embodied this ambition, directly feeding China’s antagonism towards the West.
It follows that the CCP’s main foreign-policy objective must be to neutralise any outside force that may threaten the stability, as well as the legitimacy and longevity of its rule. Any Western attempt, be it from a government or an NGO, to influence Chinese domestic politics and push the PRC towards democratisation will meet with fierce resistance and repression. Many of the initiatives undertaken by Beijing internationally are designed to reinforce the regime’s claim through the promotion of ‘socialist democracy’ and Chinese cultural specificities or ‘exceptionalism’; the criticism of ‘Western democracy’ or what it used to call ‘bourgeois democracy’; pretending to prioritise, as the USSR did, economic and social rights as opposed to political rights; and the active promotion of the principle of ‘non-interference’ in other countries’ internal affairs.
China’s strong support for a Westphalian world order, in which sovereignty is sacrosanct and cannot be questioned in the name of human rights or even the responsibility to protect (R2P) largely stems from the CCP’s need to defend itself from any unwelcomed foreign interference. Hence China’s ‘authoritarian complicity’ with Russia on a large number of issues, such as the Libyan or other crises.
Beijing is taking advantage of its growing economic, diplomatic and military power and the various manifestations of Western decay—financial crises, dysfunctional democracies, and the rise of populism—to broaden its ambitions and become more aggressive on the ideological front. Power and ideology being closely intertwined, Beijing and pro-governmental intellectuals unabashedly promote the Chinese model of development and governance in the hopes of weakening the West and the South’s support of Western values and Western international norms, especially the ones regarding human rights, individual freedoms and privacy.
Since 2008 and even more from 2012 onwards, China has adopted an offensive strategy that has a strong ideological dimension: for example, it constantly denounces the failures and vagaries of liberal democracies, particularly in developing countries, and applauds the economic successes of modernising authoritarian regimes such as Ethiopia or Rwanda. Put differently, while denouncing the Cold War mind-set of any Westerner that dares to criticise its political regime, China has openly embarked upon a worldwide ideological war against the West to weaken and delegitimise liberal democracy.
There is clearly a tension between, on the one hand, China’s exceptionalism and its ambition to export its ‘solutions’, and on the other its desire to become a major protagonist on the world stage and a contributor to managing and solving international crises. And yet the CCP has generally been able to prevent the ideological contamination of its diplomatic behaviour or actions, often presented as the expression of the South’s interests, or, if possible, the majority of the international community.
More than ideology, however, it is the fear of being isolated, and the requirements of a united front strategy that have convinced the Chinese government to show flexibility on international issues that do not jeopardise its core interests. Its partial endorsement of R2P, provided it is supported by the local authorities of the country where it is introduced, for instance in Sudan or Mali, are well-known examples of a changing foreign-policy that has contributed to mitigating China’s geopolitical antagonism with the West.
Likewise, the CCP’s dictatorship has allowed it to better manage and control Chinese nationalism. It is true that the Party’s ideology has actively fed, when needed, anti-US or anti-Japanese feelings, for example after the bombing of the PRC embassy in Belgrade in 1999 or in response to Japan strengthening its alliance with the US in 2005. However, one may argue that the Chinese authorities have also been more efficient than many democratic governments in containing, and on the whole preventing, violent nationalist incidents and anti-foreign feelings, contributing here again to reducing or at least managing tensions with the West or its neighbours.
Has ideology led the PRC to move its pawns on the chessboard more carefully, or even more covertly? Analysts have used cultural arguments to explain Beijing’s inclination to use deception, or its reluctance to resort to military force vis-à-vis Taiwan or in the East or the South China Seas. The counter-arguments are that all strategists use deception and that, historically, ‘cultural realism’ pushed China to war when it was strong enough to do so. The CCP system clearly allows China to keep its cards close to its chest and move silently for a longer period of time, as in the case of the decision to open a naval base in Djibouti. China has been doing what great powers do: setting up military bases around the world to better serve its interests. Similarly, Beijing’s preference to avoid confronting a stronger power head-on and encircle the West by cultivating closer relations with all willing developing and developed countries (as Russia) is clearly inspired by the ancient Chinese military strategist, Sun Zi (Sun Tzu). The same can be said of China’s actions in the South China Sea: building artificial islands rather than dislodging the other claimants from their land features (with the exception of the Scarborough Shoal); using coast guard ships rather than the PLA Navy; and tolerating US freedom of navigation operations in the area. These actions are determined by Beijing’s perception of its own power and the likely reaction of other countries. In other words, there is neither a strong, convincing ideological dimension to the Chinese decisions made on these issues, nor a cultural one.
In short, as China becomes stronger ideology is contributing to a large extent to sharpening its political and geostrategic rivalry with the West. It is when the Chinese government distances itself from its ideological tenets, however, that it has a better chance to find common ground with the West to solve or at least manage some of the world’s international crises.
The shifting anxiety gap
For a long time, the PRC appeared to fear the West much more than the other way around. This is no longer the case. It is true that Beijing still views Western liberal ideas and political influence and the US alliance system and forward military deployment in the Asia-Pacific region as aimed at weakening and containing it. However, the West has become more concerned about China’s growing power: its economic and military clout, international ambitions, intent on bending international norms in its favour, plans to export if not its model at least its authoritarian solutions, as well as its ability to influence other societies and interfere in other countries’ political life. This anxiety is clearly deeper in the US and among US allies located in the Asia-Pacific region–Japan, Australia and New Zealand–than in the European Union (EU), even if in the last few years Germany and France have become more wary of China’s intentions. This anxiety has led US allies in the Asia-Pacific to strengthen their alliance with Washington and reach out to new strategic partners such as India or Vietnam in order to balance China’s growing power, thereby further feeding the strategic dilemma between China and the West.
Having said that, we should not overestimate the PRC’s rise and growing self-confidence. The big difference between Chinese and US exceptionalism is that the former’s political values are not shared by a large number of countries around the world, except Vietnam or North Korea. And Xi Jinping’s increasing personal power can be interpreted as a sign of weakness as much as a symbol of strength, Beijing having been largely unable in the past few years to fulfil the reform objectives that it had set for itself in 2013. In other words, Beijing may be more worried than we think about the West’s deepening concern towards many of its own foreign-policy decisions and actions.
The fear and competition between the PRC and the West have become structural features of today’s international politics. A new kind of asymmetrical bipolarity has taken shape between Washington and Beijing, intensifying a Sino-Western geostrategic antagonism already fed both by China’s rising power and anti-democratic ideology. This structural antagonism is likely to continue as long as China is ruled by a one-party system. Nevertheless, any regime change or democratisation would not end the competition for power. It is clear that this rivalry would take on less acute forms, and areas of cooperation with the West might multiply, should such changes come to pass. However, China’s ambitions to achieve great-power status will probably remain and, as a result, Beijing is likely to continue to play a role in world affairs that will be commensurate with its economic, diplomatic and military power. Any Chinese government, regardless of its belief, would remain keenly aware of its power, as well as the strengths and weaknesses of other great powers, and it would grasp all the opportunities to protect or expand its own status as a great power.
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