What kind of superpower could China be?

China is on course to becoming a superpower – but not in the way many expect, writes economist Martin Jacques.

Beijing these days is positively throbbing with debate. It may not have the trappings of a western-style democracy, but it is now home to the most important and interesting discussions in the world.

When I addressed an audience of young Chinese diplomats at their foreign ministry a year ago, it was abundantly clear that a fascinating debate is under way about what kind of foreign policy might be appropriate for the global power China is in the process of becoming.

What will China be like as a superpower? You might think it is already – it is not.

Its military power is puny compared with that of the US. While America has 11 aircraft carriers, China only commissioned its first last month – based on, of all things, a Ukrainian hull.

And its global political influence is still extremely limited.

The only sense in which China is a superpower is economic – that is, its economy is already over half the size of the US economy and projected to overtake it around 2018, notwithstanding its reduced growth rate of 7%. But this is overwhelmingly a function of China’s huge population. In terms of technology and living standards it lags far behind the US.

So when we speak of China as a superpower, we are talking about the future.

A common reaction to the idea of China as a superpower is that it will be like the US – except worse. Worse because it is not a democracy, it has a communist government and because its people are not like us. I guess that gives some the jitters.

In fact we should not expect China to behave in the manner of the US. It will be very different. And nor should we assume that it will necessarily be worse.

Why will it be different? Because its history is so different. Articles about China’s growing involvement with Africa – in terms of trade and investment – often talk of the “new colonialism”.

Beware historical ignorance. China has never colonised any overseas territories. Overseas empires were a European speciality, with Japan getting in on the act for a short while too.

China could have colonised South East Asia, for example, in the early 15th century. It had the resources, it had enormous ships, many times bigger than anything Europe possessed at the time. But it didn’t. (*)

China’s first aircraft carrier is a former Soviet vessel, the Varyag

That is not to say China ignored its neighbours. On the contrary. For many, many centuries it dominated them – as a result of its sheer size and far more advanced level of development. China’s relationship with them was based not on colonialism but what we now know as the tributary system. It neither ruled them nor occupied them. Rather, in return for access to the Chinese market and various forms of protection, the rulers of tribute states were required to give gifts – literally tribute – to the Emperor as a symbolic acknowledgement of China’s superiority.

The tributary system comprised what we know today as East Asia, home to one-third of the world’s population. It stretched from Japan and Korea to the Malay Peninsula and parts of Indonesia.

It proved remarkably stable, lasting for at least 2,000 years and only coming to an end around 1900.

The West and China share an important characteristic – they both believe they are universal, a model for all others. But the way they have interpreted this in practice has been entirely different. For Europe, and latterly the US, it meant projecting their power around the world, most spectacularly during the heyday of colonialism in the 19th and first half of the 20th Century, when a large part of the world found itself under European rule.

We governed from afar, exported our ways of doing things, imposed our languages, our education, our religion and much else besides.

Zheng He’s statue looks across to the city of Nanjing

The Chinese, in contrast, preferred to stay at home. They believed the Middle Kingdom, the old name for China, literally meaning the centre of the world, was the highest form of civilisation. So why step outside into ever darkening shades of barbarianism?

The seven great voyages of Zheng He between 1405 and 1433 around the East and South China Seas and across the Indian Ocean as far as East Africa left no permanent mark – they were about demonstrating the glory of the Middle Kingdom rather than a desire to conquer. Those who left China to settle in South East Asia were seen as leaving civilisation and deserving of no support or protection by the Emperor.

Compare that with the way in which Britain and France celebrated the heroes of their colonial expansion. Our cities are littered with statues and street names in their memory.

There is another reason why the Chinese have tended to stay at home. The country is huge, diverse – and extremely difficult to govern. The overwhelming preoccupation of its rulers down the ages has been how to maintain order and stability and thereby retain power. It remains just as true today.

Rather than look outwards, China’s leaders look inwards. The exception was China’s own continental land mass. Its expansion, rather than to the four corners of the world, was confined to its own continent.

The most dramatic example was the westward march of the Qing dynasty from the mid-17th Century which, in a series of bloody and brutal wars, doubled the physical size of China.

So what, you might ask, does all this history tell us about how China might behave as a great global power? A great deal.

Europe, I would argue, has historically been an extremely aggressive and expansionist continent. Its own history has been characterised by seemingly endless wars which were then transplanted onto a global stage during the era of colonial expansion and world war. Military might, the projection of power around the world, and the desire if necessary by force to impose our way of life on others, have been fundamental to the European story.

And it is not difficult to see how the US – itself the product of European overseas expansion and settlement – inherited these characteristics from us.

China won’t be like this. It is not in its DNA. Its rulers will be far less interested in seeking to dominate the rest of the world and far more concerned with keeping themselves in power. That is what ruling a country containing a fifth of the world’s population obliges. When Xi Jinping becomes Chinese leader next month, his in-tray, as with Hu Jintao before him, will be overwhelmingly filled with domestic rather than foreign issues.

In time China will certainly come to enjoy huge global power. It will be exercised, however, in a rather different way.

The iconic form of western power has been military. Extraordinarily, the US today accounts for around half of global defence expenditure. Before, European colonial expansion was only possible because its fighting capacity was massively superior to that of the rest of the world.

That kind of overweening military power has never really been a Chinese characteristic.

Instead the quintessential forms of Chinese power will be economic and cultural. Over time, China’s economic strength – given the size of its population – will be gigantic, far greater than that of the US at its zenith. Already, even at its present low level of development, China is the main trading partner of a multitude of countries around the world. And with economic power will come commensurate political power and influence. China will, if it wishes, be able to bend many other countries to its will.

Cultural power will also be important to the Chinese. Theirs is a remarkable civilisation – having enjoyed a place in the sun not once but several times. During the Tang dynasty, for instance, from the 7th to the 10th Century, and most remarkably during the Song dynasty from the 10th to the 13th Century, with major advances in a host of fields from biology and hydraulic engineering to architecture, medicine, mathematics and cartography.

The Chinese are enormously proud of their historical achievements. They believe that theirs is the greatest civilisation there has ever been.

They have a strong sense of their own superiority rooted in history. They have long had a hierarchical view of the world, with China at the top. And the rise of China is likely to accentuate these views.

But don’t expect the Chinese to be impatient about their rise. In 1972 Henry Kissinger is reputed to have asked Zhou En Lai, the former Chinese premier, what he thought of the French Revolution. Zhou En Lai’s response: “It’s too early to know”.

The Chinese have a completely different conception of time to Westerners. Whereas Americans think very short, the Chinese think very long.

For them a century is nothing.

BBC

(*) Obviously, in order to colonize Southeast Asia, China has to go through Vietnam first, and Vietnam successfully repelled Chinese invaders throughout its 2000-year old of defending its borders from its giant Northern neighbor.  Moreover, during the 1950s and 60s,  Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew was the only person who succeeded in overthrowing China-backed communists from turning Singapore into one of China’s cities.  Additionally, Indonesia’s Suharto and Malaysia also were able to marginalize China-backed communist forces from being annexed by China.  Nepal and the Philippines have been fighting off homegrown Maoists for years.  Thailand and Burma have survived so far for being flexible in their dealings with China.

Thanks for sending us your comments. A selection are published below.

While this is an interesting perspective it doesn’t address China’s role in Tibet at all. And China has never been shy in flexing its might – military or economic. The Sino-Indian war of 1962 is an example of the former while its role in multiple African countries is a showcase of economic dominance. And while the tributary system worked for the Chinese, most of South East Asia still resents its historical dominance by a much more powerful neighbour – much like the colonised countries resented their rulers.

RJ, London

Small point, but China’s title of “the Middle Kingdom” does not imply that it is the centre of the world. It acquired the title after the warring states period came to an end in the 2nd century BCE, when the western state of China absorbed its six rivals. As China was the middle state, that’s what China came to be called.

David Rogers, London

A very interesting article and I agree with most of it, but surely modern Chinese economic development has depended on an endless supply of cheap labour. Over time this will change from being an advantage to a burden, as the people demand better conditions and bigger rewards – as is already beginning to happen.

George Porter, Basingstoke

China is all about cultural projection and influence, not about the projection of military force, at least so far. Internally, there will be some pressure from the military and security forces to expand in the Western sense, but this is unlikely to get wide support. The interesting thing about cultural projection and influence is that it does not depend on the health of the Chinese economy. When it comes to projecting Chinese cultural influence, every Chinese is a supporter, even if they do not like the government in Beijing. As long as there are Chinese leaving China for other lands to study, live and do business, this influence will grow. China and the Chinese are like The Borg in Star Trek.

Paul Denlinger,

A very thoughtful and insightful analysis – thanks. Just a couple of questions. How is competition for resources likely to influence China’s foreign policy? And how does China’s treatment of Tibet fit into the article’s analysis?

Paul Cuerden, Worcester

The author being an economist, is overwhelmed by the rapid growth of wealth in China. He has not noticed the mental attitude of the people there and the crazy hunger for consumption in all forms. Seems the author has not gone through the changing map of China over the years. Its unofficial military presence in several countries. It has disputes with countries all around its borders. It is continuously ‘expanding’ in a broader sense. Its policy is – if you can not invade militarily then BUY that place. China is also spending more and more on its military development. It is immaterial if the power used to bend other countries is military power or economic power. As long as its attitude is aggressive, it is the same as the other countries mentioned in the article. Overall it is going to contribute less to the entire globe compared to what it would consume.

Matrix, Shanghai

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