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.
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.
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.
China has the fastest growing economy and what soon to be a biggest military budget. It has nuclear weapons, border disputes with most of its neighbor and a rapidly improving army, which in a decade or so might be able to solve old problems in its own favor. The USA had a largest economy over hundred years but at present trajectories China may displace in the first half of the century and become the number one economy in the world. China is an economic giant and potential military colossus bent on the modernizing its maritime and air capabilities.
China’s rise and attempts to become a global power on par with the USA created fears and disputes with its neighbors especially Russia which shares four-thousand-mile border with China; Japan nearby in the China sea; and the USA mainly over human rights. China tries to reduce those states’ fears insisting on being a peaceful power interested in economic benefits. China asserts that while it wants other countries to respect communist government due a great power, it seeks peaceful relations with all.
In 1994 it signed an agreement with Russia to prevent accidental military clashes between countries and later in 1997 it formalized to ensure Russian acceptance by signing new strategic treaty of alliance for mutual defense. Same year, 1997, China courted a partnership with America; at an Washington Summit Chinese President Jiang Zemin pledged to seek “common interest despite differences” in order to “share responsibility for preserving world peace and stability in the 21st century”, and to highlight Chinese sincerity pledged to stop nuclear aid and chemical exports and end of sale of cruise missiles to Iran.
The reason of Chinese government trying to be friends with America and prevent a new Cold War is that it fears of US creating “web” of Anti-Chinese alliances around China, as it did with USSR, and fear that USA has only one goal – “the hegemonic domination of the world”. After the inadvertent bombing of Chinese Embassy in Belgrade, Chinese authority would like US to listen to its scholars who claim that “Increasingly political pressures are pushing the USA toward a self-fulfilling prophecy: Treat China as if it is inevitably hostile and dangerous, and it is more likely to become hostile and dangerous”.
This means that USA should stop treating China as hostile state, otherwise it will get hostile and dangerous. Increasing military spending raised concerns over new “Red peril”, especially after Chinese army was set on “high alert” in 2000 to military prevent Taiwan of becoming independent state. In 2000 when Chinese Defense Minister Chi Haotian set army on “combat readiness” mode and vowed to overtake Taiwan by force soared concerns over Chinese militarism. However skeptics argue that threat of aggression from China is more of a “red herring” and these fears are overblown.
They argue that its defense spending and army capabilities are competitively low. They say that China is more interested in being economic power and expansion rather than territorial by force. The direction of China’s policies seems geared to ensuring its rise to prominence in the Pacific Rim, as shown by its military threats in 2000 against Taiwan. To this end, China has continued to arm, preserve its nuclear weapons, and equip the globe’s largest standing army (2. 9 million soldiers). At the same time, China seems committed to developing the strategic and military might that the Chinese believe its status as an economic giant justifies.
China’s resistance to its ASEAN neighbor’s effort evidences this attitude in 1995 to establish a nuclear-free zone in Southeast Asia. However, despite its aggressiveness and coercive diplomacy towards its neighbors, scandal with Chinese boat hitting the Japanese one but China put pressure on Japan to release captain and his team, China can be expected to be more concentrated on domestic and economic policies rather than military ones. It also tries to keep domestic stability by preventing any clashes inside the country that might tear apart national unity.
One of the examples of it would be recent riot of Uyghur nation, which was angry on ignorance of Chinese authority on discrimination and security in their republic. Chinese government had to use force to prevent any further riots and waves of separatism in the country. Keeping situation inside the country stable and calm is a priority along with “maintaining good and friendly relations with all countries” and avoiding becoming the next target of USA-led coalition assembled to contain its raise. Recently, David Cameron, Prime Minister of the UK has visited China in order to create some economic contracts and strengthen British economy.
In order to so, he will probably undermine the importance of fact that Chine Nobel Prize winner Lin Xiabo is being put in prison for his calls for democratic reforms and human rights. This shows that China is becoming more and more important on the world arena and its economic power overshadows ideals and believes of countries such as UK. It gives us a topic to think about on whether China already became a superpower when it can easily do what it wants without asking others opinion, as US does, for example in a case of Iraq war.
As its power and wealth have grown China started to resist foreign influence and instructions from her great-power rivals, claiming that it has the right to design its policies in the way it would benefit its national interests. However this does not mean that China is preparing any plan for military engagement as it argues that defense is the purpose of its military buildup and that its “flexing muscles” towards Taiwan is a permissible action towards a rebellious part of sovereign China.
To find the safe place in the sun where it feels it belongs, China has made its priority goals for national security to lobby to see that the traditional international legal rule prohibiting external interference in sovereign states’ domestic affairs is respected to prevent any intervention in Chinese policies, perhaps, due to human rights; expand China’s sphere of influence in the Pacific Rim and whole Asia to become respected and dominant power in that region; pursue membership in WTO in order to give China greater voice in shaping those international organizations’ future policies that might harm its economy and establish and normalize relations with the USA in order to prevent it being treated as an enemy to prevent a new Cold War, and anti-Chinese alliances.
However there are some problems that prevent China from being superpower nowadays. One of them is lack of human rights in the country. Although it can be argued that USSR also lacked them and still was one of the most powerful countries in history it can said that nowadays politics and situation has changed thus making it almost necessary to give rights to citizens in order to be influential in the world.
However this topic is to be argued upon and no exact answer can be given, thus leaving it to be speculated between different commentators and historians. Moreover, what China really lacks is Cultural influence in the world. USSR had communist influence on many countries and thus many support form communists believing in its power and ideology. USA had influenced everybody with liberal approach and democracy making it ideology number one in the world. Also American’s Hollywood films raised its reputation and “brainwashed” many young people over “American dream” and its values. In China’s case it has nothing to offer. Communism is not highly respected as before as it proved to be undemocratic and unstable system.
Perhaps, as China is communist country with capitalist economy, introduction of Human Rights in the country might give China a sphere of influence but nowadays many commentators, thus questioning China being a superpower, cannot imagine it. In conclusion it can be said that although China has an enormous economic growth and power; biggest army in the world; raising influence in the world; rapidly growing military budget; dominance in Asia; Cameron’s visit to China, it cannot be classed as superpower due to its lack of Human Rights in the country and lack of Cultural influence. Furthermore its military spending and capabilities are still relatively low and thus still keeping it under “superpower” status. However it can be said that in a few decades time, China has all the chances to become a superpower on par with the USA or even exceed it in power.