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Can China Ever Be an Alternative?

Paper No. 6765                                Dated 14-Mar-2021

By Kazi Anwarul Masud

  Decades back when the US reigned supreme in the aftermath of the Second World War, given both the political, moral and economic character that the world, many parts were yet under colonial rule, must follow, none had the courage including the European allies whose interests coincided with those of the US, to oppose the dictat.

The Americans had an easy acceptance of their views because these were based on democratic principles and consultations among the Europeans whose overseas colonies were not yet threatened. Indian politician Shashi Tharoor described Winston Churchill as having as much blood on his hands as the worst genocidal dictators. Dr Shashi Tharoor, whose book Inglorious Empire chronicles the atrocities Union, onslaught of pandemic with no clear sign of its abatement, turbulence in the of the British Empire, argued the former British Prime Minister’s reputation as a great wartime leader and protector of freedom as wholly miscast given his role in the Bengal famine which saw four million Bengalis starve to death. In 1943, up to four million Bengalis starved to death when Churchill diverted food to British soldiers and countries such as Greece while a deadly famine swept through Bengal.  

India at that time was fighting for its independence, a peaceful non-cooperation  movement under the leadership of Mahatma Gandhi( described by Churchill as “ alarming and also nauseating to see Mr. Gandhi, a seditious middle temple lawyer, now posing as a fakir of a type well known in the east, striding half-naked up the steps of the vice regal palace, while he is still organizing and conducting a defiant campaign of civil disobedience, to parley on equal terms with the representative of the king-emperor."

Despite many  being imprisoned many times by the British, India won its independence in 1947. Why one may ask did the British and other colonial powers agree to relinquish their grip on the colonies which promoted their development with the colonies’ abundant resources? Perhaps the most compelling factor was Monroe Doctrine. In a speech to Congress in 1823, President James Monroe warned European powers not to attempt further colonization or otherwise interfere in the Western Hemisphere, stating that the United States would view any such interference as a potentially hostile act. Later known as the Monroe Doctrine, this policy principle would become a cornerstone of U.S. diplomacy for generations. From time to time later, US Presidents took refuge of the Monroe Doctrine.

 Most importantly, President John Kennedy warned then Soviet Union to withdraw its nuclear weapons from Cuba. President John Kennedy ordered a naval and air quarantine of Cuba after the Soviet Union began building missile-launching sites there. In the 1980s, President Ronald Reagan similarly used the 1823 policy principle to justify U.S. intervention in El Salvador and Nicaragua, while his successor, George H.W. Bush, similarly sanctioned a U.S. invasion of Panama to oust Manuel Noriega.

But now changed definition of national security demise of Soviet global market, US China uneasy relationship Monroe Doctrine is no longer the defining criteria of national security. Rise of China as a political and economic power in the world has complicated the twin competition between the US and then Soviet Union for global influence. In simple term the fight centered on democratic and non-democratic forms of government. The US and her allies were democratic while the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence. A third force of newly freed colonies formed the Non-aligned Movement to register their independence from the two blocs. 

1955 Non-aligned Movement held in Bandung Indonesia that brought together, U Nu, Gamal Abdul Nasser, Pandit Jawharlal Nehru, Marshall Tito, Kwame Nkruma, Ho Chi Minh, Zhou Enlai, as well as U Thant and Indira Gandhi was perhaps the largest assembly of world leaders who shaped the destiny of the world for many years to come. Bandung Conference   adopted a "declaration on promotion of world peace and cooperation and a collective pledge to remain neutral in great power rivalry.

 Non-aligned Movement (NAM) lost much of its relevance with the demise of the Soviet Union.  More emphasis was given to economic development of member states and national security started getting new meaning. One such meaning is given by emphasis on economic development sometimes putting democracy at risk. To understand alliances today, we need first to understand how we got here. Thucydides tells us that alliances have been an enduring feature of war and conflict for thousands of years.   Multilateral military arrangements allow states (and their historical analogues) to aggregate their capabilities and collaborate on common security challenges…. security challenges;  multilateral military organizations like the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) alliance itself;  (Kathleen Mclnnis - Nonresident Senior Fellow of Atlantic Council).  

Ryan Haas tells his readers that China is not ten feet tall. It is becoming China and Russia challenge American power, influence, and interests, attempting to erode American security and prosperity. They are determined to make economies less free and less fair, to grow their militaries, and to control information and data to repress their societies and expand their influence. At the same time, the dictatorships of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and the Islamic Republic of Iran are determined to destabilize regions, threaten Americans and our allies, and brutalize their own people. Transnational threat groups, from jihadist terrorists to transnational criminal organizations, are actively trying to harm Americans.

While these challenges differ in nature and magnitude, they are fundamentally contests between those who value human dignity and freedom and those who oppress individuals and enforce uniformity….. Contemporary international organizations and alliances are often formed without the specific goal of collaboratively conducting military operations, and when international organizations or other institutions do decide to undertake multilateral military operations, they often do so utilizing a subset of their membership. Not all NATO members have participated in all of NATO’s post–Cold War operations.  Today, this U.S.-led hub-and-spoke system includes a variety of different strategic arrangements, most of which do not fit commonly accepted definitions of alliances.

These arrangements include:       International institutions, such as the United Nations Security Council and the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe (OSCE), to contend with a military and economic force because of the system of governance. Arthur Schelenger Jr explains : contrary to the conventional wisdom, India stagnated historically not because it was a democracy, but because, in the 1970s and 1980s, it was less democratic than it appeared.  The economic consequences of this period of illiberalism were long lasting.

Many contrast India’s experience with that of China, implying that its economic success is derived from “an efficient, massive, and rapid embrace of the global economy” by a closed communist regime. But…the idea that China grew because of its one-party rule stems from a mistaken focus on a single snapshot in time at the expense of an understanding of shifting trends. China did not take off because it was authoritarian. Rather, it took off because the liberal political reforms of the 1980s made the country less authoritarian. As scholar Minxin Pei has noted, every single important political reform—such as the mandatory retirement of government officials, the strengthening of the National People’s Congress, legal reforms, experiments in rural self-government, and loosening control of civil society groups—was instituted in the 1980s. As happens with all autocracy cracks start within the ranks of the highest body though everyone has to be member of the Communist Party. Thus a plutocracy is born and tussles for power begins within.

An expert whose knowledge is regarded by many (The Party That Failed: An Insider Breaks With Beijing By Cai Xia January/February 2021) has observed thatOver the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial.

A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society. People who haven’t lived in mainland China for the past eight years can hardly understand how brutal the regime has become, how many quiet tragedies it has authored. After speaking out against the system, I learned it was no longer safe for me to live in China”. Going back from  the period   Xi Jingpin when Deng Ziaoping  was in power he declared: - The party had to represent three aspects of China: “the development requirements of advanced productive forces,” cultural progress, and the interests of the majority.

This was regarded as a significant shift in CCP ideology. In particular, the first of the Three Represents implied that Jiang was abandoning the core Marxist belief that capitalists were an exploitative social group. The emergence of Xi Jinping as the supreme leader of China despite reports of internal power struggle does not appear to harm Chinese rise as a super power. A lifelong communist and an important functionary has observed “Over the course of his tenure, the regime has degenerated further into a political oligarchy bent on holding on to power through brutality and ruthlessness. It has grown even more repressive and dictatorial. A personality cult now surrounds Xi, who has tightened the party’s grip on ideology and eliminated what little space there was for political speech and civil society.

One wonders how far the character of the absolute leader contributes to national and international   events. Did Kaiser Wilhelm II cause the First World War (assassination of Arch Duke Ferdinand aside)? Did Adolf Hitler’s unbending attitude prolonged the Second Great War? Did the 9/11 attack on New York goaded George W Bush’s determination to take revenge influence his Middle East policy?  Did Donald Trump’s declaration at his inauguration to make “America First” contribute to US-China trade war which President Joe Biden would have difficulty to contain?

Character does play an important role in international affairs. The international community however may remain edgy watching the Great Powers tussle lest they fall into Thucydides Trap that caused Peloponnesian war due to Sparta’s fear of a rising Athens. Such an eventuality is remote in democracy but may be a possibility in total autocracy. One may recall the words of then Secretary of Defense from 1973 to 1975 under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford

 James Schlesinger during the cold war warned  that Soviet Union should not be seen through “Ten Foot Tall Syndrome’. Schlesinger believed that the theory and practice of the 1950s and 1960s had been overtaken by events, particularly the rise of the Soviet Union to virtual nuclear parity with the United States.  Schlesinger believed that "deterrence is not a substitute for defense; but the potential for effective counteraction, are the essential condition of deterrence.''

The demise of the Soviet Union has not ended the struggle for supremacy of global affairs. On the contrary the rise of China has thwarted the aspiration of the US to remain supreme in global affairs. Many analysts think growth could be as high as 9% in 2021, up from last year’s 2.3%. But the government is, publicly at least, setting its sights lower. Barring any major setbacks, that should be achievable. China would still reach 6% year-on-year growth for 2021 as a whole. The target of 6% growth is conservative. China’s rise is enviable but not without thorns for Xi Jinping on his way to be the emulated successor of  Mao Zedong.

As an analyst pointed out although the Chinese economy has grown almost twelvefold over the past two decades, there have been repeated threats of a cascading debt crisis since he rose to power in 2012. In this context, Trump’s declaration of a trade war affected not only the Chinese economy but also Xi’s political standing.  It also helped Donald Trump secure the Presidency as the slogan Trade Wars Are Class Wars, made a direct connection between international confrontation and rising domestic inequality within the world’s largest economies.              Specifically, the critics argued   that because Communist Party of China (CPC) elites chose to constrain domestic consumption and boost exports, US manufacturers suffered, and their displaced and disaffected workers then mobilized to deliver Trump the presidency in 2016.

Ironically China which is now a plutocracy Chinese Revolution came about as a revolt against foreign domination and feudalism. In 1978, almost 100 percent of China’s economic output came from the public sector; that figure has now dropped to less than 20 percent.   China’s astronomical growth has produced  massive increase in inequality. From 1985 to 2010, the country’s Gini coefficient leapt from 0.30 to around 0.50—higher than that of the United States and closer to the levels found in Latin America. Inequality in China has risen starkly within both rural and urban areas, and it has risen even more so in the country as a whole because of the increasing gap between those areas.

That growing inequality is evident in every divide—between rich and poor provinces, high-skilled workers and low-skilled workers, men and women, and the private sector and the state sector.           Notably, there has also been an increase in China in the share of income from privately owned capital, which seems to be as concentrated there as in the advanced market economies of the West. A new capitalist elite has formed in China (Jerrry Z Muller-Catholic University of America-Washington D.C.).   Is Chinese threat new or its style of governance is not the product of thousands of years of autocratic rule?

A recent example can be found in, the evidence of the atrocities that China has committed against Uyghurs. Over one million Uyghurs and other Muslim peoples in the western Chinese region of Xinjiang are in mass internment camps, prisons, and other penal institutions where they are subjected to psychological stress, torture, and, as recently reported of systematic rape.  China was least worried about such reports and Chinese Foreign Minister dismissed it as propaganda against China’s success in economic sphere. At the National People’s Congress, an annual rubber-stamp parliament Chinese Prime Minister announced that China would target a fiscal deficit of 3.2% of GDP this year, down from last year’s 3.6%. China’s true fiscal deficit will be about 12% of GDP, compared with a record high of 15% last year. That is a retrenchment, but still higher than its deficit in 2019, of roughly 10% of GDP. Many analysts believed that growth could be as high as 9% and therefore the government’s estimate of 6% growth was conservative.

To the Chinese, President Bill Clinton turned out to be better than his other predecessors.  In his second term, Congress granted China permanent trading privileges, and Clinton began the process of negotiating for China’s admission to the World Trade Organization, which happened in 2001. Throughout successive Administrations, the U.S. mostly followed a strategy of engagement with China. Even President Obama’s “Pivot to Asia” policy, which was intended to counter China’s growing influence in the region, seemed to have little real effect.

Donald Trump’s China bashing infuriated the Chinese particularly his accusation of Chinese concealment of covet in Wuhan province from the WHO and the world. USA till today is the worst affected country in the world in terms of death, people infected by the disease and in all other criteria. During Trump his Deputy National Security Advisor Mathew Pottinger and National Security Advisor Robert O’Brien advised President Trump that it was the greatest national security threat to Trump Presidency and far more serious than SARS that killed 50 million people worldwide and advised complete travel ban from and to China.

After Trump’s chaotic foreign policy pursuit President Joe Biden in addressing the State Department said: America’s alliances are our greatest asset, and leading with diplomacy means standing shoulder-to-shoulder with our allies and key partners once again. By leading with diplomacy, we must also mean engaging our adversaries and our competitors diplomatically, where it’s in our interest, and advance the security of the American people. He pointedly mentioned China and said: American leadership must meet this new moment of advancing authoritarianism, including the growing ambitions of China to rival the United States and the determination of Russia to damage and disrupt our democracy.

Undoubtedly China’s power is growing. Today, writes Harvard’s Joseph Nye Jr,  nearly 100 countries count China as their largest trading partner, compared to 57 for the US. China plans to lend more than $1 trillion for infrastructure projects with its Belt and Road Initiative over the next decade, while the US has cut back aid. China will gain economic power from the sheer size of its market as well as its overseas investments and development assistance. China’s overall power relative to the US is likely to increase. Yet the US has no reason to believe in Ten Feet Syndrome for China. It will take many tears for China to catch up with the US both militarily, US military expenditure is four times that of China,   

Economically, by the end of 2020, IMF forecasts that China GDP will reach $15.5 trillion, whereas the US GDP will reach $22.3 trillion. IMF forecasts China GDP per capita to reach $10,971 in 2020. This will still be less than that of the US GDP per capita in 1980, which was $12,553. Despite Sino-US rivalry the possibility of a conflict between the two is remote. Even though China is ahead of US in GDP Purchasing Power Parity (PPP), China GDP PPP per capita is still one-third of that of the US. The problem however remains as pointed out by Singaporean Prime Minister (The Endangered Asian Century America, China, and the Perils of Confrontation By Lee Hsien Loong July/August 2020) relates to the troubled U.S.-Chinese relationship that raises profound questions about Asia’s future and the shape of the emerging international order. Southeast Asian countries, including Singapore, are especially concerned, as they live at the intersection of the interests of various major powers and must avoid being caught in the middle or forced into invidious choices. Lee Hsien Loong advises the two powers “must work out a modus vivendi that will be competitive in some areas without allowing rivalry to poison cooperation in others.      

Asian countries see the United States as a resident power that has vital interests in the region. At the same time, China is a reality on the doorstep. Asian countries do not want to be forced to choose between the two. And if either attempts to force such a choice—if Washington tries to contain China’s rise or Beijing seeks to build an exclusive sphere of influence in Asia—they will begin a course of confrontation that will last decades and put the long-heralded Asian century in jeopardy”.  Lee Hsien Loong added the obvious that the prime driver of the prosperity of the free world has been the US open market, its rule based economic system, and its practice of democracy.

 It is inconceivable that Xi Jinping’s autocracy can ever be an alternative

(The author is a former Ambassador and Secretary in the Foreign Ministry of Bangadesh)

 

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