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China: The Elephant in that Room in Cornwall

China: The Elephant in that Room in Cornwall

Friday, 18 June, 2021 - 03:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

At the G-7 summit in Cornwall last weekend, US President Joe Biden warned his fellow-summiteers that unless something was done “China would eat our lunch.” Did Biden overegg the pudding with his colorful language or is the world ignoring the invisible chopsticks at work?

In a sense China, as the biggest trading partner of almost all the G-7 members, is already eating part of their lunch while it is clear that without Western investment, technology and, of course, markets China might have remained hungry and stuck between the madness of Maoism and the inertia of Ah-Quism.

Biden, of all people, should know all that. For it was during the Obama administration in which Biden was part of the décor that the “Asia-Pacific” cliché was launched as the principal future direction of the US global strategy. Obama helped China secure membership of the World Trade Organization (WTO) and gain privileged access to US capital markets. While he looked the other way, China militarized a string of atolls in seas around it as part of a long-term plan to forge an aggressive profile against its neighbor and the United States.

The Europeans saw the “Asia-Pacific” motif as a signal that China was the future and that they had better put as many chips on its number as they could.

Like his other grandiose schemes Obama’s “Asia-Pacific” failed because his administration was unable to define China’s place in the global system and its relations with the United States. Unable to decide whether China was friend or foe, Obama, the quintessential ego-worshipper, believed his charm would be sufficient to coax China into the channel he desired.

That indecision was also present in Cornwall where the G-7 grandees asserted that China was “a problem” but were manifestly unable to agree on what kind of a problem it was. There was much talk of “human rights” with special reference to Beijing’s atrocious deeds in Xinjiang and repressive measures in Hong Kong. This was interesting because the same powers had not made much of a fuss about Beijing’s systematic destruction of the Tibetan, Manchu, Uighur and Mongolian identities, the Tiananmen massacre and the mushrooming of factories, often financed by Western powers, where hundreds of millions of Chinese peasants were press-ganged as slave-laborers to produce cheap consumer goods for rich nations.

In their time both Presidents George W Bush and Barack Obama treated China as a partner if not a friend. Today, British Prime Minister Boris Johnson, the host of the Cornwall summit, echoes that sentiment while Germany and France continue to lick their lips in anticipation of securing a bigger slice of the Chinese market.

In France, there are businesses specializing in selling chunks of the country, from historic vineyards to ultra-modern factories to Chinese investors. As far as the US is concerned, it would be interesting to see what would happen if the Chinese didn’t spend part of their hard-earned dollars buying US treasury bonds at almost zero interest rate.

The rhetorical adornments of the G-7 statements notwithstanding it was clear that the “magnificent seven” were not signing from the same hymn-sheet as far as dealing with the “China problem” is concerned.

The intricacies of the global system make dealing with China, on the basis of Kaiser Wilhelm’s “Yellow Peril” shibboleth, a self-defeating endeavor. Nor could “dealing with China” mean a world without China as successive US administrations imagined until President Nixon cut the Gordian knot.

In Cornwall, the G-7 waxed lyrical about cutting down global warming, making the oceans recede and restore the planet’s paradisiacal past by 2050. Could that be done without China when it is responsible for 27 percent of all global pollution compared to 20 percent for the G-7 combined?

Biden’s suggestion that the G-7 launch a global project for infrastructure development to rival China’s controversial “Road and Belt” plan would be more credible if the US set an example by dealing with its own derelict infrastructure.

There is no doubt that the current Chinese leadership is casting itself as a serious contender for global leadership to the point of marketing its narrowly-based authoritarian system as the ideal political model for the modern world. That posture, I believe is more a sign of self-doubt and a quest for gaining legitimacy on the cheap by a leadership trying to replace the deadwood of Communism with the rotten timber of pseudo-nationalism.

The Chinese challenge can and must be met both in the global arena and inside the People’s Republic itself. Any move in that direction would require a realistic assessment of the People’s Republic in terms of hard and soft power.

And that could not be based on idle talk about China becoming the “only superpower” capable of setting the global agenda. Let’s not forget that “the end of the American century”, which meant the end of the Western liberal-democratic model, has been peddled before. In the 1960s many, including some luminaries in the United States and other Western countries, saw the Soviet Union in that role. In the 1970s futurologists, led by Hermann Kahn, cast France as the future global leader. In the 1980s there was much talk of the looming Japanese “century”.

None of those things happened. The Soviet Union collapsed, giving its place to a new authoritarian system, with an inferiority complex vis-à-vis Western democracies and no pretention of offering a model for others. France, distancing itself from the Gaullist model, became more liberal and democratic but never succeeded in upgrading itself into a global superpower. The concept of a “Japanese century” quickly dissipated like smoke in a Kabuki show while Japan retained its place at the high table by deepening its democracy.

China’s pursuit of global power and influence is modelled on the Western empire-buildings of the 19th century which consisted of importing raw material, exporting manufactured goods, and weaving networks of trade with the help of a seemingly endless flow of settlers, gunboats and colonial outposts across the globe. China cannot fully adopt that model for a number of reasons. Its model is based on the assumption that capitalism forever do without democracy, something that the experience of the Western imperial powers of the past proved to be fallacious.

President Xi Jiniping’s pretention for global leadership is more a sign of doubts about a model of capitalism without democracy. He hopes to replace the deadwood of Communism with the rotten timber of pseudo-nationalism. Underestimating China as Obama did in his time was wrong but overestimating its power, as Biden did in Cornwall, is equally misplaced. President Xi would do well to read or perhaps re-read Mao Zedong’s “Essay on Contradiction”. Come to think of it, maybe, Biden would also find a glance at it not without interest.

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