Whether China is what its critics say it is depends on one’s perspective. But in China’s view, given the histories of the West and Japan, they are not qualified to judge it, because they are committing the very deeds they accuse China of.
The fact is that China has neither the resources, time nor inclination to pursue global dominance when it needs a prolonged period of peace, stability and resources to build a “prosperous and strong” socialist country by 2050. It is promoting globalization and a multipolar world rather than bullying weaker nations and threatening the West and Japan.
The world according to China
Chinese leaders appear to be astute students of history, “facing the future with history as the mirror.” They have learned that self-isolation during the early part of the 15th century was the root cause of China’s backwardness and decline, explaining why President Xi Jinping was moved to declare: “Isolation is like putting one in a dark room.”
The country has learned that being weak invites bullying, the reason for China’s determination to build a strong military. China is aware of the bitterness that bullied victims endure, explaining the reason for its “Five Principles of Peaceful Co-existence” foreign-policy platform, which includes equality among nations and non-interference into other countries’ internal affairs.
Walking the talk
It seems that China is “walking the talk,” promoting interconnected, invigorated, inclusive and innovative growth from which every nation should benefit. For example, the Belt and Road Initiative is meant to be an outlet for China’s industrial overcapacity and enhance economic growth for countries that participate in the BRI, with nearly US$1 trillion in Chinese investment. For example, the country’s steel surplus is to be used to build participating countries’ infrastructure, factories and other buildings.
Further, China is hesitant to export to or impose its values and ideology on other countries. The success of China’s development path led American journalist Joshua Cooper Ramo to coin the term “Beijing Consensus“. He suggested that other developing countries should use it as a template for their economic development. But China encourages those who want to emulate it to follow a development path and governance platform that are suitable to their own history, values, culture and other institutions.
Finally, China does not interfere with the internal affairs of other countries unless they affect its interests. Unlike the US and its allies, China has not criticized, threatened or invaded nations harboring a different ideology or governance architecture. For example, China did not bomb countries (like Libya and Syria) for no other reason than they are dictatorships or are doing business with countries (like China and Russia) the West doesn’t like. It did not criticize Israel for developing nuclear weapons.
Pots calling the kettle black
On China bullying weaker nations. In the 1960s, the US and its allies invaded Vietnam to prevent communist expansion by lying to the American people that communist-controlled North Vietnam fired on a US warship in the Gulf of Tonkin. Since then, they have have bombed or threatened countries that defied them (Libya, Iraq, Syria and North Korea), again based on “alternative facts” and speculations. Iraq was speculated to have possessed weapons of mass destruction and North Korea was “provocative” and “threatening” to the US and its allies.
As far as China is concerned, it is building a strong military to deter another Treaty of Versailles experience. In 1919, the League of Nations treaty gave Japan all of Germany’s Chinese possessions without consulting China. That painful experience and the Opium Wars led Mao Zedong to state that “political power grows out of the barrel of a gun.” That is, China has learned from the West and Japan that meaningful diplomacy requires a strong military.
On China being “aggressive” in the South China Sea. The territorial claims in the sea were largely buried for “wiser” future governments to settle until 2012, when US president Barack Obama announced his “pivot to Asia” policy and the Japanese government decided to “buy” the Diaoyu (or Senkaku) Islands from their “Japanese owners” (how they got to own the islands was never explained). The timing of the two occurrences might be coincidental, but they opened a can of worms.
The Japanese government’s decision to buy the islands was seen as a refusal to accept history and was emboldened by the United States’ commitment to defend the islands if they were attacked. The US was a drafter of and signatory to the 1944 Cairo Declaration demanding that Japan to return all Chinese territories it had annexed be returned to China. However, the US reneged on its commitment and turned the Senkakus over to Japan in 1972.
In response to the Japanese government buying the islands, China established the Air Defense Identification Zone (ADIZ), requiring foreign planes to identify themselves when flying over the region. Ignoring the fact that they themselves had established similar zones earlier, the US and its allies vehemently protested against China’s decision.
The Japanese government also misled its public and the world by saying that China did not consult it beforehand. Mainichi Shimbun reported in 2012 that China did inform Japan of its ADIZ decision. The Shingetsu News Agency reported that China asked the Japanese government how the two countries should deal with potential issues three months before it was put in place.
To counter Obama’s “pivot to Asia” policy, China built islands and installed weapons systems on them within the “Nine Dash Line.” China is determined to prevent the US and its allies from mounting a naval blockade in the South China Sea. Most of the trade transiting the waters belongs to China.
China stealing technologies from US firms or forcing their transfer. Whether China hacked US firms to steal their technology is unclear, but the accusation is just that. Mandiant, a US-based cybersecurity firm, only indicated that the hacking of US computers was “most likely” done from within China. Perhaps to add “credibility,” the firm even identified the building from which the hacking was supposed to have originated.
What’s more, hacking other countries’ computers was in fact started by the US when it cyber-spied on Iran. According to WikiLeaks and the revelations of Edward Snowdon, the US government relentlessly spies on other countries, including its allies.
The transfer of technologies to Chinese joint-venture partners is a condition for entering the Chinese market, not “forcing” them as its critics would like the world to believe. Foreign firms have a choice of whether or not to invest in China. Indeed, China is not the only country that imposes conditions on foreign investment; Japan and Western nations do the same.
China’s “beggar thy neighbor” policies. China has been accused of manipulating the yuan, but the US Treasury Department repeatedly refuses to label it as a currency manipulator. Moreover, the International Monetary Fund rejects the United States’ definition of currency manipulation: any country that has a trade value of $50 billion and a current-account surplus over the US of more than $20 billion.
The anti-China crowd seems to be suffering from a case of amnesia. In 2002 the US deliberately depreciated the greenback for 20 years to enhance economic growth (through lowering interest rates and increasing exports).
Moreover, the US Federal Reserve has carried out three rounds of quantitative easing since 2008 in which the central bank printed new money to buy US Treasuries. The more than $4 trillion in new money was to bail out banks and firms deemed “too big to fail”. But the huge increase in the money supply reduced interest rates and depreciated the dollar, prompting Germany and Brazil to accuse the US of instigating currency wars.
A final comment
Whether China is what its critics accuse it of depends on whom one talks to. But China has a point when it accuses the Western and Japanese anti-China crowds of hypocrisy and prejudice.
Feeding the public with subjective information can be dangerous and costly, as the Vietnam and Iraq wars demonstrated. The US and its allies lost tens of thousands of their young men and women in Vietnam for nothing. Instead of blocking communist expansion, the US and its allies might have ended up hastening it in the region. Instead of making Iraq a “democracy”, the US and its allies turned it into a dysfunctional state wrought with sectarian fighting, which in turn created massive refugee issues.
China is a much bigger and stronger country than Vietnam or Iraq, and creating conflicts with the rising superpower will far costlier. The Chinese idiom “Face the future with history as the mirror” might be wise advice.