The China´s Paradox
by Mariano Caucino
The COVID-19 global crisis has placed China in the center of world´s attention. A number of accusations against Beijing hold that the Chinese Communist regime hide or delayed information of the facts related to the pandemic. True or false, the debate is destined to last in the near future and might accelerate the course of geopolitical development of the U.S.-Chinese relations.
Two hundred years ago, Napoleon is attributed to have foreseen that the world will tremble when China awoke. In 1949, with the Chinese Communist Party power consolidation after the foundation of the Popular Republic, China left behind the Middle Kingdom´s three centuries of decline, isolation, collapse of its last dynasty (1912) and endless civil war. Since 1978, after Mao´s death, Deng Xiaoping´s pro-market reforms led to a dramatic growth turning China into the world´s second largest economy. A market economy and adoption of Capitalism allowed an outstanding economic expansion that improved the living standard of six hundred million people that three decades earlier suffered a semi-feudal style of subsistence. Constant economic improvement became the Politburo´s main source of legitimacy.
Meanwhile, the Chinese Communist learned early the lessons from the fall of their former partners. The collapse of the socialist regimes in 1989 and the dissolution of the Soviet Union two years later, offered a lesson to Beijing´s hierarchy. Soon after becoming Secretary General of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Xinping explained that the absence of a strong leader prevented the breakdown of the Soviet empire. In the aftermath, Xi accumulated more and more power consolidating under his supreme authority Party, State, Government and the Military. The regime tightened its grip on its people and enforced internal censorship. Following Tocqueville´s advice about the dangerous moment that a reform process could prove for bad governments, Beijing suppressed every protest attempt from Tiananmen in June 1989 to the recent Umbrella´s movement in Hong Kong. But economic growth turned China into the world largest economy.
The rise of China provoked some debates as to whether the 21st Century would belong to her. Western powers as Spain, Portugal, France, the British Empire and the United States of America led the world in the last five hundred years. Would China become the World´s leader in this next century?
War between China and the United States contains the century´s key question. On Thucydide´s Trap base, Graham Allison analyzes in “Destined for War” (2017) a dozen and a half cases in which a rising power threatens to displace a ruling one, with violence the likeliest result. China´s leadership pretensions to become Asia´s hegemonic power and its deployment in the South China Sea were compared to America´s role in the Caribbean one century ago. And although President Obama explained to Xi that the Pacific Ocean was big enough for both the US and China´s ambitions, one can speculate about that region of the world abecoming the 21st century´s tensions scene.
Henry Kissinger explained once that an American project to organize Asia on the basis of containing China or creating a bloc of democratic states for an ideological crusade is unlikely to succeed and he hopes for peaceful coexistence. But he fears a repeat of what happened a hundred years ago when the rise of a unified Germany challenged Britain´s predominance.
In today’s world, the United States remains the only nation on earth able to practice the three spheres of power: military authority, economic capacity and soft power. However, the exercise of that power is conditioned by the present historical circumstances. The unipolar moment that emerged after the collapse of the Soviet Union seems to be left behind. Francis Fukuyama´s “End of History” (1992) expectations had disappeared and had evaporated by subsequent developments. The September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks displayed the extent to which America´s geographical privileged situation isolated by two huge oceans was not enough to protect her from the threats of terror in the 21st Century. Avoidable mistakes, such as the 2003 Iraq War, or the imposition of American Freedom Agenda through Colour Revolutions in East Europe and the Middle East by means of the so called “Arab Spring”, unintentionally contributed to reduce and not to increase US position in the world.
The United States seems unable to escape imperial burden resulting from the need to maintain its huge military apparatus around the globe. Its international responsibility inherent to its superpower status leads America to get involved in endless wars awakening isolation sentiments. Those deep thoughts that were interpreted by no one better than Donald Trump with his “America First” campaign to the White House in 2016.
It is highly probable that the nation that will develop the vaccine against COVID-19 will acquire international prestige and soft power comparable to the Man on the Moon achievement. That discovery will have geopolitical consequences. One can speculate on the aftermath if that milestone is accomplished by the United Stated or by an ally (Britain, Israel, Japan of South Korea) or by China. In this case, the paradox will be complete: China will become the cause and the remedy of the pandemic.
China for her part exhibits the strange combination of superiority and victimhood in the international stage. On the one hand, Beijing sponsors meritocratic rule and has benefited from the postwar institutions and managed to escape its humiliating cycle of previous centuries. Since the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century, China blames the West for her sense of failure. At the same time, China charges the United States with striving to prevent her claimed own harmonious and peaceful development.
There might be a final paradox. Asia might be the world´s first region to recover from the severe recession that will affect the whole globe. The COVID-19 drama will represent the fateful irony of having started and ended in the same place.
Mariano Caucino is an expert in International Relations and served as Argentine Ambassador to the State of Israel and Costa Rica.