China’s bumpy ‘peaceful rise’
On the surface, China’s paramount leader, President Xi Jinping, seems to be on an unstoppable roll—like a modern-day emperor with a fresh mandate from heaven. In marked contrast, US President Donald Trump, the leader of the free world and undisputed superpower on the planet, looks chastised and weakened by very low poll ratings, a simmering revolt in his own party, and, worst of all, a bloodhound of a prosecutor closing in on his Russian connections.
As the United States under Trump retreats from multilateral commitments (read: Nafta and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) into Fortress America, under an isolationist slogan, “America First,” China rushes to fill the void with a catchy vision called “Chinese dream.” Never mind if it sounds like a borrowed phrase (“American dream”). It definitely is a more appealing sound bite.
Can China really overtake a world-weary, stumbling America, with a brand of leadership and socioeconomic system built around a state-driven market economy and strong dictatorship? A look at China’s daunting problems and challenges will show that its dazzling foreign policy initiatives reflect weakness more than strength.
In this context, it is understandable why Xi had to consolidate political power through the control of the Politburo, the military and security services, and the Communist Party’s very ideology via the constitutional inscription of his thought. As added measure, Xi also took over the feared anticorruption body, the Central Commission Discipline Inspection, to curb crime and purge rivals.
It’s really all about making sure China’s dream of inclusive prosperity and superpower status doesn’t turn into a nightmare. Consider these harsh realities:
China is virtually a coastal-island nation highly dependent on maritime trade. Eight of the ten busiest ports in the world lie on its eastern coasts. In the event of conflict, a hostile power like America (that has encircled China’s coast and maritime routes with powerful military forces since after World War II) could easily block the choke points in the Malacca Straits and the South China Sea, thus strangulating China’s economic lifeline to the Middle East and Europe. China’s “nine-dash line” and “First island chain” mantra is thus a survival reaction to America’s vise-like naval encirclement of China’s most vulnerable industrial heartland: its coasts.
China’s military forces, notably its weak navy (one aircraft carrier fleet) pales in comparison to America’s overwhelming and more modern 11-carrier strike force. By Xi’s own estimate, it would take more than 15 years for China to challenge US naval power.
Small wonder Beijing refused to recognize the Permanent Court of Arbitration’s 2016 ruling that declared the “nine-dash line” illegal. Doing so would have meant undermining its own geopolitical and national security imperatives. If China is serious about protecting its economy and
being a global power, it must counterbalance US power in the South China Sea by hanging on and militarizing the key islands in it (as unsinkable aircraft carriers), and be damned with legalities.
China’s ambitious “One Belt, One Road” (Obor) infrastructure project goes through restive areas such as Xinjiang and Tibet and seems increasingly more problematic. The recent sudden pullout by Pakistan and Nepal from multibillion-dollar hydroelectric projects along Obor due to unacceptable strings attached by China have raised alarm bells. Such developments should be a wake-up call for China’s vassal states, like the Philippines, whose President has proudly and unabashedly embraced a pivot to China.
The Pakistan decision can throw a monkey wrench into the Obor’s key project, the 1,000-mile road from Xinjiang to Pakistan’s port of Gwadar in the Arabian Sea that would cut travel time to the Middle East by 12,000 kilometers. If it’s scuttled or plagued by protracted delays, China’s plan to bypass the SCS entirely in case its choke points are blocked by rival powers would be thwarted.
Other king-size headaches for Xi are these related issues: discontent among its poor, numbering over 400 million, China’s real-estate bubbles that are economic time bombs, and the national debt that has soared to an all-time high of 304 percent of GDP.
Narciso Reyes Jr. (firstname.lastname@example.org) is an international book author and former diplomat. He lived in Beijing in 1978-81 as bureau chief of the Philippine News Agency.
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