For quite a number of years, it seemed as if China could do no wrong. While America was deploying treasure and blood in wars in the Middle East, China was on a global charm offensive, using its huge built up investment capital to seduce nations around the world to understand that China meant more to their future than other nations or multilateral organizations.
I once asked the head of policy planning in China’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs what China’s grand strategy was and was told, “China’s grand strategy is to keep America distracted by small Middle Eastern conflicts.” While this was meant as a joke, there was a serious nugget of truth in what he said. While America had become King of the Hill after the Cold War, America was busily kicking down its own hill, and China was going to do nothing to take the US off that course. China hosted the magnificent 2008 Olympics Games in Beijing as well as the World Expo in Shanghai – and presented a friendly face to a developing world eager to achieve even a fraction of China’s modernization and enrichment.
After the 2008-2009 global financial crisis, I compared China and the United States to stocks in the stock market. Much of the world saw the United States as the “General Motors” of nations – a big, sprawling, well branded and well known, but underperforming nation that just wasn’t achieving the results it should. And China seemed like a young Google, an internet start up nation – that was getting a premium on its power because of what it promised to be in the future as opposed to its rather limited wealth and power today.
In other words, power is like a stock market – it’s based on future expectations. And in China’s case – until recently – few have questioned the stability and solvency of China’s rise. What China is learning today is something that the US made a mistake on in its series of wars and major land deployments in the Middle East and South Asia.
Power is mystique – more based on the possibilities of what a power might be able to do rather than the actual flexing of military muscles. Power is being able to sculpt the international order in ways that the superpower, or rising power, prefers. Power is more seduction than force.
With the invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks in the United States, America managed to show limits that it had not shown in decades. It responded in ways that contributed to it looking militarily overstretched; financially beleaguered, particularly after the 2008-2009 financial crisis but also before; it looked less like a moral leader to the rest of the world spying on its own citizens and setting up a global network of shady secret prisons for captured suspected insurgents and terrorists; and it seemed uninterested in revising the global governance institutions to reflect new global power realities. America looked and behaved in anachronistic ways – a neo-colonial power fighting for territory far away and deploying huge land armies at great cost to American citizens. This was an equation that might have worked in earlier centuries – but not in the 21st century.
China was the future, and America was the past – at least that was the way it looked to many aspiring nations in the world until Chinese neo-imperial hubris began unraveling its mystique.
Now today, China looks like the stock of Facebook, launched to much fanfare but ultimately disappointing. Some are leaving Facebook because of fear of privacy violations and disputes about who owns the pictures and life stories of individuals that post on Facebook. Facebook had governance hiccups and made mistakes as its stock was offered in an IPO to the public. Facebook’s stock value is now held down by the strong gravitational forces of ‘doubt’, and exactly the same kind of global doubt and concern is bursting China’s bubble today.
In a thoughtful article that appeared in the journal National Interest titled “China’s Bad Diplomacy,” former US government officials James Clad and Robert Manning write that aggressive Chinese behavior today is producing “exactly what China says it doesn’t want: a de facto anti-China coalition backed discreetly by the United States and reaching from India to the Sea of Japan.” In other words, China has become its own worst enemy and is reversing all of the gains from its recent charm offensive and scaring its neighbors and other global stakeholders to rally back around the United States – even if the US has been geostrategically negligent and derelict lately.
What has China done to kick down the hill of which it was quickly becoming king? Clad and Manning offer a great roster including China declaring the entire South China Sea under its sovereignty; violating the terms of the China-ratified Law of the Seas Treaty to interdict two ‘seismic vessels’ in Malaysian waters, producing a nasty row in China-Malaysia relations; cutting through a Vietnam seismic-exploration ship cable; issuing new passports with artwork showing the South China Sea as Chinese territory.
Furthermore, China has been testing the strength of the Japan-US security relationship with aggressive posturing on the Senkaku/Diaoyutai Islands now administered by Japan but claimed by China, Taiwan, and Japan. None of the parties seem interested in balanced international arbitration – but are trying a ‘might makes right’ approach to establishing the ownership of these uninhabited rocks that may give the national proprietor access to large oil and gas reserves in the vicinity.
China has become aggressive – and given the recent change in leadership in China’s Standing Committee of the Chinese Communist Party – reasonableness and pragmatism may translate into weakness among the battle-ready gladiators that sit ready to challenge each other inside China’s opaque political order.
On top of the external aggressiveness of China today, it is experiencing as close to a political meltdown internally as has been witnessed since the 1989 Tiananmen Crisis. The fall of Bo Xilai, the former governor of Chongching, and his wife and network has revealed deep fault lines of staggering corruption and power feuds among Chinese elite. And the New York Times revelations of enormous wealth held by family members of former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao and recently by Bloomberg about family members of the new General Secretary of the Communist Party and civilian head of China’s People’s Liberation Army Xi Jinping have contributed to the doubt-building about China’s future that is robbing it of mystique and momentum.
Consolidating this long list of charm-mistakes, Xi Jinping, as reported by the New York Times, is calling for the further strengthening of China’s armed forces in a campaign he calls “the Chinese dream” of national restoration. He is pushing more resources toward the military at a time of economic slowdown and uncertainty and after China provocatively flew a military surveillance plane over the disputed islands Japan administers.
In other words, Xi sees military investment and posturing as the equation of power – not China’s economic needs or the further enmeshment of China into a global order of trade and deal-making that has indisputably made China a very rich, powerful nation. China is recklessly kicking down its hill, scaring its neighbors so that they organize against it, and behaving, at minimum, ambivalently about the trust-dependent benefits that come from peaceful global trade and cross-investment.
China may ultimately be resilient – as may be its leadership structure – but today, China’s behavior is breeding doubt about its model, its intentions and objectives, and it is spreading fear rather than confidence about its rise.
Nations are banding together more tightly in common objection to Chinese aggression. Japan, hated by many Southeast Asian nations for its misdeeds during World War II, is now looked at as a key ally and military balancer along with the United States by former Southeast Asian colonial possessions of Japan. The change in attitude towards Japan among the non-Chinese parts of Asia has been staggering, swift and positive – and all as Japan brings to power a former, quite hawkish, nationalist Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe.
Beijing’s swagger has proven damaging to the perceptions of its global promise, which now looks more fragile today than just a year ago.
Like all stocks on the equity markets, if expectations are not met, stocks fall – and that is what is happening to the perception of Chinese power and wealth today.
America did look like General Motors – but then General Motors and the other major US auto companies reorganized, rewired themselves, and relaunched and are earning massive profits and the affections of many car buyers who love the cars.
China has looked like the national version of an internet start-up stock – racing to the heavens – until it took its power too seriously and began to underperform. Now, its mystique punctured, China is now experiencing greater turbulence and resistance to what it once thought was its inevitable rise. Now a rebalancing is underway – economically with investment and revitalization of the American economy and geostrategically with other nations banding against Chinese dominance.
Time will tell if China can maturely and peacefully manage the hits to prestige and power it is now taking or whether it will attempt to achieve militarily tomorrow what it might have been able to do if it had maintained a posture of charm and standing as a key resource to other nations needing global assistance.
Contribution to Kyodo News. The above full English version exclusively posted with permission from the author.
Steven Clemons is Washington editor at large for The Atlantic and editor of Atlantic Live. He is also a senior fellow and the founder of the American Strategy Program at the New American Foundation, a think tank in Washington D.C. Clemons writes frequently about politics, foreign affairs, national security, defense and international economic policy.