This is an extract from Dr Samir Saran and Akhil Deo's new book Pax Sinica: Implications for the Indian Dawn. Join the World Economic Forum Book Club to discuss.
Sitting in New Delhi in 2019, there are five stories that showcase Xi’s unmistakable ambition and vision. The first story is that of the nineteenth National Congress of the Communist Party, which has undoubtedly already made its place in history. For Xi, it cemented his position as the most powerful Chinese leader since Chairman Mao. By christening himself ‘core leader’, injecting ‘Xi Jinping thought’ into the Chinese constitution, and abolishing term limits for the post of China’s President, Xi has not only firmly entrenched himself in the pantheon of China’s ideological history, but he has also disrupted the principle of collective governance that has held the country in good stead. For China, the Congress laid out a more ambitious agenda for a ‘new era’ in which the nation is to become ‘…a global leader in terms of composite national strength and international influence’ by the middle of the twenty-first century. Xi’s promise to lead China into this new era has seen him double down on the primacy of the party, the need for indigenous technological progress, and a strong military. For the world, the nineteenth National Congress signalled a more assertive China. Moreover, it indicated Beijing’s willingness to offer a new proposition for the world, which Xi called ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics for a New Era’. Characterized by an effective blend of political authoritarianism and state capitalism, this was a model for organizing societies and the international system that China is significantly investing in.
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The second story is of America’s response to China’s rise, epitomized by the clumsy arrest of Meng Wanzhou, Huawei’s Chief Financial Officer, in Canada on the ostensible charge of violating American sanctions on Iran. The real tensions, however, simmered under the surface—a new confrontation on politics, trade, and economics, with the tech sector being the beachhead. For the past five years or so, Washington has struggled to respond to China’s rise. Under the Obama administration, much of China’s aggressive behaviour, including its militarization of the South China Sea and its use of cyber espionage, we met by a reluctance to respond. This changed dramatically under the Trump administration. From labelling China a ‘revisionist power’ to tackling China’s high-tech ambitions head-on, Washington has signalled its intention to recalibrate its approach to China. The Trump administration has concertedly targeted the Made in China 2025 Initiative, which the Middle Kingdom sees as key to its great-power ambitions. There is a belief in both Washington and Zhongnanhai that control over emerging technologies will determine the future of the world order. This contest between the world’s two superpowers is central to the political realignments under way in the world. The resilience of American influence and the orbital pull of China’s growth will continue to send tremors across the international system for decades to come
The third story is that of the largest ever military exercises between China and Russia—the Vostok exercises. It was once unimaginable that Russia would invite the People’s Liberation Army to its Far East, a region that has historically symbolized the centre of hostility between the two countries. It is worth recalling that as early as 2010, the Vostok exercises were a manifestation of Russia’s response to China’s rise. The war games and military drills were designed to keep a potential Chinese invasion at bay. In under a decade, both countries have come to embrace each other more closely, whether through cooperation in regional connectivity or partnership in matters of global governance. Most recently, both Moscow and Beijing conducted a joint aerial operation over islands in East Asia, another first for both powers, and an indication of deepening military cooperation. Today, the glue that binds them is a shared antagonism towards a Western-led world order. The two countries, however, do not necessarily have mutually compatible expectations from each other—Russia sees in China a counterweight to Western pressure, while China sees in Russia a partner to manage the security implications that will invariably arise along the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). How these dynamics ultimately play out will be vital to defining the evolving political mergers between Europe and Asia
The fourth instance to look to is Italy signing on to the BRI— the first G7 country to do so. The event demonstrated the depth of Chinese influence in Europe. For the past five years, Beijing has slowly chipped away at Europe’s periphery—beginning with the 16+1 format that it incubated with the Eastern European nations. As in other parts of the world, China’s massive investments under the BRI have weakened pre-existing political alliances, allowing Beijing to upset and unsettle the sub-regional arrangements that have existed since the World War II. Xi has bet that the twenty-first century will be defined by the integration of the Asian and European continents. He is determined to ensure that the political, economic, and security dynamics of this process will be dictated by Beijing to serve its own interests. The symbolism of Italy joining the BRI is hard to miss. An ancient silk road once connected the Roman and Chinese civilizations centuries ago. The re-emergence of this route today, by Beijing’s will and design, is a powerful signal of how political geographies are reorienting.
The final story is that of the Doklam standoff—an event that is, perhaps, the most significant escalation in Sino-Indian military tensions in nearly four decades. There are many complexities to sort through when analysing the standoff. At its core, however, the event was precipitated by a growing divergence between how China and India imagine the future of Asia. Looking ahead, there are multiple possibilities of what this event signifies. Optimistically, the events at Doklam will have compelled both China and India to reconsider whether conflict would serve either of their national interests. Alternatively, and more worryingly, Doklam could signal the beginning of a new phase in the relationship between the world’s two most populous nations, where sharp tensions will punctuate periods of peace. It is unlikely that formal or informal summits, like the one in Wuhan, will mitigate the structural differences between the two powers. Most observers of international affairs believe that the US-China relationship will define the twenty-first century. This is partially true. However, it is also true that India will have emerged as one of the world’s largest economies by 2050. This will be a phenomenal transformation for Asia and the world. Two Asian powers, both home to over a billion individuals, and both with fundamentally different domestic political systems and outlooks, will inhabit the same space. Thus, this relationship is bound to define and even transform the twenty-first century.
At first glance, each of these stories may seem unconnected. Yet the common thread running through them all is the rise of China. Each story adds up to a larger picture: a vision of a world ordered by China’s interests, designs and ambitions.
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