The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) celebrated with great fanfare its centenary on 1 July 2021. Chinese Premier Xi Jinping highlighted the CCP’s key position at the centre of China and how only she can turn the Middle Kingdom into a power to be reckoned with in the foreseeable future. “The people of China are not only good at destroying the old world, they have also created a new world. A new world created by China’s people” China gets regular coverage about her growing strength and how she wants to uproot the global order and replace it with a Chinese global order. But there has been little detail or elaboration from Beijing on what her global order would look like or what her aspirations are for the world.
When the US was constructing the Global Liberal Order near the end of WW2, China had been occupied by foreign powers for a century. She was in the midst of a civil war and therefore did not take part in the conferences, summits and meetings where the post-WW2 order was being constructed. Today China is forced to abide by a global system where she was unable to make any of the rules. This is why Chinese leaders and thinkers criticise the liberal norms and values that buttress the international order as a Western “political ideology.” China can clearly see despite her support for some aspects of the international order such as being a UN security council member and joining the World Trade Organisation (WTO) the order benefits the US who made the rules of the system, and the order will not be reformed to the point where China will get a chance to shape it.
For the moment the Chinese leadership has not offered much description of the world order it would like to see emerge. The leadership does not see Confucianism, Communism, or the nation’s Han culture as values to underpin a future global order. The Chinese have long believed their values are not universal and are unique to them. China does not have hegemonic ambitions like the US and criticises the presence of a hegemonic power in the world. What can be gleaned from Chinese officials, and the analytical community surrounding China’s political elites is they would like to see a balance of power at a global level rather than a unipolar world. They would also prefer multiple powers in multiple regions. This would allow for greater representation in the world and the distribution of power would allow emerging markets and developing countries more say in the world. For China, values play no role in her vision of a new global order. Her vision is therefore an objective based one rather than a value based one that the world can subscribe to. The impact of not having a values based global ambition has huge ramifications as it means there is no ideal for the world to subscribe to. The Cold War was about two competing orders for the world and both Capitalism and Communism battled it out for global domination. It was an ideological struggle on the best way of life for humanity. This is just not the struggle China is in or has ambitions for.
The Cold War was about two competing orders for the world and both Capitalism and Communism battled it out for global domination. It was an ideological struggle on the best way of life for humanity. This is just not the struggle China is in or has ambitions for
The lack of global values has meant China has struggled to advocate new global institutions. The few organisations she has promoted are too small to compete at a global level and to some exist in name only. The BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) is a group of countries that consider existing management of the global order as unfair to them and in different degrees have opposed the rules dictated by Western powers. These countries are perfectly integrated into the global markets and aside from issuing joint statements they have not had any real impact at a global level. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) aims to support the building of infrastructure in the Asia-Pacific region. The bank has 70 members as well as 23 prospective members from around the world. As matters stand, the bank has invested in just 85 projects worth $15.3 billion. This is relatively extremely small to even scratch the Bretton Woods institutions.
A New Eastern Bloc?
One of the ways the US was able to dominate the world was by establishing a Western bloc. This bloc represented its way of life and it competed for decades with the eastern communist bloc. The US and some other nations in the western bloc have various vassal nations and agent rulers that protect their interests and act as tools in their global agendas. China for the moment has no global alliance system, vassal nations, agent rulers or political allies. Despite all the investment China has made around the world, none of these nations support Chinese political goals. China has invested heavily in Pakistan, Indonesia, Iran and a host of African nations but for the moment she has failed to get these nations to support her political goals. These nations do not play any role in countering the US or weakening US presence in their regions or in support of any Chinese agenda. Whilst much is said about the Sino-Russian alliance it has yet to move beyond think-tanks and reports and physically counter the US whether at a global or regional level. Russia and China are as much competitors in places such as central Asia as they are allies, but both want the credit of being in an alliance that is standing up to the US. Building a bloc that can protect your interests is key to being a global power and in establishing a new global order. For the moment China is very far from this goal.
Building a bloc that can protect your interests is key to being a global power and in establishing a new global order. For the moment China is very far from this goal
A Global Yuan?
In July 2020, the state-owned Bank of China published a report arguing that due the threat of sanctions from the US, China should make more international payments through her own financial infrastructure. China has been criticising the role of the dollar for over a decade and she has tried to direct more of her own trade and finance into yuan-denominated channels, but the yuan is still not used widely in the financial world. China’s Yuan based clearing system – CIPS provides settlement and clearing services of yuan-denominated cross-border and offshore transactions. When the system was first established in 2015, China was pressing for greater international use of her national currency. Those efforts, however, have not yielded success as of yet with the yuan’s share of global foreign currency reserves less than 2%. China has managed to reduce the use of the dollar to half her trade with Russia, but this is unlikely to spread further as the yuan’s global use is inhibited by capital controls. China’s Yuan will not be replacing the US dollar anytime soon as her currency is just not widely used. China still maintains significant capital control upon money leaving the country and she still maintains a low exchange rate to keep her exports competitive. With such limitations, China’s currency will never become a global tender but it would seem China wants the credibility of challenging the dollar without actually undertaking the real actions that will challenge the dollar.
The US has a military with a global presence. Her navy, with the world’s largest fleet of aircraft carriers, controls the world’s oceans and maintains global sea lanes. It has over 800 military bases around the world to ensure no other power can rise and challenge US hegemony. All of this is knitted together with a space-based communication system. China’s military despite making significant developments in the last two decades is nowhere close to US capabilities. In fact, it would seem China doesn’t have the aspiration for a global military and is focused on her region and her waters close to home. American soft power is underpinned by American hard power; China would have to challenge or at least weaken this if she wants to replace the US led global order. But as things stand China is generations away from having such military capability and for the moment it doesn’t have a military to even dominate her own region.
China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) has gained much media attention and has seen terms such as the ‘21st century Silk Road’ and ‘Eurasian Trade Bloc’ thrown around as descriptions of the project. Whilst the infrastructure project is huge in scale and unprecedented in cost and whilst it may gain lots of headlines of China making a global power grab, this was never the intended purpose of the project. China’s growth strategy since the open and reform era was based upon manufacturing and exporting to foreign markets. This led to China’s phenomenal economic growth over the last four decades. The global economic crisis in 2008 nearly derailed this as her foreign markets were all in crisis, so China’s leaders turned to promoting a massive state-supported construction boom. New roads, railways, airports, shopping centres and apartment complexes were built. Such a big construction push left the country with excess facilities and infrastructure, highlighted by a growing number of ghost towns. This building boom was financed by a rapid increase in debt. China’s leaders saw the mounting economic crisis and chose a new strategy, one that sought to maintain the existing growth process by expanding it beyond China’s national borders: the One Belt and One Road Initiative (OBOR) was born which is now known as the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI). The initial aim of the BRI was to link China with 70 other countries across Asia, Africa, Europe, and Oceania. The two parts to the initial BRI vision: The “Belt”, sought to recreate the old Silk Road land trade route, and the “Road,” a series of ports creating a sea-based trade route spanning several oceans.
Despite China’s investment and economic presence around the world for the moment she has little political clout and influence on what should be taking place in areas such as the Middle East, Africa or South Asia
BRI in reality represents an attempt to solve China’s problems of overcapacity and surplus capital, growing debt and falling rates of profit through a geographic expansion of China’s economic activity and processes. This has caused China to generate numerous projects, many of which are not financially viable. Even the comparisons with America’s Marshall plan is misplaced as the Marshall Plan had clear guidelines and was highly focused and targeted to rebuilding Europe so that communism could not spread around the world. This is not the objective Beijing has for the BRI project despite being labelled as such by western policy makers.
In the case of China, we need to make a distinction between power and influence. For the moment China is pursuing power rather than influence. Due to the nation’s history she wants to be respected and for this she has pursued power via economic growth and growing her military. However, it is not presenting or imposing a new order, way of life or values for the world to subscribe to. China wants to be respected and to not be dominated by other powers. China’s economic investments and infrastructure development are large and unprecedented, but China has the world’s largest population and needs the world’s resources and markets to keep her economy growing. Despite China’s investment and economic presence around the world for the moment she has little political clout and influence on what should be taking place in areas such as the Middle East, Africa or South Asia. For the moment a Chinese global order remains aspirational, and many things will need to take place for this to change.