Beijing chums up to Washington

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BEIJING – China’s political mindset about international politics is at a turning point and it could mark the beginning of a new role of China in global affairs. On December 27, the Chinese press reported on a speech by Vice Premier Wang Yang with the title “The United States is the guide of the world; China is willing to join this system.” In the text, Wang Yang reportedly said, “China and United States are global economic partners, but America is the guide of the world. America already has the leading system and its rules; China is willing to join the system and respect those rules and hopes to play a constructive role.” [1]

These statements mark a stark contrast from the times when China was extremely suspicious of America’s hegemonic role in the world. Implicitly, China now appears to admit that America has the leading role in the world and to be willing to work with it.

The article doesn’t give any explanation for the dramatic change of heart by the Chinese leadership and in fact it is not clear what brought about this dramatic transformation in Chinese perception of foreign affairs. However, it is clear that this is the next step after the successful meeting at the APEC summit in Beijing. In many ways the meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping turned a new leaf on bilateral relations after many years of strong distrusts. At the APEC meeting, the two sides agreed on a number of issues that had been pretty irksome in previous years. [2]

This goes beyond the idea floated some years ago of the G2 (a US-China special relationship). This idea was based on some faulty thinking of US-Chinese ties as isolated from the rest of the world. This time the conception is more comprehensive and in many ways reassuring both for the US and for the many countries that feared being left out of the new strong bond between Washington and Beijing.

As for the reasons why the change occurred, we can only infer. Possibly there are a number of historical and political reasons that brought about the Chinese change of heart. Very roughly, there could be a historical analysis-the way the Chinese love to think about problems – that helped with this new mindset. Historically in fact, America has inherited a leading role in the world from the British Empire, who took it on from French and before them the Dutch in the late 17th century, who took it on from the Spanish, who first started the globalization process with the discovery of America in the late 15th century.

That is, America inherited a world which has been shaped by values and sets of rules conceived by Western countries for over 500 years. These values and rules are largely alien to China’s historical tradition, yet they are widely accepted not only by Western countries, but also by the world at large. China seems to have somehow realized the extreme difficulty of simply barging into a world that was shaped by centuries of alien traditions. Moreover, partly these western traditions have already entered Chinese political discourse for about a century, since the fall of the Qing Empire, and the foundation of the People’s Republic organized according to western Marxist values.

With a mindset shaped by economic calculations, the Chinese may have realized that challenging this present system, toppling it, and replacing it with something more “Chinese” would have been an extremely risky and costly proposition. In the process, China may well be defeated or suffer great losses. It would be much more effective and economical to just join the system and play a constructive role while slowly and steadily introducing Chinese tenets into the system.

There were possibly also political concerns that helped shape the new thinking. The US managed to completely beat the USSR in the Cold War, and this was done even though scientifically and politically the USSR was much stronger than China is now. The USSR was at the center of a vast web of allied states, and it had an appealing ideology that made inroads among many intellectuals and working people of the Western world and “converted” them to “soviet beliefs”. China has no allies, no system of values and ideology making inroads in the West, and it is pretty isolated. So politically if it were to engage in a head-on confrontation with the Western world, the outcome could be even worse than with the USSR.

As further proof of this, one could look to the extreme difficulties of Russia now as it tries to confront America. Despite the fact that Washington is coming out of 14 years of setbacks and poor political management in the Middle East and Central Asia, it still managed to put quite easily Moscow on the defensive over Ukraine.

The final element is the massive rebound of the American economy in 2014, which officially records growth of about 5% at the end of the year. The Chinese are still wondering what made America grow so much in one year, but it is clear that the development of new technologies and the ability to innovate and blaze new tracks in economic growth is playing a huge role. The new technologies for extracting oil and gas through fracking and to store and save energy have impressed a whole new dynamic to the economic system and geopolitics. The Middle East so crucial until a couple of years ago for the global economy thanks to its oil reserves has been largely sidelined and a present plunge in oil prices seems to beckon a new season of cheap energy which could spur new developments in many areas.

This element plus possible new investments in rebuilding America’s poor infrastructure could boost growth in the future. These are all signs that America’s decline might not be inevitable, as many pundits worldwide predicted also recently. This has lead China to underscore its necessity to tread very carefully and not underestimate Washington’s capabilities.

On the political side, this change of heart underscores internally Xi’s new clout in politics. He managed to shelve critics with different views on foreign policy. These differing views and the difficulty in finding a unified voice have been plaguing Chinese foreign policy for about two decades. In fact, the new position of Wang Yang can be seen as a result of internal party cleansing. According to a release by Xinhua News Agency on December 29 the Politburo of the Communist Party announced that, “within the party there will be absolutely no tolerance for factionalism and gangs; no way to use the party to pursue individual benefits or to form gangs and cliques.” [3]

Furthermore, this new stance of Xi, admitting the US influence and role in the world, in a way could be a late response to Obama’s policies toward China in the year 2009. Then, immediately after the election, Obama seemed to offer China a sweeping opportunity for cooperation. The offer was received in a lukewarm fashion in Beijing, then plagued by deep rifts on crucial political choices. Now of course times and conditions are different, but Xi in more than one way seems to try to set the clock back. It is still too early to see how this will play out. The US now may be less ready to welcome a Chinese opening, and the world en large is far more confused than just six years ago. Moreover, nobody is clear, possibly not even the Chinese, what will be the meaning of the “constructive contributions” to the existing world order as mentioned by Wang Yang.

Francesco Sisci
Francesco Sisci is an Italian sinologist, author and columnist who lives and works in Beijing. He is the contributor for Il Sole 24ore, and a frequent commentator on international affairs for CCTV and Phoenix TV.
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