China: The coming age of the self-interested superpower

Francois Heisbourg – The Financial Times

Copyright The Financial Times
Published: FT February 16 2006
With the world’s second largest economy in purchasing power parity
and the
resource base to modernise its military, China is well on the road to
becoming the first new superpower of the 21st century.
Rising China is not simply going to be a remake of Japan – which
never made
it to superpower status – because Beijing, unlike Tokyo, is a
strategic
free
agent. In the geopolitical marketplace, it has become mandatory to
anticipate China’s emergence during the next 10 to 20 years in much
the
same
way as share prices will reflect the forecast performance of a company.
But
these forecasts are complicated by uncertainty regarding China’s
posture
vis-a-vis the US; as partner, competitor or adversary. In many ways,
China
is less the equivalent of Wilhelminian Germany on the eve of the first
world
war, fated to collide with the status quo powers in its quest of a
“place
in
the sun”, than of the Germany of Bismarck in the 1870s and 1880s. It
is a
power erupting on to a crowded global scene but with no predetermined
outcome as to the nature of its relations and alliances.
China, by virtue of the explosive growth of its economic appetites and
production, disrupts this global scene. At the same time, it is
presenting
itself as a status quo power. Today’s China, unlike the US with its
militant
promotion of regime change in non-democratic states, has no value
system to
sell and no messianic mission to fulfil. This is becoming its great
strength
as it moves towards superpower status. It is not only the Zimbabwes,
the
Myanmars and the Sudans of the world that will flock to China’s
self-interest-driven, value-free foreign policy, but also those states
that
are seeking a counter-weight to America’s assertion of its own
democratic
mission. Jacques Chirac, the French president, may be misguided in his
vision of a multipolar world in which China would somehow deal with
France
as an equal. But as China’s economic and political leverage grows, it
is
not
only the French who will rise to the bait of a Bismarckian China
obstructing
the Bonapartist instincts of the US.
However, China’s value-free foreign policy has significant limits. In
the
long run, it will inevitably create tensions with a US – and, indeed,
a
European Union – that sees values as an integral component of
international
relations. This would come on top of the more traditional causes of
friction
between China and the US, such as the fate of Taiwan and the nature of
the
strategic order in east Asia. Yet, for China, the relationship with the
US
remains by far the most important one to get right.
In the shorter term, the policies flowing from China’s value-blind
positioning provide no clear sense of direction regarding world
challenges
such as global warming or, most acutely today, nuclear proliferation.
China
may be tempted to seize the opportunity of securing first call on
Iran’s
energy resources, thus preventing a unified stance in the United
Nations
Security Council and precipitating the breakdown of the international
non-
proliferation regime. Conversely, China might decide that the spread of
nuclear weapons – perhaps to Japan, South Korea and even Taiwan –
would run
counter to its interests and that it should therefore work with the US,
Europe and Russia in nudging Iran away from the nuclear threshold.
America will have to learn to balance its long-standing regional
interests
in east Asia with China’s ability to help or hinder at the global
level,
notably on the Iranian question. Washington, at some stage, will have
to
decide what is more important: dealing with the Iranian account (which
may
entail satisfying China on other issues) or constraining China in east
Asia
(even if this means losing China’s support on Iran in the Security
Council).
Europe, in a way, has the opposite problem. The EU thinks of China in
global
terms but neglects the regional dimension of the US–Chinese
relationship in
east Asia. The Europeans are essentially passive beneficiaries of the
strategic stability created by America’s military presence in the
Asia-Pacific region. Compromises with China, including horse-trading on
the
EU arms embargo, should not be contemplated by the Europeans without
due
consideration of America’s strategic role in east Asia. Any
miscalculation
would have dire long-term consequences for US–European relations.
However,
the corresponding strategic dialogue between the US and the EU for
dealing
with such problems hardly exists.
One hopes that in the capitals of China, the US and Europe, the full
implications of the new trade-offs are not only understood but acted
on.
The writer is special adviser at the Fondation


ft.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *