China has entered the adolescent stage of its development into a superpower – the past few years have been epochal, peaking with China overtaking Japan as the second biggest economy. China states categorically that their rise is ‘peaceful’ while other countries (particularly America) call on China to become a ‘responsible stakeholder’. Here we have a clear divergence of opinion, but what can this tell us about the current state of the ‘world order’?
China’s neighbours, notably Taiwan, Vietnam and Japan are nervous and fearful of China’s increasing clout – much like, Canada, Mexico and Central America were dyspeptic about America’s emergence in the early twentieth century.
One can draw some parallels between America in the 1930s and China in the early 21st century. Preceding America’s hegemony, Britain was at the vertex of world power, until 1931 when the pound was taken off the gold standard. Admittedly, Britain was in decline prior to 1931 suffering heavily from the financial costs of WW1. The Suez crisis would be the final nail in Britain’s supremacy in 1956. Europe was also in decline and similarly suffered greatly from the two world wars.
Meanwhile on the other side of the Atlantic, America was able to prosper and thus was in a strong domestic economic position after WW2. This offered the opportunity to ensure their ideology was adopted in Europe through the Marshall Aid Plan. This was a pivotal turning point for the world.
The Marshall Aid Plan brought great economic prosperity to Europe when it was needed. However it came with conditions, such as paying for US exports. Each country had to sign a bilateral agreement with America – with the carrot comes the stick. It also provided America with the opportunity to place American finance at the centre of the global financial system.
Fast forward to 2008 and the onset of the financial crisis. The West was hit hard, yet China was comfortably able to push ahead with developing their planned economy and continuing to consume the world’s resources. They have helped in their own way to stabilise the world economy. It is in their interest to have a healthy Western society that will continue to spend money, and they have even started to expand to emerging markets such as Brazil. This could be their pivotal turning point.
However, this is where the two countries start to diverge. China does not have a plan to incorporate their ideology and principles through the world. When asked to describe China most people would define the country in a negative light: untrustworthy, authoritarian, dubious human rights, powerful military and so on. Compare this to America, where most of Europe and the world has bought into the ‘American Dream’ to a greater or lesser extent.
America was able to maintain and extend its power through multilateral institutions that it created and funded. The IMF was used as a conduit for economic policy and to provide loans to developing countries on the condition that they changed their national laws to suit American interests. They co-created NATO with Europe to show a willingness to co-operate on military issues, thus building trust in Europe so that Europe would have confidence in America. This in short was Americanisation. It extended further to realms of culture, art and film.
China has yet to impose itself on the global like America has, particularly in the global financial system. China has failed to grasp this concept of building trust with other nations. Instead most countries seem to feel that China has something to hide.
With this distinct lack of trust and no plans for ideological expansion, there is very little chance for China to become a truly dominant force like America; this is why they are still in the adolescent phase. China needs to develop a coherent and respected soft power diplomatic policy to operate alongside the long-term strategic objectives, which can often be seen as farrago of authoritarian and alien by the West.
In the long-term the economy is on the right track. Of course in the short-term there are many problems, particularly inflation and housing market bubble. However, China cannot power ahead and force hegemony, much like the British did in 19th century. The world has changed and ‘Americanisation’ is embedded around the world unlike any other ideology or culture before.
A student of Hegel would point out that eventually America (the thesis) will eventually be replaced by, possibly, China (antithesis). However, this will not happen until China adopts soft power diplomacy as it currently stands their hard-line approach will not work on its own.
Until the Chinese government develops a backdoor strategy that fits well with the general concept of universal values, they have little hope of progressing much further. They will in fact make it easier for America to contain them on the global stage through use of rhetoric about China not being a ‘responsible stakeholder’.
No matter how many times China states its rise be peaceful, under current circumstances and discourse, it simply will not be accepted. They need more than a shibboleth of ‘peaceful rise’ – they need Chinafication.