Is China really a challenger to the US in the global world order? Is the communist nation actually as powerful as its State-owned media portrays it to be. Has the American power declined as is being made out by referring to the attack on the Capitol or the riots that engulfed in the wake of Black Lives Matter movement?
All the time we hear news of how China is pursuing ambitious research in artificial intelligence, electric vehicles, 5G and other technologies, and how it is poised to take over the US, if it has not done so already. Much of this might be an outcome of the art of propaganda constantly churned out by controlled organisations from China. These not just portray the Chinese state and the party as powerful entities but also ones that are benign and stand for global good. But just how much truth is there in the pro-China and and an imminent-collapse-of-US projections being seen worldwide?
In his article 'China Is Not Ten Feet Tall' for Foreign Affairs, Ryan Hass writes that China has stepped up action against neighbours and even its own people like the Uighurs and those in Hong Kong. It does so without care for established global norms or the sentiments of the democratic governments. Hass says: "Authoritarian systems excel at showcasing their strengths and concealing their weaknesses. But policymakers in Washington must be able to distinguish between the image Beijing presents and the realities it confronts. China is the second most powerful country in the world and the most formidable competitor the United States has faced in decades. Yet at the same time, and in spite of its many visible defects, the United States remains the stronger power in the U.S.-Chinese relationship—and it has good reason to think it can stay that way. For all the obstacles facing the United States, those facing China are considerably greater."
With so much bluff and bluster that the communist regime churns out on a regular basis, it is entirely plausible that the country is not all that mighty as it makes it out to be. The problem lies in proper perception - which should not be clouded by China's self-projection. For the American policy maker, Hass says: "Seeing China clearly is the first step toward getting China policy right." In essence, this means that not just the US but other countries that China has antagonised or threatened like India, Vietnam and its powerful neighbours like Japan should cut through the clutter, the deception and the lies that is churned out by China. Once the different layers are peeled off China, its real picture begins to emerge.
Keeping aside the fact that some of the Chinese projection is bluff and lies, the hard fact is that China is a formidable foe to the might and power of the US. To perceive China correctly also means that one has to look at its military might, economic heft, progress in research and also the ambition that it so publicly announces. It is not wrong to assume that China has taken up the position that the USSR once enjoyed during its heydays as a powerful nation and ideology with a bunch of countries strongly aligned with it.
Hass says: "China poses the most direct test of U.S. foreign policy in decades. Not since the Cold War has a country seriously contested U.S. leadership in multiple regions of the world simultaneously. The combination of military strength, economic weight, and global ambition makes China a different—and more complex—challenge than the Soviet Union presented during the Cold War." And here he adds that "For an accurate measure of the challenges China poses to U.S. interests, Beijing’s strengths must be evaluated alongside its vulnerabilities. Xi and his advisers face as stiff a set of challenges as almost anyone else in the world."
He says China has been reaping the benefits of its demographic dividend. But that may not last in the decades to come as currently there are eight workers to one retiree. In the next few decades, this will change to two workers with a ratio of one retiree. The fact is also that the country is now being managed by a regime that is increasingly becoming more ambitious, aggressive and more fixated on Xi Jinping. These signs itself are not one of healthy governance. Many communities are bound to rise and show defiance. Regions like Xinjiang and Tibet can cause problems to the communist regime.
The spread of the coronavirus from China has not made things easy for the communist giant. Despite an aggressive effort to wash itself clean of the virus and sending its medicines and vaccines to contain the virus, its image as an unreliable and irresponsible power has not changed in the minds of the people. Quoting a Pew report, Hass says: "According to Pew polling from October 2020, unfavorable views of China have reached historic highs across a diverse set of countries. Beijing is also likely to encounter rising budgetary constraints on its massive overseas initiatives in the coming years, as it contends with both a cooling economy and rising demands from an aging society."
On the other hand, China is increasingly getting into more debt. Hass says: "In the past decade alone, China’s debt has more than doubled, from 141 percent of GDP in 2008 to over 300 percent in 2019. Ballooning debt will make it harder for China to buy its way up the ladder from low-end manufacturing to high value-added production, as South Korea and Taiwan did at similar levels of development."
At another level, even though China may flex its muscles against its neighbours, the reality is that it has running and unsolved conflicts with most of its neighbours. It might convey itself as a superpower, but its reach is curtailed owing to the fact that it has too many conflicts going on around itself. "It is bordered by 14 countries, four of which are nuclear armed and five of which harbor unresolved territorial disputes with Beijing. These include an aging but wealthy Japan, a rising and nationalistic India, a revanchist Russia, a technologically powerful South Korea, and a dynamic and determined Vietnam. All these countries have national identities that resist subordination to China or its interests. And the United States maintains a constant forward-deployed military presence in the region, supported by basing and access agreements in countries along China’s periphery," says Hass in his article.
In one line, China is vulnerable, and this is a fact that it hides from the world successfully.
China has forgotten that its rise has been aided by a supportive West and democratic and liberations across the spectrum. Its demands have been fulfilled so that the once-aloof country could be better integrated into the global mainstream. However, China is loath to acknowledge the support that it was provided by the world, particularly the US.
In a comparison of the giants, the US emerges bigger on all counts. "The United States has good reason to be confident about its ability to compete with China. The U.S. economy is still $7 trillion larger than China’s. The United States enjoys energy and food security, comparatively healthy demographics, the world’s finest higher education system, and possession of the world’s reserve currency. It benefits from peaceful borders and favorable geography. It boasts an economy that allocates capital efficiently and traditionally serves as a sponge for the brightest thinkers and the best ideas in the world. It has a transparent and predictable legal system and a political system that is designed to spur self-correction. China has none of these attributes."
In conclusion, China's rise and its subsequent malignant assertiveness should be an eye-opener to the world, more so to the US. The lesson for America is that it is definitely stronger and ahead on all parameters than China; it is more prepared to take on the challenges of the 21st century; it has democratic partners and liberal allies; but the time has come to strengthen itself against China. In fact, this is a lesson that other powerful countries like India too can emulate.
(RYAN HASS is Michael H. Armacost Chair in Foreign Policy Studies at the Brookings Institution. He was China Director at the National Security Council from 2013 to 2017 and served in the U.S. embassy in Beijing from 2008 to 2012. He is the author of Stronger: Adapting America’s China Strategy in an Age of Competitive Interdependence (Yale University Press, 2021), from which this essay is adapted.)
The India Narrative commentary is based on this article by the Foreign Affairs magazine.