As global affairs continue to careen out of control, the world’s foreign-policy decision-makers may be forgiven for feeling as if they are floating around in a weightless atmosphere, wondering what they will crash into next. What distinguishes this “negative G” era from others in the past is that the world was not at war, nor was there a global economic crisis when the whirlwind began. Rather, it occurred while the world was at relative peace and in a comparative state of prosperity. Only rarely in the past has an era of disruption coincided with such political calm and favourable economic indicators.
China’s orientation to the long-term, creative and original thinking, and a willingness to spend hundreds of billions of dollars in pursuit of its objectives—such as AI supremacy—is a big part of what distinguishes China from America at this juncture. Beijing is combining all this with an aggressive global diplomatic campaign to take up part of the slack left in the wake of the US withdrawal from much of the rest of the world, and a clear intent to not only strengthen existing partnerships in Asia, the Middle East and Latin America, but to create new partnerships in the process.
It took the West a while to understand what Xi Jinping was doing by lending tens of billions of dollars to developing countries around the world and commencing the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), but now that it is clear that China is competing effectively with the United States (and the West) on the global stage, have Western nations responded by electing leaders, who will, by virtue of their nationalistic policies, ensure that Beijing will win?
In too many cases this has translated into inward-focused, isolationist foreign policies. America’s and the UK’s ill-founded objective appears to be to hold on to its share of the global economic pie by essentially retreating into a nationalistic shell, relying on domestic demand and bilateral trade agreements to march forward. Although Beijing could also be accused of doing much the same, it simultaneously seeks to expand its global footprint by embracing the rest of the world (on its own terms, of course) to pick up the slack left behind by the likes of Washington and London.
As many Western nations continue to retreat from the global stage in the mistaken belief that they will “reinvent” world order in the process, they are, rather, ceding what remaining influence they have in the developing world. That is not a recipe for greater influence in the future; it is a recipe of a diminished presence and ability to shape the direction of political and economic dialogue going forward. Beijing understands this and will continue to devote the resources necessary to maximize its global footprint as the West proceeds to destroy the post-war order it created. China is in the process of becoming the world’s leading economy and most influential nation and, at this stage, there is not a damn thing the West can do about it.
Chinese interest in acquiring ownership stakes in global ports is consistent with Beijing’s desire to tilt the global economic playing field in its favour, while helping to ensure that the commercial processes and standards preferred by China become normalized around the world. Another purpose of the BRI is to bind consumer markets to Chinese exporters through the initiative’s physical, financial, and digital networks, which all lead back to China.
We should expect that China will continue to look for new ways to enhance its growing power, further establish itself at the centre of Asia’s regional political and economic architecture, and to advance its interests, even if (or, more correctly, especially if) it generates greater friction in the geostrategic arena. Xi will continue to present China as the champion of globalization and open markets, even though China’s domestic reality is tightly controlled. This is part of its carefully choreographed narrative-maintaining a dual personality on the global stage.
China’s orientation toward international relations is being defined by a set of core objectives—among them is protecting the territorial sovereignty of the nation, maintaining its growth at a level that will enable the government to ensure ongoing domestic stability, similarly ensuring the enduring supremacy of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), and creating sufficient influence among nations around the world so that its political and diplomatic power will remain unquestionable in the future.
In short, the CCP wants to make sure that China remains strong, prosperous, influential, and respected. In doing so, it wishes to avoid the middle-income trap (wherein it would become stuck at a middle-income level and unable to push through to that of a wealthy nation) through a combination of technological innovation, a strong military, and an ability to have an impact on global norms. As Beijing becomes increasingly brazen in its actions, it is experiencing greater resistance from Washington. The question is just how far China can continue to push and how much resistance America will exhibit before a confrontation ensues—politically, technologically, or militarily.
Xi appears to be banking on the belief that the continuation of disruption in global politics will be a net positive for China, which will enable it to be able to increase its global influence around the world while quietly building up its military and steering his country through an economic transition that accommodates and takes advantage of the world’s largest middle class. The great rejuvenation coincides well with the great transformation of China from an exporting nation to a consuming nation that further integrates itself with the global economy by achieving an equilibrium between what it sells and what it buys from the rest of the world.
Xi is also betting that America is only willing to go so far, spend so much, and devote so many resources toward challenging China without fundamentally altering the manner in which it functions. With a $700+ billion defence budget, how much more can the US be expected to spend on defence before upsetting its own fiscal balancing act? China already has the world’s largest navy; in the coming decades it will challenge US military supremacy in ways that will present an even more difficult dilemma to Washington: will it outspend China or can it find a way to outsmart it, as China is attempting to do.
Washington should accept that strategic competition with China is inevitable and that, with such a worthy adversary, absolute security is not possible. That so many US allies are already operating within overlapping American and Chinese spheres of influence should be all the evidence that Washington needs that the ground is shifting beneath its feet. US primacy cannot be perpetually sustained. Eventually, China will match or exceed US capabilities and positioning in a host of areas, including political, economic, and diplomatic influence, technological prowess, and global leadership.
Daniel Wagner is CEO of Country Risk Solutions and author of the new book The America-China Divide. This is an excerpt from the book.