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Xi Jinping’s Chinese Dream: China’s Thirst for Status

 7 min read / 

According to the South China Morning Post, the Chinese navy this week announced plans to upgrade its nuclear submarine fleet with Artificial Intelligence (AI) computing capabilities. It is the first time such technology has been used in this realm and represents the first openly acknowledged usage of AI technology on the open seas. Precisely what form the AI tech will take remains to be seen but it is but one in a long listing of military technological upgrades in China’s attempts to establish a military powerhouse in Asia. It recently opened the very first military base abroad in Djibouti and is building a Chinese designed aircraft carrier to go alongside the Liaoning, originally bought from Ukraine and later refurbished. Indeed, China is moving forward with a military modernisation program. The Navy is at the core with a declared aim of building a Blue Water Navy which means that China will have the capability to monitor the high-seas far outside the East or South China Seas. Although increases in defence expenditure precede current president Xi Jinping, it shows no signs of abating. Quite the contrary.

Make Both China and America Great Again?

For all the talk about reinvigorating the US military, US president Donald Trump has actually achieved very little. The first year of Trump was simultaneously chaotic, intriguing and tiring. Trump’s White House is quite possibly the antithesis of his Chinese counterpart. Xi Jinping has quietly reasserted and expanded his control over the Communist party-state. In fact, he has managed a feat that no other Chinese leader has accomplished since Deng Xiaoping by enshrining what is being termed ‘Xi Jinping Thought’ into the constitution of the country. Deng, who began the economic reforms that have led to Chinese economic development, did not live to see his ‘Thought’ be given the same pertinence.

The difference in leadership style and rhetoric coming out of Washington and Beijing could not be more different. One is constantly in the news, usually without an achievement to boast, but for something leaked or tweeted about, while the other forges ahead with grand plans undeterred in the face of real foreign and domestic challenges. The disputes in South and East China Seas and North Korea abroad and the impending housing bubble, large wealth inequality and widespread corruption are but a few real issues the Communist Party must contend with at home. If there is but one commonality, however, that Xi and Trump share, it is their conviction in the need to make their country ‘Great Again’, albeit through entirely different ways. Trump is retreating from the world stage while Xi is attempting to cement China’s place within it.

Making China great again is undoubtedly Xi’s goal. “The Chinese Dream” that Xi declared in 2012 puts together the need for individuals to work hard to achieve their dreams, however, he places that goal squarely in the larger service of revitalising China. The recent Belt and Road Initiative and other policy priorities may not be fully fleshed out but they showcase a desire to rebuild China’s symbolic image of being at the centre of the world economy and, by virtue, the international community as well.

Development in China

Zhōngguó is the phonetic spelling of China in Mandarin. It is often translated as “Central Country.” This is not due to its location, but due to its traditional importance to the world economy and civilisation. At the core of Xi Jinping’s drive towards modernising China is an attempt to rebuild the glories and status of the past emperors of China. That is, returning to the centre of importance.

This economic development that started in the late 1970s has started a debate about the Chinese position in the world. That debate centres around the idea of a gradual Chinese rise to prominence that will have certain consequences for global governance. One scenario is the possibility of a conflict that has traditionally taken place between most rising and leader nations historically. In this case, it would be a conflict between China (the rising power) and the United States (the established world leader). A second possibility, however, is that the current order is open and accommodating enough to allow the Chinese to find their own place and a voice in the governance of global affairs. What is clear is that China’s position in the world is changing at an unimaginable pace. How to react to the resulting challenges and opportunities is far more difficult to determine.

The current order, it is generally agreed, is loosely based on American military superiority, an open and interconnected economic system, Western liberal-democratic values, a deep alliance structure and cultural dominance. It has not only brought economic progress to its founding members in Europe and North America but to many other nations that bought into to it. Indeed, today most of the world’s economies are linked together by certain rules and norms administered through institutions like the United Nations, World Trade Organisation, the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. If China is powerful enough to challenge the status-quo it will likely attempt to rewrite certain rules or norms to favour its own self-interest in some way.

There are already signs that this may be happening. One case is the creation of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the New Development Bank (NDB) or BRICS Bank as possible alternatives to the IMF and World Bank. In response to the Trans-Pacific Partnership negotiations for a free trade agreement with a host of nations (where the US has now withdrawn), the Chinese launched negotiations of their own for the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership, which encompassed most South, South East and East Asian nations as well as Australia and New Zealand. The problem is that none of these are yet operational so they remain potentially disruptive institutions and agreements.

China is also increasing its military capability, with the second largest budget size according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI), it is becoming increasingly assertive in its rhetoric and actions regarding the East and South China seas by actively claiming territory and in some cases building new structures on some disputed island territories. What is intriguing though, is not the economic or military gains in recent years, it is how China continues to develop from this point forward and what that will mean for its neighbours and the global economic order. This is because there are three key areas where Beijing is significantly lacking. These are presenting a realistic alternative to Western Liberal-Democratic values as governmental and economic models to emulate, Beijing boasts no formal alliances and the lack of Chinese dominance in the global cultural landscape. How China addresses these issues remains to be seen.

Final Thoughts

Xi’s Chinese Dream and the Belt and Road Initiative are but examples of a wider strategic effort to return China to where it was before a time known as the “hundred years of humiliation” at the centre of the world’s economic and political power and decision-making. The key difference, particularly with regards to the Belt and Road is that Beijing seems to be banking on a fully interdependent global economic landscape in order to cement its development. By investing large sums abroad, the underlying argument seems to be that the return on investment is more than simple currency, it brings with it the status that Beijing seems bent on achieving.

Therefore, it is here where our attention should be focused in order to anticipate the next set of great challenges and opportunities to the current politico-economic order.

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