Rise Of China And The International System


China has undergone a massive transformation in the last four decades. It has emerged as a major world power within a short span of time and is set to challenge the hegemony of the United States in the coming years. China’s spectacular rise is predominantly due to its unprecedented economic growth which averages nearly 10 per cent for the last forty years. It has to be noted that this achievement has no precedence in recorded human history and even critics of China have acknowledged this grand success. Even the World Bank has noted that China has ‘experienced the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history – and has lifted more than 800 million people out of poverty.’

This transformation began in 1979 with the introduction of economic reforms and today China ranks first in the world in terms of economic size on Purchasing Power Poverty (PPP) basis. Many economists are predicting that China is set to emerge as the world’s largest economy in a couple of decades or even sooner. It is notable that when this happens, it will be for the first time in more than a hundred years a non- European country will hold the mantle of being the foremost economic power. This will be a seismic shift in international politics.

History Of China’s Economic Growth

Economist Angus Maddison’s work which studies Chinese economy through centuries notes that China had the world’s largest economy as late as 1820. It is often forgotten that China was one of world’s foremost economic powers before the negative impact of colonialism. By the beginning of the 19th century, the Qing dynasty which was ruling China has serious internal weakness which left the country vulnerable to Western and later Japanese imperialist ambitions. China lost the First Opium War with Britain in 1839 and subsequently signed the Treaty of Nanking in 1842 which was the first of many humiliating unequal treaties which the country would sign. It was a part of this treaty that Hong Kong was ceded o Britain and ports like Shanghai and Guangzhou were opened for British trade.

China also lost the Second Opium War in 1856 which was jointly fought by British and the French with the support of the United States. China was forced to sign the Treaty of Tientsin in 1858. This opened more ports for foreign trade and also granted more rights for foreigners to travel and trade within Chinese territory. By this time, China had already signed the Treaty of Wanghia with the United States in 1844 granting certain privileges to the country. During this phase of Chinese weakness, several European countries including France and Russia signed unequal treaties with China to gain trade privileges.

Implications Of The Rise Of China

With a rising economy, increasing military strength and growing ambitions, there is no doubt that China is set to dominate international politics in the century. This will however have major ramifications on the international system which needs to be discussed.

China’s rise has already caused concerns about whether the post Second World War liberal international political order will be threatened by the emergence of an authoritarian country as a systemic power. Since the end of the Second World War, the United States and its Western allies have set up international institutions like the United Nations, International Monetary Fund, World Bank and the WTO to construct a rule based international order.

Strategically, interdependence amidst economic globalization has eroded the foundation for a “new Cold War”, which would require four conditions.  First, policymaking in both countries would have to be ideologically driven so that, second, the world can be politically divided into two camps against each other. Third, their economies would be independent of each other upon which, fourth, both sides could form alliances to sanction against each other.

However, like most countries today, policymaking in both the US and China are essentially interest oriented, not ideologically determined. Hence it is virtually impossible that the world could retreat to Cold War dynamics, where nations are divided into two camps politically hostile and economically independent of each other. Moreover, although a US-led security system has survived the end of the Cold War, the US allies would be reluctant to join the fight should confrontation take place between the two superpowers. As for China, Xi Jinping made it clear in his speech at the Belt and Road Initiative summit in May 2017 that China would not pursue any alliance but strives to foster partnerships with other countries.

Thus, despite Trump’s high-profile measures against China, it is hard to imagine that either the US or China would go to war against each other. This is not necessarily because they would give up the competition and even rivalry, but because it will be extremely difficult for both Beijing and Washington to achieve a policy consensus at home and form alliance abroad, which are necessary for a confrontation between the two global powers.

However, the US “tough approach” against China will have a far-reaching negative impact on world order and stability, not only because Trump’s anti-China measures are an essential part of his “America first” unilateralism and his anti-establishment impulse in international affairs, but also because China has already become a deep-rooted stakeholder in all the three layers of today’s international order, i.e., the political order centered on the United Nations and its affiliated organizations, the economic and trade order based on WTO and other multilateral trade agreements, and the financial order maintained by the World Bank, IMF and other institutions like the ADB and AIIB.  Thus, it is not surprising that even America’s closest allies in Europe and Asia – despite their substantial differences with China in terms of value and political systems – are reluctant to join the US in its effort to roll back on China.  This does not mean they support China at all.  But like China, they are also deep-rooted stakeholders of the existing international order that based on multilateral arrangements. After all, the essential purpose of reckless unilateralist behavior by the Trump Administration (e.g., withdrawals from the Paris Agreement, the Iranian Nuclear Deal, the UN Human Right Council, levying heavy tariff taxes on almost all important trade partners, and demanding allies to pay more for the US security commitments) is to rewrite the rules of game in America’s term at the expense of the entire international order. It is in this regard that Trump’s “America first” has turned into “America isolated” because such an approach hurts all the stakeholders of the existing international order, including the US allies.

By contrast, China’s response to the US pressure sounds rational and positive.  Xi Jinping made it clear in his speeches at the Bo’ao Forum for Asia in April 2018 that China will resolutely continue its reform and openness policy.  Meanwhile, Beijing will firmly defend the free trade system based on multilateral arrangements on the one hand, and carry on its “peaceful development” strategy on the other hand.  While it remains to be seen whether, and to what extent, China can turn the rhetoric into credible actions, how, and by what means, China can manage the volatile relationship with the US under a highly self-centered and unpredictable Trump Administration will indeed have a far reaching impact on peace and development of the world.  The good news is that Trump’s ego-driven and unilateral behaviour can actually strengthen China’s hand, only if Beijing can handle it appropriately.  The bad news is that the US still is the strongest power on earth.

REFERENCE : Russia in Global Affairs, International Relations by V.N. KHANNA

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