China’s growing ascendancy on the world stage signals a realignment of power


In economic terms, China’s ascendancy is fast becoming evident. China’s economy is the second largest in the world, standing at $11-trillion (the United States is $18-trillion). And China’s dominance looks set to increase as the US, under President Donald Trump, prioritises “America First” and retreats from its previously self-declared international duties. Likewise, the European Union will also not challenge China’s growing dominance, given the net effects of Brexit and the emergence of right-wing movements in Europe.

The dawning reality of China’s rising international stature is a reason sinologist Martin Jacques wrote his 2009 book When China Rules the World. What are the implications of this? And why should South Africa care about China in the 21st century?

China’s hybrid political and economic model proves that American political scientist Francis Fukuyama was mistaken when he wrote in The End of History and the Last Man in 1992 that most of the world would follow Western liberal democracy.

The 2008 financial downturn and the debilitating political gridlock experienced in the US under President Barack Obama demonstrate the need to seek alternative structural instruments to organise the affairs of state.

Singapore under Lee Kuan Yew and Rwanda under Paul Kagame highlight the usefulness of benign authoritarian administrations. Both countries, using different frameworks of representative government, are examples of good governance in delivering basics such as poverty eradication, healthcare and employment.

Since 1978, China has managed to uplift the material lives of 700-million people, who were living in poverty. It achieved this feat pragmatically by combining positive aspects of both capitalism and communism. Thomas Friedman, the author, journalist and three-time Pulitzer Prize winner was, therefore, incorrect to say that communism “is a great system for making people equally poor” and that capitalism was effective in making “people unequally rich”.

Despite his personality and policy faults, Trump is to be congratulated for realising that the era of US exceptionalism and a unipolar approach to world affairs is no longer workable. China under President Xi Jinping has entered the vacuum left by America, guided by the knowledge that ultra-nationalism is not practical because the modern world is so interconnected.

No doubt, the US’s soft power will remain for some time as people continue to be fascinated by Facebook, Hollywood, Starbucks, and Rihanna.

The shortcomings of Trump’s shortsighted policies are symbolised by his decision to unilaterally pull the US out of the Paris Agreement that is intended to curb the effects of climate change.

Trump’s myopic move wilfully ignores the responsibility of all countries to prioritise mutual collaboration and common development that will ultimately deal with the interlinked crises of climate change, migration, terrorism and poverty.

As Aime Césaire reminds us, “no race possesses the monopoly of beauty, of intelligence, of force, and there is a place for all at the rendezvous of victory”.

China is to be congratulated for its insistence that multilateral governance institutions such as the World Bank and United Nations need to be transformed in order to represent the shifting balance of power from the West towards the East and South. Such a reorganisation of these international governance bodies would include the voices and concerns of developing nations, which have established alternative institutions such as the Brics bloc (Brazil, India, Russia, China and South Africa) and its development bank.

Equal representivity is required at the United Nations so that common ground can be found to address, for example, the mass of political refugees from Syria and economic migrants from North and sub-Saharan Africa. The onus on Brics is significant in providing infrastructure investments (such as rail, energy, telecommunications and roads) as has been implemented by China in Kenya, Ethiopia and Sudan. These investments, part of China’s One Belt, One Road mega infrastructure project, are worth more than $1-trillion, which is said to be more than 12 times the size of the US-led Marshall Plan after World War II.

Jacques says that “as countries grow more prosperous they become increasingly self-confident about their own culture and history, and thereby less inclined to ape the West.”

What lessons has China learnt from the US experience in being a dominant global power since 1945? Hubris is never a good idea to guide policy as Obama discovered to his cost when he miscalculated in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen and Libya. People in those countries have challenged the martial might of the US because democracy and a free market cannot be forced on countries. Instead, dialogue is the most sensible approach to convince people of the worth of one’s model.

Arrogance is one major contributing factor to America’s demise as it battles with an estimated national debt of $20-trillion. This debt is an outcome of what Paul Kennedy terms “imperial overstretch” or a situation whereby a country’s military ambitions cannot be supported by its economic power. Much like the Roman Empire, America will soon be unable to finance its 800 military bases spread around the globe. Comparatively, China only has one external military base.

While China has no expressed intention of conquering the world in the style of Pax Americana or Britannica, as an emergent economic powerhouse, it has international responsibilities to assist less-developed countries in, for instance, peacekeeping and fighting pandemics. These responsibilities are becoming pronounced as the oligarchic Trump administration cuts spending on foreign aid designed to counter the transmission of HIV, gender-based violence and the effects of climate change.

China is to be lauded for its targeted interventions to contribute to the Africa Rising narrative and the 2030 sustainable development agenda. Other lessons to be distilled from the rise of China are:

  • Corruption should not be tolerated whether perpetrated by senior leaders or junior officials;
  • Selfless leadership must embody a shared vision that is implemented by a capable bureaucracy in order to realise the ambitions of a developmental state;
  • Policy certainty is a hallmark of its annual economic growth, standing at 6.7%; and
  • National development hinges on appreciation of one’s neighbours in order to attain shared sustainable outcomes.

The dominance of China in the 21st century is not sui generis. In 1764, Voltaire said that “four thousand years ago, when we couldn’t even read, the Chinese knew all the absolutely useful things we boast about today”.

Jeffrey Sehume is a researcher at the Mapungubwe Institute

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