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Has China Won?

Has China Won?

Has China Won?

Asks Kishore Mahbubani in his book and presents numerous approaches to answer this question and the related debates. At the very first sentences of this review, I must admit that I haven’t evaluated before the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) and China in a way that Mahbubani does in his book. For instance, he argues the continuation of the CCP under the leadership of Xi Jinping is beneficial for both China and the world. This CCP structure is producing 3 different global public goods which everybody benefits from:

  1. The CCP controls the strong nationalist dragon which is alive and diffused in Chinese society. Mahbubani explains the roots of the nationalism and thereafter the humiliation period by comparing what has been done by the Taliban in 2001 and what has happened in Yuanmingyuan dated back in 1860 by British and French colonialists. Moreover, he warns if China were to decide to transform itself into a democracy, it would not be a place that is calm and predictable. Democracy in China may well create leaders like Trump who is an assertive nationalist. Xi Jinping and the system that the CCP has developed have tools to govern that nationalist dragon.
  2. The second global public good which is supplied by the CCP, and Xi Jinping’s administration is a China that is a rational actor in global challenges such as climate change. When Trump was pulling the US out of the Paris Agreement, China was emerging to proclaim the aim of developing an ‘ecological civilization’.
  3. Lastly, China is emerging as a ‘status quo’ power rather than a player who seek to challenge the existing world order. The author compares the Soviet Union and China: “The more powerful the Soviet Union became, the more it intervened in the internal affairs of other countries. China is doing the opposite”. This view is obviously different from the dominant perception of China in the West.

Many government strategy documents in the West have defined China as a revisionist power and an absolute threat to their national interests. The Trump administration has divided the US on all policy matters except one area: the trade and technological war against China. Trump has received strong bipartisan support in his actions against China.

 

“When the facts change, I change my mind.” John Keynes

 

Building a Strategy

Mahbubani underlines the importance of framing the right questions in order to create any long-term strategy and suggests ‘think the unthinkable’. Furthermore, in his book he asks quite speculative questions which should be answered to project the future power structures in the global scene:

  • Could America’s GDP become smaller than China’s in the next thirty years?
  • Should America focus on improving the livelihood of its 330 million citizens or preserving its primacy in the global system?
  • Can America reduce its defence budget and invest more in improving social services and rejuvenating national infrastructure?
  • Can America form alliances? (As it keeps saying America first, imposing tariffs to traditional allies, walk away from key strategic projects like the Trans-Pacific Partnership)
  • Will the US dollar always stay as the global reserve currency?
  • Does America know its Chinese rival? (“If you know the enemy and know yourself, you need not fear the results of hundred battles. If you know yourself but not the enemy, for every victory gained you will also suffer a defeat. If you know neither the enemy nor yourself, you will succumb in every battle.” Sun Tzu)
  • Can America make U-turns? (The author underlines that in the Cold War the US was often flexible and rational. However, the Soviet Union was far from that approach. The Soviet Union was interfered in several countries’ internal politics, behaved unilaterally, ignored the opinions of others. On the other hand, the US has acted multilaterally. Therefore, the author claims that nowadays, China is acting as the US and, the US is acting like the Soviet Union in Cold War.)
  • Can America lose?

At the end of the Cold war, in 1990, in PPP (purchasing power parity) terms, America had 20.6 percent of the world’s GDP while China had only 3.86 percent. As of 2018, the US has 15 percent less than China’s stake (18.6 percent). In terms of one vital indicator, the US has already become number two.

Military-Industrial Complex

Strikingly, Mahbubani states a crystal-clear fact: “If America were a rational actor, it would spend less”. However, he argues the US cannot reduce its defence expenses. If so, why? In the book, it is stated that the Defence strategy of the US is not determined by rational players based on the country’s needs.  Instead, weapon systems are built and purchased by the US as a conclusion of a complex lobbying system[1] that has been established by defence contractors. In this aspect, China will be the winner, if the US keeps continuing to increase the defence budget which will not be used against China, the author claims. The main conclusion that we get from the book on this matter is that, although no country has as many well-financed strategic think tanks as America does, the US is far from creating rational strategies toward China. Those numerous think tanks are also being manipulated by the defence firms, and those are definitely not helping the US to shape a sharp, rational, and well-structured strategy toward China.

“History teaches us failure can happen if one cannot think of failing.” Kishore Mahbubani

 

Conclusion

It will happen, it has already started. “A major geopolitical contest between America and China is both inevitable and avoidable” says Mahbubani.

[1] It has been stated also as “military-industrial complex”.

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