China: A partner for the future, or an enemy from the past?

Posted On August 12, 2021

By the Malta International Relations Association (MIRSA)

For 44 years, between the end of World War II and the fall of the Iron Curtain in Europe, the Cold War served as the defining feature of foreign affairs; dictating norms and ethics in economic and philosophical thought; and pop culture. Moreover, it redefined the popular perception of both historical and contemporary governments, terrorist organizations/freedom fighters and entire societies and religious groups. This all took place in line with the formation of the ‘East’ and ‘West’. 

Since 1989, the ideological divisions between East and West have since vanished with the decline of Communism; the pre-eminent feature of Eastern politic during the Cold War, as a credible force for change in the World. The People’s Republic of China (PRC), however, has remained seemingly immune to the same socio-economic discord that swept the USSR, Yugoslavia and others at the turn of the century . 

This continuation of Communism in China was a product of adjusting the radicalism of ‘Mao Zedong Thought’ through ‘Socialism with Chinese Characteristics’ (the diktat of the state would remain, while the mercantile national character of the Chinese people would be prioritized) in the economic sphere, whilst retaining an authoritarian regime under the complete control of the Communist Party. 

In the 21st century, China has coupled subsequent economic growth with an ever-more stringent adherence to autocracy both at home and within the scope of its foreign policy. Should Westerners entertain the now-certain centrality of China at the heart of the globalized economy and an interconnected web of emerging economies with promise and opportunity, or must we remain wary of the PRC’s clear replacement of the USSR as a vestige for anti-Western and anti-democratic values in the World? 

The benefits and losses of Chinese economic growth aside, we must first acknowledge the means by which China got here in the first place. 

Following the Sino-Soviet Split of the 1960s, Mao Zedong, the PRC’s founding father and longtime ruler, took the bold step of realigning Chinese Communism with the West, not out of any love for capitalism, but in order to assert the independence of Chinese foreign policy from the USSR. In 1972, the ailing dictator met with US President Richard Nixon, the first visit made by a Western leader since the end of the war. As of yet, however, the Chinese economy remained one of the least developed on Earth and continued to languish under the totalitarian control of the state. 

In 1980, after decades of stark isolation under Maoism, Paramount Leader Deng Xiaoping, the man credited with China’s 21st century-economic miracle, declared the southern city of Shenzhen to be the first of many Special Economic Zones (SEZs), regions of China the CCP selected to serve as the principal drivers of foreign economic investment and industrialization. By 1985, most of China’s eastern ports, including Shanghai and Guangzhou, fired-up a then-untapped mecca of natural resources and labour for Western investors. It seemed that following a political thaw with the US, China was readily accepting the Western way as ideal for opening up to the wider World, especially as the Cold War was coming to an end. 

A decade later, the accession of Hong Kong and the blooming of the Information Age  permitted China to overtake Japan as the 2nd largest economy on Earth in 1999, and to cement its influence on the technology sectors of Japan, the US and elsewhere through the mass production of rare earth minerals (REMs) from Chinese mines. For most of the 1990s and the 2000s; however, China merely served the World as a supplier of labour and resources for manufacturing: later on in our timeline, China would transform into an innovator and financier on par with Japan and the West. 

In 2015, General-Secretary Xi Jinping launched the Belt and Road Initiative, a strategy that would translate 36 years of monumental progress into placing China at the centre of the global economy, establishing a series of trade agreements, infrastructure deals and strategic investments in order to raise China’s image as both a clear threat to Transatlantic hegemony, and to consolidate China’s reliability as a lender and financier of projects across the Global South. 

BRI projects since 2015 have included economic corridors to Turkey, the UAE, Nepal, Pakistan and Vietnam, the New Eurasian Land Bridge between Europe and China via Turkey, the Addis Ababa-Djibouti Railway, the Pan-Asia Network Railway, the construction of various hydroelectric dams in Argentina, Nigeria, Laos and India and the purchase of the Port of Piraeus in Athens by the Chinese state. 

In the midst of the COVID-19 Pandemic, China has also facilitated the rollout of 775 million vaccines to its partners. Chinese medical teams have also been deployed to Kazakhstan, Venezuela, Serbia and other nations in an effort to help coordinate the public health response. 

In the technological sector, Beijing has launched the Digital Silk Road as a means of translating the broad dependence of Japanese and Western tech-firms on Chinese REMs into China’s own leadership of the global high-tech sector; at the centre of the DSR is China’s largest tech-firm and one of the largest on Earth, Huawei, which controls a plurality of the World’s 5G patents as of 2019 and has invested €15 billion in R&D since its foundation in 1987.

In recent years, the US has challenged growing Chinese influence in Asia by re-centering American diplomatic priorities to the exact same region: in 2012, President Obama and Secretary-of-State Hillary Clinton launched the ‘Pivot to Asia’ strategy as a means of reaching out to the military and economic needs of Asian nations through the US’ considerable might in both areas, therefore challenging China’s rise. Beijing has regarded the Pivot to Asia under Obama as well as Trump and now Biden as little more than an exercise in American hegemony to prevent China’s neighbours from developing at the same pace and a means to restrict China’s growth as a rival to the US globally, considering the general fruition of economic growth across Asia. 

Under the Trump administration, loggerheads with Beijing where reached over Taiwan, as Washington deepend its ties to President Tsai Ing-wen’s government and increased its military commitments to the ROC as a largely unrecognized government, under threat from an invasion from the mainland; continued under Biden, the US’ increasing military presence in Taiwan has earned the PRC’s ire and has placed Beijing’s imposition of a ‘One China Policy’ on the rest of the World in doubt. 

The US, as well as the UK and Canada, (all following the EU’s lead) imposed sanctions on China over the mass detainment and reported ethnic cleansing of Xinjiang’s Uyghur Muslim-majority population; in light of accusations of systematic forced sterlizations, rape and torture across a series of concentration camps. China has argued that internal affairs in Xinjiang do not concern Western nations and Western sanctions on the PRC are tantamount to interfering in Chinese domestic politics. 
Even in the technological sector, Huawei (and Beijing by extension) has faced Western hurdles. As of 2019, the US, UK, Sweden, Poland, Romania, France, Mexico and Australia have all imposed, to varying degrees, severe restrictions and outright bans on the company’s ability to install 5G telecoms infrastructure on account of the possibility that private data obtained by Huawei may be transferred to the Chinese government. China has regarded these accusations as unfounded, yet many law enforcement figures in the West have raised serious concerns that a lack of legal accountability for civilian privacy exhibited by Huawei towards its Chinese customers and its participation in mass surveillance efforts hardly warrants Western governments turning a blind eye.

To this extent, we are presented with 2 very different images of a nation seemingly poised to occupy the global driver’s seat by the end of the century. On one hand, we are given a China that is seemingly devoted to sharing the fruit of its economic development with the rest of the World and ensuring that the financial hegemony of Western banks and corporations both before and since the Cold War will be challenged. On the other hand, we are presented with a hostile regime that has merely replaced the USSR and is clearly poised to undermine the West and democracies everywhere in an effort to further its goals. 

The complex reality of China’s rise is one that contains elements of both images, oftentimes mistakenly held by Westerners. China has indeed remained a repressive state with little regard for human rights, yet it is undeniable that projects funded by the PRC have benefited many nations in desperate need of aid – aid which they did not receive from the West (hence why they turned to China in the first place). That said, while the Chinese economic juggernaut is an inevitable benefit to the Global South and a certain challenge to Western, especially American, hegemony, democracies ought not to forfeit their citizen’s rights, nor should any nation withdraw its own rights to sovereignty, in exchange for Chinese aid. At the end of the day, China is not a democratic nation and must be called out for its government’s abuses. 

In conclusion, China’s rise in the 21st-century is one of mixed results and effects, with clear losses and benefits ahead. What is clear is that a ‘Second Cold War’ is not ongoing: our World is undeniably multipolar and interconnected, regardless of the political orientation of one government. That said, it is up to our leaders, as well as China’s, to ensure that competition is kept at a reasonable and moderate level that produces relative gains for both sides, as opposed to absolute losses caused by unnecessary proxy conflicts and isolation. 

Written by MIRSA

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