7 March 2017

China Seeking Global Leadership

Gordon G. Chang

In January at Davos, Chinese leader Xi Jinping cast himself as the defender of globalization, and in a February 17 seminar in Beijing he said his country would promote a sounder international system.

These recent speeches by Xi, China’s ruler since November 2012, suggest Beijing is seeking to displace America’s leading role in the international system. Statements by President Donald Trump, both before and after inauguration, have opened the door for Beijing to make rhetorical advances. Fortunately for Washington, it is not possible for Xi to align his country’s internal and external policies with his benign-sounding words.

Xi has been busy issuing grand statements. “Whether you like it or not, the global economy is the big ocean that you cannot escape from,” he said in Davos as the first Chinese leader to address the World Economic Forum. “Any attempt to cut off the flow of capital, technologies, products, industries, and people between economies, and channel the waters in the ocean back into isolated lakes and creeks is simply not possible. Indeed, it runs counter to the historical trend.”

And he promised this: “We will open our arms to the people of other countries and welcome them aboard the express train of China’s development.” 

And, later at the Beijing seminar in mid-February, Xi offered his thoughts of a newly “democratized” and “just and reasonable” world, presumably led by China. He promised to promote the “democratization of international relations” and “guide the international community to jointly maintain international security.” Beijing, he said, could help build “a more just and reasonable new world order.”

Of course, ironies, hypocrisies, and absurdities abound. On globalization, Xi cannot credibly portray himself as the defender of economic integration. During his rule, China has increasingly closed off its economy to foreign participants, primarily with highly discriminatory law enforcement actions and the erection of formal legal barriers, such as those contained in new national security rules and regulations like the Cybersecurity Law adopted in November.

Moreover, his tightened internet controls, which affect businesses’ ability to operate, are sawing China off from the rest of the planet while his increasingly strict capital controls prevent companies from repatriating funds.

China’s leader can say whatever he wants, but the foreign business community is day-by-day feeling less welcome, as evidenced by the most recent surveys conducted by the American Chamber of Commerce in China and the European Union Chamber of Commerce in China.

And with regard to regional security, no country in East and South Asia, with the possible exception of China’s client North Korea, represents a more immediate threat to its neighbors than does China itself. China, among other things, is territorially expansive and diplomatically and militarily aggressive—using coercion and force in its attempt to take territory from an arc of countries spanning thousands of miles from India to South Korea. Moreover, Beijing is attempting to control and close off peripheral waters—South China Sea, East China Sea, and the Yellow Sea—and the airspace above them.

Worse, Chinese ambitions are expanding as state institutions and state media are laying the groundwork for sovereignty claims to Japan’s Okinawa and the rest of the strategic Ryukyu chain.

When the Chinese talk about “democratization,” they mean every state should have equal influence in the world order. As a practical matter, China seeks a leveling of the existing system that would, first and foremost, diminish American influence.

America has been the traditional security provider in East and South Asia, and these days not even North Korea wants to replace the US with China.

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