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Mainstream, VOL 61 No 20, May 13, 2023

China’s Challenge to America | M.R. Narayan Swamy

Saturday 13 May 2023, by M R Narayan Swamy



by M.R. Narayan Swamy

Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy

by Kishore Mahbubani

PublicAffairs, New York
Pages: 312; Price: Rs 699
ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1541768132
ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1541768130

Is China’s tremendous economic growth a threat to the United States? Is Beijing trying to dethrone Washington as the world’s numero uno? Is the Communist Party of China trying to destabilize American and Western values? Will China’s aggressive onward march promote dictators and undermine democratic ideals? Should the world fear the rise and rise of the Middle Kingdom?

Answers to all these questions will elicit a resounding ’yes’ in today’s America, where large sections, both among the people and the political elite, are convinced that China presents a far bigger danger than the Soviet Union ever did. And so, Washington, which not too long ago helped Beijing gain its economic muscle, has now declared a virtual war on the communist country — and wants the world to fall behind it with equal enthusiasm. Veteran Singaporean diplomat Kishore Mahbubani, a keen China watcher, has a completely different perspective.

The author is certain about one thing: the geopolitical contest that has erupted between the US and China will rage for the next decade or two. The Americans are of course convinced, with the Soviet example in mind, that the US will emerge triumphant because communist regimes have a shelf life. But the biggest strategic mistake the US has made is igniting a conflict without a comprehensive and global strategy. Not only is it fighting tomorrow’s war with yesterday’s strategies, but it has even alienated key allies in Europe. This is in complete contrast to the purposeful way it fought the Cold War which it won convincingly.

China has no doubt made its own strategic blunders. It has been fundamentally unfair in many economic policies; demanding technology transfer, stealing intellectual property, and imposing non-tariff barriers. Chinese claims about indigenous innovation has come to be seen by many international companies as a blueprint for technology theft on a scale never seen in the world earlier. After the 2008-08 global financial crisis, China displayed its hidden arrogance. And long years after it joined the WTO, it still hides behind rules meant for poor developing countries and has not opened its economy to foreign competition in many areas. Often, provincial bosses in China act without paying heed to promises made by and directives from the central leadership in Beijing, exasperating foreigners and investors. And for a country which once sought to export Maoism to bring about universal socialist equality, China now behaves with an imperialist mindset vis-à-vis poorer countries in particular. That over a hundred countries trade more with China than with America doesn’t take away these ugly facts.

The other fact, however unpalatable, is that China has clearly won the first round of the see-saw battle with the US. Credit for much of this must go to Donald Trump, who provided China a major geopolitical gift by walking away from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a brilliant move by the Obama administration to anchor America’s presence in East and Southeast Asia. The mercurial Trump also alienated key friends and allies ranging from Canada and Mexico to Japan and India.

Trump’s actions have created a strong incentive for other countries to stop relying on the US dollar as the dominant global currency. Worse, inequality has ballooned in the US. In functional terms, the American political system is moving from being a democracy to becoming a plutocracy, betraying the ideals of its Founding Fathers. It is no wonder that after leaving office, Bill Clinton publicly stated that America should prepare itself for a world where the US is no longer the superpower.

Author Mahbubani is at his best when he argues logically that needless American military expenditures are gifts to China. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the US should have pulled back from its interventions abroad; the reverse happened. America wasted nearly $5 trillion on wars in the Middle East alone since 9/11 — without gaining anything. All this served China’s strategic purpose by keeping America distracted. In the process, the US, like the former Soviet Union, has become rigid, inflexible and doctrinaire — and severely weakened its diplomatic options.

Like some other observers, the book points out how the Communist Party has delivered the best governance China has ever enjoyed in its entire history — which few outsiders appreciate and so draw wrong conclusions vis-à-vis Beijing. Partly, the Chinese value social harmony and well-being more than individual rights.

Today, the Chinese people can choose where to live, what to wear, where to study and what jobs to take. Each year some 134 million Chinese travel overseas, including to democracies in the West and East, and return home on their own — in contrast to the Soviet Union where the authorities kept a tight lid on ordinary people. It is paradoxical that it this period in Chinese history which the Western imagination perceives as a relatively dark era.
Mahbubani admits that the Chinese government in the 21st century knows it has to balance three partially contradictory goals for a healthy Chinese society: growth, stability and personal freedom. Chinese leaders must also be aware that the current political system, where the communists have absolute control, cannot last forever. No wonder, the Chinese realize that when the Americans say they want to promote democracy in China, the real aim is to destabilize the country.

The Singapore diplomat does not ignore India. He warns it would be a mistake for any American pundit to believe that India could one day become (like Japan or the UK) a reliable compliant ally against China. He says that as long as India’s economic growth remains at a slower rate, it won’t enjoy the same respect globally as China. Sadly, many Americans, like many of other Westerners, have a higher degree of respect for Chinese civilization than they do of India’s. This could explain why visits by Indian leaders elicit far less space in the American media than trips to Washington by Chinese leaders.
The author turns some popular wisdom upside down. American prosperity is an asset to China, not a liability, he asserts. And China is not challenging American prosperity. Beijing’s main dream is to rejuvenate Chinese civilization, not export communist ideology. Indeed, China can be a part of the solution to American’s internal divisions; and if the two superpowers cooperate, miracles happen. But the book concludes that all this may be wishful thinking as it will be near impossible for any American leader to advocate a détente with China today.

But Mahbubani clearly favours such a détente. His argument is that if the two countries were to focus on their core interests of improving the livelihood of their citizens, they would realize there are no fundamental contradictions in their long-term national interests.

One cannot escape concluding that the diplomat author is too sympathetic to Beijing. There is no reference in the book to the Covid-19 disaster China caused — and the terrible price the world has paid. While Mahbubani finds fault with China on the South China Sea, Beijing can be pulled up in other geographical zones as well. There are a couple of factual inaccuracies in the book. Nevertheless, this is an important and path-breaking work, written by a man who knows the subject well and who, unlike Westerners, has an Asian perspective.

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