Tortoise v Hare: Is China challenging the US for global leadership? Great Economist piece
Back from Australia and I’ve been catching up on my Economist backlog. The 1st April edition exemplified the things the magazine does really well (I don’t include its naff geek-humour April 1st leader supporting a tax on efficiency). There were the customary great infographics – here’s the map showing the extent to which countries export/import air pollution through their trade in goods (i.e. importing dirty stuff rather than making it at home).Next up, an overview on global progress in eradicating extreme poverty (and how much harder it gets as you get closer to zero – the ‘last mile problem’). Here’s a flavour:
‘Until recently the world’s poorest people could be divided into three big groups: Chinese, Indian and everybody else. In 1987 China is thought to have had 660m poor people, and India 374m. The concentration of destitution in those two countries was in one sense a boon, because in both places better economic policies allowed legions to scramble out of poverty. At the last count (2011 in India; 2013 in China) India had 268m paupers and China just 25m. Both countries are much more populous than they were 30 years ago.’
But the standout piece was subtitled ‘Is China challenging the US for global leadership?’, ahead of the strikingly low key Trump-Xi summit (post mortem here). Here are some excerpts:
‘They are looking in opposite directions: America away from shouldering global responsibilities, China towards it. And they are reappraising their positions in very different ways. Hare-like, the Trump administration is dashing from one policy to the next, sometimes contradicting itself and willing to box any rival it sees. China, tortoise-like, is extending its head cautiously beyond its carapace, taking slow, painstaking steps. Aesop knew how this contest is likely to end.
China’s guiding foreign-policy principle used to be Deng Xiaoping’s admonition in 1992 that the country should “keep a low profile, never take the lead…and make a difference.” This shifted a little in 2010 when officials started to say China should make a difference “actively”. It shifted further in January when Mr Xi went to the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, and told the assembled throng that China should “guide economic globalisation”. Diplomats in Beijing swap rumours that a first draft of Mr Xi’s speech focused on the domestic economy, an uncontroversial subject that Chinese leaders usually like to talk about abroad. Mr Xi is said to have rejected this version, and brought in foreign consultants to write one dwelling more on China’s view of the world…..
Is China challenging America for global leadership?
To answer that, it is important to begin with the way China’s political system works. Policies rarely emerge fully formed in a presidential speech. Officials often prefer to send subtle signals about intended changes, in a way that gives the government room to retreat should the new approach fail. The signals are amplified by similar ones further down the system and fleshed out by controlled discussions in state-owned media. In the realm of foreign policy, all that is happening now.
State-run media have begun to discuss the makings of an idea that, unlike the old one of a China model, the country would like to sell to others. This is the so-called “China solution”. The phrase was first mentioned last July, on the 95th anniversary of the founding of the Chinese Communist Party. Mr Xi’s celebratory speech asserted that the Chinese people were “fully confident that they can provide a China solution to humanity’s search for better social institutions”. The term has gone viral. Baidu, China’s most popular search engine, counts 22m usages of its Chinese rendering: Zhongguo fang’an.
No one has defined what the China solution is. But, whatever it means, there is one for everything. Strengthening global government? There is a China solution to that, said the People’s Daily, the party’s main mouthpiece, in mid-March. Climate change? “The next step is for us to bring China’s own solution,” said Xie Zhenhua, the government’s special climate envoy, in another newspaper, Southern Metropolis. There is even a China solution to the problem of bolstering the rule of law, claimed an article in January in Study Times, a weekly for officials. Multi-billion-dollar investments in infrastructure in Central Asia are China’s solution to poverty and instability there. And so on. Unlike the China model, which its boosters said was aimed at developing countries, the China solution, says David Kelly of China Policy, a consultancy, is for everyone—including Western countries.
But talk of “guiding globalisation” and a “China solution” does not mean China is turning its back on the existing global order or challenging American leadership of it across the board. China is a revisionist power, wanting to expand influence within the system. It is neither a revolutionary power bent on overthrowing things, nor a usurper, intent on grabbing global control.
So what might China’s unassuming new assertiveness mean in practice? A template can be found in climate-change policy. China was one of the main obstacles to a global climate agreement in 2008, but now its words are the lingua franca of climate-related diplomacy. Parts of a deal on carbon emissions between Mr Xi and Barack Obama were incorporated wholesale into the Paris climate treaty of 2016. China helped determine how that accord defines what are known as “common and differentiated responsibilities”, namely how much each country should be responsible for cutting emissions.
As chairman of the G20 last year, Mr Xi made the fight against climate change a priority for the group. But China’s clout at that time was bolstered by its accord with America. Now Mr Trump is beginning to dismantle his predecessor’s climate policies. Li Shou of Greenpeace says China is therefore preparing to go it alone as Mr Xie, the climate envoy, said in January that it was prepared to do. It may be that a “China solution” to climate change will be the first practical application of the term.
Soon after Mr Xi’s speech in Davos, Zhang Jun, a senior Foreign Ministry official, put his finger on China’s changing place in the world. “I would say it is not China rushing to the front,” he told a newspaper in Hong Kong, “but rather the front-runners have stepped back, leaving the place to China.” But officials have far fewer qualms than Deng did about being at the front. “If China is required to play a leadership role,” says Mr Zhang, “it will assume its responsibilities.”’