Rise of China: A Historians Perspective
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Issue Net Edition | Date : 22 May , 2021

Arnold J. Toynbee, in his monumental ‘A Study of History’ (12 volumes) predicted in his final volume in 1961 that when the modernization process now going on in India and China reaches its culmination, “…the huge populations of these two countries will begin to weigh in the political balance of the world. Such invigorated giants, he further says, will then demand their fair share in the world resources, currently grossly in favour of West.

While India continues to flounder, China has indeed ‘arrived’ as a super power on the world stage. In May 2021, with her successful launch of rover on the surface of Mars and an earlier feat of a nascent space station, China has caught up with the advanced nations in space technology. It is only a matter of time before this manifests itself in military power. Its obvious prior knowledge about a virus created in its own lab, China is the only country in the world that has weathered the economic storm caused by Covid-19. In the coming years, China is well on its way to becoming both a military and economic super power. The assertive foreign policy since 2020 is only the beginning and more as a trailer of things to come.

While the Chinese may well claim that its rise is solely due to its own efforts and genius of its own people, it is a fact that the rise of China owes much to US and Western help, investment and technology that it received during the three decades beginning 1970.

In March 1969, the long simmering ideological dispute between the Soviet Union and China erupted into armed clashes on the Ussuri river border. The active conflict went on for over sevenmonths and later even escalated to the Soviet Union’s border with Xingjian province. The US and the West decided to use the ‘China card’ against the Soviet Union that was regarded as the main threat. Under Reagan in the 1980s, American abandoned its long standing policy of technology denial to China and pulled out all stops in its aid to China. Reagan was obsessed with ending ‘an Evil Empire’ as he called the Soviet Union and no cost was too great to achieve it. It is around the same time, in order to make Afghanistan into ‘Vietnam’ of Soviet Union, the US began creating and arming Islamic radicals. The blow back of that disastrous policy came on 9/11 when Al Qaida terrorist launched an attack on US mainland. The unbridled aid to China during the same era is now coming to bite the US in 2021 in the shape of an aggressive China. In the backdrop of Cancun Summit between President Reagan and PM Indira Gandhi, an Indian diplomat had protested at the technology curbs that were still in place against India while the same was freely available to China. To this an American State Department official had breezily replied that with China we have no such worries as they are our allies.

The Cold War ended around 1992 with the dissolution of Soviet Union. But a review of Cold War policies and approach to China and future threat it may pose was never given a thought. Besides the vested interest of Cold War lobbyists and scores of ‘Soviet Experts’ in American think tanks who feared unemployment, the Western multinationals weighed in favour of pro-China policy. After Mao’s death in 1976, Deng Xiaoping became the supreme leader of China. He abandoned the statist Chinese communist policies and embraced Western capitalist model. China opened its doors to Western capital and provided cheap land, labour and unrestricted freedom to establish industries. With no labour unions, no minimum wages or environmental regulations, industries flocked to China to establish new industrial plants and even shift their old ones from mother country to China. There was a virtual stampede by Western Multinationals to invest in China for super profits. These influential multinational companies ensured that the pro-China tilt continued even in the post-Cold War era.

Joseph S. Nye and Bob Keohane authored ‘Power and Interdependence’ is a seminal work dealing with the later 20thcentury that saw the emergence of an interdependent world. The authors make a distinction between ‘sensitivity’ and ‘vulnerability’ in interdependence. Somewhere down the line, the economic relations between the rest of the world and China transited from sensitivity to becoming vulnerable. As China emerged a major industrial power house, it began to see and exploit this vulnerability. It was only a matter of time before China flexed its muscle.

Another complicating factor in the world not reacting to China is the lingering suspicion about Russia. The hangover of Cold War has prevented the West from making a common cause with Russia that has most to fear from Chinese revanchist policies as that pose threat to its Far East.

It is indeed a time for making hard choices between an insecure Russia as an ally or push it into Chinese embrace. During 1945 when faced with Hitler’s Germany, the Western world made up with Stalinist Russia to deal with Hitler.

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The views expressed are of the author and do not necessarily represent the opinions or policies of the Indian Defence Review.

About the Author

Col Anil Athale

Former infantry soldier who was head of War History division, Min of Def, Research fellowships including Fulbright, Kennedy Centre, IDSA, USI and Philosophical Society. 30 years research of conflicts in Kashmir, NE, Ireland, Sri Lanka and South Africa. Author of 7 books on military history.

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3 thoughts on “Rise of China: A Historians Perspective

  1. A very incisive and well-researched article that helps in understanding the vital issues. Wish as we may, India could not have competed with the Chinese pace of development as an economic and military power. Reason: we have never had a leader with unquestionable heft like Deng Xiaoping, and the luxury of a political environment that permits such labour laws and economic freedom like accorded to Western industrial giants who thrived under a very conducive environment like in China. We have adopted a political system that does not permit adequate unity for adopting any progressive policies even those purely based on progress in the National interest.

  2. This sort of narrative merely reveals how little Indians understand China.

    ‘No labour unions’ – China forced Walmart to accept unions.

    Technology transfer owes much more to Beijing’s policy of demanding it in exchange for permitting access to the Chinese market than to any American geopolitical fancy. New Delhi could have followed a similar policy if it had an intelligent government.

    The view that Western capital made China what it is today, ignores the obvious fact that the vast majority of China’s investment is domestic, not foreign. This can easily be seen by comparing FDI as a percentage of Chinese GDP with total investment as a percentage of GDP.–nominal-gdp#:~:text=China%20Investment%20accounted%20for%2043.1,an%20average%20ratio%20of%2035.7%20%25.&text=Its%20Gross%20Savings%20Rate%20was%20measured%20at%2044.2%20%25%20in%20Dec%202019.

    Understanding China’s rise is about understanding a) How it achieved such high rates of investment, and b) how it managed to avoid the inflationary and balance-of-payments problems that normally accompany an economic boom. I have explained this here:

    China owes most of its success to its adoption of the East Asian Development Model, pioneered by the Japanese in Manchuria, and later adopted by South Korea, Taiwan and Singapore. If we want our country to hold its own against the PRC, and not to keep floundering, we would do well to properly understand this.

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