In history, China has seen itself as a dominant player on the world stage for over 2000 years.“Zhongguo” or the Middle Kingdom, as interpreted by China is the “Centre of the World” towards which the world gravitated for political, economic and cultural salvation. This China centric view has shaped China’s behaviour, post 1949.
In the mid-19th Century, the decline of Imperial China began with the West led Opium Wars and till 1949 the country has been in turmoil. However, in the past two decades, China has emerged as the second largest economy and a major power. This has led China to re-establish it’s the “Middle Kingdom” status.
China, since 1950s, has slowly and steadily subverted the international institutions which work to secure stability and peace across the globe, to its way of thinking, in an attempt to dominate the global governance system, with a view to introduce values and priorities of the Middle Kingdom.
Its modus operandi is to support international institutions and agreements which are in consonance with its principles but where it hold divergent views like human rights, it subverts and create parallel models and institutions. In global arena where the institutions are still evolving, it attempts to create their framework, reflecting Chinese values. Wireless communication governance is a case in point.
As of 2020, China is well on its path to recreate the Middle Kingdom. In this, it has through all means of governance, specially targeted the democratic nations committed to maintaining the post-world war 2 global governance system. Emerging today is a world of two distinct governance system, with their parallel institutions, severely undermining global cooperation, multilateralism and peace.
This article is an attempt to elucidate the revival of the Middle Kingdom.
Imperial China 221 BCE–1911CE
Since the time of Qin dynasty in 221 BCE, till Qing dynasty which ruled till 1911 CE, China perceived itself as the ruler of the world. A strong economic power, exporter of path breaking technologies such as the explosives, mariner’ s compass; Imperial China however, didn’t establish a military hegemony over the Globe but its economic might created many vassal states whose governance was subverted to accommodate Chinese interests and hegemon.
In 1911, the Qing dynasty collapsed and Sun Yatsen took over reigns. Sun Yatsen’s vision was to “revitalise the Chinese nation to its past glory”. But the Republic (1912-1949)was weak and soon faced a debilitating Japanese aggression in 1937 and a civil war which saw the division of the nation into “People’s Republic of China” under the mercurial leader Mao Zedong and “Republic of China” Taiwan under Chiang Kai-shek.
Revolutionary China (1949-1976)
Creation of UN after World War 2, in 1945, saw Republic of China as founder and charter member being one of the permanent members of UN SC until 1971. Victory of Communists and creation of the People Republic of China which disregarded the prevalent international system, saw its exclusion from United Nations. Aggrieved at the recognition of Taiwan (then Farmosa) as a permanent member of the UN Security council, China chartered its own course to create an alternate international system.
In 1953, Premier Zhou Enlai proclaimed the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence” based on mutual respect for sovereignty and territorial integrity, mutual nonaggression, non-interference in each other’s internal affairs, equality and mutual benefit, and peaceful coexistence, which we in India understand as “Panchsheel”.
Panchsheel found resonance around the globe, mainly in nations which were ex colonies of West and it formed the core principle of “Non-Aligned Movement” in 1960, a global counter weight to the Western hegemony.
1960s saw China undermining global order by exporting revolution. Chinese trained guerrillas were trying to overthrow Governments in Africa, Latin America, South East and South Asia. India too suffered. North Vietnam challenged the US might on Chinese support.
In 1970, overtures by US to normalise ties gave a shot in the arm of PRC. 1971 saw its inclusion in UN, as a permanent member in Security Council. Willingly China became a part of the system which was created post World War 2 to ensure peace and stability in the world. This made China acceptable to many nations. This, over the years, enabled China in its rapid development, to emerge as the world’s second largest economy, today.
Reformation of China
The period encompassing 1977-2000, post death of Mao Zedong, saw China open up to the world under the leadership of Deng Xiaoping, whose era ended in 1987. His successors till 2002 continued to develop his vision. It evolved as an “authoritarian, controlled state with a capitalist economy”. Deng Xiaoping, supervised major economic reforms in the late 1970s and early 1980s, which started China’s growth and ultimately made it a super power. Deng introduced market reforms and encouraged inflows of foreign capital and technology. During this period, China also joined more global financial and trade institutions, including the International Monetary Fund, the World Intellectual Property Organization, and the Asian Development Bank.
As China opened up, its people yearned for more freedom. This culminated in large pro-democracy protests at Tiananmen Square in Beijing in 1989. This uprising was violently put down but it seriously dented China’s image in the world. To rebuild its image and ties, China, in early 1990s embraced more multilateralism and integration with international organisations responsible for keeping the “Rule based Order” around the world. In 1992 it signed the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, the Comprehensive Nuclear Test Ban Treaty in 1996 and the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights in 1998. In 1999, China gained admission in World Trade Organisation.
Concurrently it worked towards creating its own sphere of influence too. In 1996, it created the Shanghai Five, a Security group comprising of China, Russia, Kazakhstan, Kirgizstan and Tajikistan.
From 2001 -2012, the world witnessed a resurgent China. In first decade of 21st Century, China played according to established global rules and standards. As its economy grew, it signalled to the world its willingness to be a more active partner in global governance and also its ambition to challenge the existing world order and its norms.
It increased its influence around the world by pursuing bigger role for it in global institutions, publicising its growing influence, by creating parallel institutions to premier international institution and often by undermining existing global norms.
Rising China started publicising its efforts globally. In the 2007-2008 financial crisis, China participated with US to coordinate macroeconomic response. At home, it injected a $ 580 billion stimulus which it highlighted across globe as its effort to aid recovery of the world economy.
Resurgent China unfolded its plans to regain the lost glory of it being the Middle Kingdom. This era saw China create its own multilateral organisations. In 2001 the Shanghai Five opened its membership, under the new umbrella of Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO). Today it has a membership of total 22 countries as members / observers/ dialogue partners / guest attendees. India and Pakistan joined the group as “members” in 2017. SCO has relations with all leading international bodies. Within SCO, emphasis is on Security and Economic development. SCO aims to establish a Eurasian block to challenge the influence of West.
China heralds Middle Kingdom
2002 saw Hu Jintao, a technocrat, takeover reigns of China for the next ten years. It was during his tenure that China more openly challenged the established international norms. Beijing improved its footprint in Africa and Latin America at a scale hitherto not done by any major powers, powering its relation on aid and loans. In South China Sea, Hu Jintao claimed non-negotiable sovereignty till the “nine dash line” which was based on a 1947 map. This impinged on territorial integrity of all littoral state of South China Sea, besides challenging the “Right of Passage” international norm for maritime shipping. To strengthen its claim, it builds military facilities on disputed islands and artificial features leading to unpleasant close incidents, making South China Sea a flash point, undermining global peace.
China takes Centre Stage
By 2010, the world witnessed growing ambition of China to influence global governance, on the strength of its economic and military power.
China increasingly started advancing its model of political and economic development around the world. This development model reflects extensive state control over politics and society and mix of free market-based economy and State controlled economy, in core sectors.
Xi Jingping declared that China needs to lead the reform of global governance system based on concepts of “fairness and justice”. This was a call for a more multipolar world, challenging the hegemony of US and the West. The current retreat of US from global leadership has only emboldened China in this endeavour.
Rising China witnessed many UN institutions being headed Chinese. Each such appointment brought the subverting influence of China in these organisations.
In its attempt to reclaim Middle Kingdom, China in 2013, launched the Belt Road Initiative (BRI), a vast project of linking China to the 138 countries and 30 international organisations in development of Chinese aided infrastructure to facilitate trade, overland, through sea and air. China extended loans to the member states on rather opaque terms and most being from the third world, readily accepted them for their much-needed infrastructure. This was a very proactive project of China to regain the eminence of the Middle Kingdom. Needless to say, that countries so heavily indebted to China have seen their political system subverted to suit Beijing’s aim.
China’s evolving strategy to influence global governance is most prominent in global health, internet governance, climate change and development finance.
Global Health. Poor nations are recipients of Chinese aid to strengthen their health sector through opaque loans, which also undertakes development of health infrastructures and import of basic chemicals for Pharma industry from China. 80 percent of base drugs for US and India’s Pharma industry comes from China.
China cooperates with WHO and other international bodies in combating diseases around the world. Notable are its efforts to eradicate Malaria from East Africa and in its financial aid to combat Ebola. Its opacity in its Covid 19 crisis has drawn ire of the international community. China has managed to control the Virus which is now ravaging the world. To assuage feelings, it has sent financial aid, medical equipment and health workers to developed and developing nation, which has worked in its favour. Loss of US as the major contributor to WHO saw China immediately seizing the opportunity by increasing its funding to WHO, in its fight against Covid 19.
Internet Governance. In October 2017, China unveiled its plans to become the “cyber superpower”. It plans to become the leader in global internet governance. Within China, its policy dictates “cyber suzerainty” in control over the Internet. China has the maximum numbers of users in the use of internet. But it’s the Government uses advanced technologies to block foreign internet and social media sites, forcing citizens to use the State-run versions. In Fifth generation (5G) wireless communication technology, China is leading the pack. Globally, China advocates “cyber sovereignty”. To achieve this, China is replicating its national model of massive domestic surveillance over its citizens, across the world.
Climate Change. Initially sceptical of the multilateral approaches to combat climate change, mainly on worries of it slowing down its economic progress because of its dependence on coal, China has, under Xi Jingping , taken the path of cooperation. In 2015, the United States partnered with China to ink the Paris Agreement. US has since renegaded but China, along with other signatories, is steadfast to make it a success.
From world’s largest emitter of carbon dioxide, China has invested heavily into developing technology to tap ‘renewable sources of energy” and in building Electric Vehicles (EV).China today is the leading exporter of Solar power plants, Wind farms and Bio gas technology. Today it leads the world in use of EVs. This has improved the air quality in its major cities. This has helped it to export “clean technologies” especially along its BRI, further tweaking their governance system to bend rules to introduce and import such technologies, from it.
Development Finance. Surplus funds and surplus production capacity are the main drivers for China to undertake unilateral and multilateral approach to extend “development finances” to needy nations. This too is the basis of its BRI concept. Bereft of finances to develop infrastructure, many nations readily became part of BRI. BRI seeks to extend China’s physical infrastructure, financial, political and security ties spanning Africa, Asia, Middle East, South America, Oceania and Western Europe. Under BRI, China has announced over $460 billion aid. BRI lending norms don’t adhere to international norms and many nations have burnt their fingers, on loan default. Sri Lanka, had to handover Hambantota, a strategic all weather deep sea port in South Asia to the Chinese on 99 years lease, on loan default, upsetting security calculations in South Asia.
Besides BRI, in2015, China launched Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, a multilateral financial; institution, adhering to international norms, in sync with World Bank, to invest in infrastructure and other core sectors across Eurasia.
Since 2000, China has become the most coveted nation, across the globe. Its dominance of pharmaceutical industry , global wireless communication , development finances, EVs, renewable energy technology has spread its influence around the world, forcing nations to not only bend many rules and curtailing freedom of its citizens, to suit Beijing’s terms but has also seen them backing Beijing in international forums, giving Beijing the much needed clout and say in them , to drown sane voices. The lack of protests against Beijing in UN and in WHO in particular, for its opacity on Covid 19 and then to allow it to spread globally, is a case in point.
Huawei and other Chinese telecom giants have today a near monopoly in supplying software and hardware for telecom industries throughout the world. It is well known that Chinese telecom equipment are encrypted and make the recipient nation’s security a suspect, yet security is often sacrificed by these nations to fulfil the need for a faster and a more capable network, a vital need in this network centric world.
Through BRI, its land, air maritime “Silk routes”, China has already made deep in roads in the governance of many international bodies and independent nations. Even advanced nations such as Germany, Italy are keen to tweak their interests to accommodate those of China. Availability of finance to develop the much-needed infrastructure, opening up new market for their goods and services and import of high-end technology at attractive rates from China are great attractions for the cash strapped world.
Its growing assertiveness in global governance saw it challenging recent Taiwan elections, increasing domination of South A China Sea post Covid19,and introducing new Security laws in Hongkong, despite worldwide condemnation.
In South Asia, the Middle Kingdom is turning India’s neighbours, against it. India’s traditional allies in Nepal, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh and Maldives have seen huge Chinese investments and this makes their loyalty a suspect, which events have often proved. China’s strategic embrace of Pakistan in 1974 and its covert aid to help Pakistan go Nuclear has changed the security equation in S Asia. Now India has two nuclear neighbours as its sworn enemies and perforce has to maintain a strong military, a huge drain for a developing nation.
China’s attempt to establish hegemon over India led it to capture areas in India’s Ladakh state in May 2020. This has pitched these two regional powers in an eyeball to eye ball confrontation, upsetting peace in this nuclear dominated sub-continent. The silence of the Global community including India’s friendly neighbours on this Chinese aggression stands testimony to the re- emergence of the Middle Kingdom, heralding China’s hegemon.