As China rises, so its relationship with the rest of the world becomes ever-closer. At the same time, it also grows more complex. There are bound to be setbacks as well as advances. Overall, however, one must conclude that 2014 has been a very good year as far as China’s global rise is concerned. More and more countries around the world want to build a closer economic relationship with China, which increasingly they see as crucial to their own future prosperity. China is pioneering a new paradigm in international relations in which military concerns are no longer paramount – as has been the case in the post-1945 American world order – and, in their place, economic relations, based on trade, investment and loans, are assuming primacy.
This trend – embodying the notion of win-win co-operation – is most apparent in China’s relationship with the developing world but it is also becoming a growing feature of, for example, China’s relationship with many European countries. This is even true of the UK, which has been a relative laggard in its relationship with China: since December 2013 it has been enthusiastically seeking Chinese investment in its nuclear industry and trying to make London the European hub for the renminbi.
The most dramatic example of this primacy of the economic, however, is East Asia. The United States introduced its ‘pivot to Asia’ – now described as ‘rebalancing’ – in 2012 in an attempt to reverse its decline in the region while at the same time seeking to constrain and contain China’s rise. The key plank of the pivot was – in time-honoured American tradition – to strengthen its military alliances with Japan and South Korea, and also the Philippines. Yet the reason for America’s decline in East Asia was not military but economic. Similarly, the reason for China’s rise was not military but economic. In other words, the very conception of the pivot was fundamentally flawed.
2014 offers powerful evidence that the US strategy will fail. The launch of the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank with 21 members – notwithstanding powerful American pressure to dissuade countries from joining – shows that the main trend in the region is economic partnership and co-operation, with China at the heart of the process, rather than military alliances. Japan, South Korea and Indonesia were the only East Asian countries that refused to join, and since then Indonesia has announced its intention to sign up. We can expect the process of economic integration in the region to accelerate, with the US, it would seem, increasingly an outsider. Even its attempt to seize the trading initiative – the deliberately divisive TPP – is in serious trouble.
This offers an insight into what the world might be like when China possesses the largest economy. If American power has been characterised, above all, by its military might, together with its predilection to interfere in the political affairs of other countries, China offers a very different example. The American worldview is based on the notion of enemies and allies – a fundamentally military logic. China thinks in terms of economic development and mutuality. China, in fact, does not have enemies – the nearest example is Japan – and nor does it have allies. On the contrary, all countries, including Japan, are viewed as actual or potential partners. This is a very different conception of the world, which also finds reflection in the style of Chinese political leadership, quiet and reserved rather than lecturing and hectoring.
The roots of these differences, of course, are historical. While Europe – the progenitor of the United States – sought to extend its influence around the world through military conquest and direct political rule resulting in vast colonial empires, China’s influence in East Asia and beyond was based on a combination of economic and cultural rather than military and political power. While Europe sought to impose its values on the world by force and subjugation, China’s sense of itself as the most advanced civilization – the Middle Kingdom, the land under heaven – was expressed in a desire to prioritise the domestic – or stay at home – rather than conquer the world.
A fundamental feature of the China Dream concerns China’s evolving relationship with the world: this, of course, is still very much work in progress. Ever since China was forced by its own weakness at the end of the nineteenth century to submit to the Western norms of the international system, it has enjoyed very little international influence. That is changing rapidly, but we are still only at the very beginning of this process. Based on little contemporary experience or historical knowledge of China, the world is watching to see how it will exercise its growing power. Inevitably, because China is so unfamiliar and also so huge, there is some apprehension. But what has been most striking so far is how relatively little hostility there has been towards China’s rise, and even a sense of expectation. China must do everything in its power to ensure this continues.