It is difficult to underestimate the significance of the recent transformation in relations between the UK and China. There are many examples in recent years of countries moving towards a closer relationship with China: the distinctiveness – and significance – of the British case lies in the fact that the UK has regarded itself – and been seen as – America’s closest ally ever since the Second World War.
Who would have guessed just three years ago that the David Cameron government would be the author of the boldest change in British foreign policy since the second world war? That is exactly what is now unfolding.
The process began this year when the British government announced it would join a Chinese initiative to help fund Asia’s enormous infrastructural needs. The UK became the first non-Asian country to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB), after which more than 30 other countries joined, including Germany and France.
The United States opposed the decision because it saw the AIIB as a threat to the International Monetary Fund and the World Bank. Britain has long been the US’s foreign policy shadow, so the decision to join the AIIB was the most significant act of independence since 1944, when John Maynard Keynes argued with America’s Dexter White at Bretton Woods over the new international financial order.
The recent slowdown has called previous narratives about China’s rise into question for some. How should we view this economic slowdown? What role will the US play? Global Times (GT) London-based correspondent Sun Wei interviewed Martin Jacques (Jacques), a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies, Cambridge University, and a visiting professor at Tsinghua University, Beijing, about these questions.
GT: Nobel Prize winner Joseph E. Stiglitz claims in an article that the “Chinese century” has begun and that Americans should take China’s new status as the No.1 economy as a wake-up call. Professor Joseph Nye of Harvard University explains in an essay why the “American century” is far from over. Obama said last year the US will lead the world for the next 100 years. What do you think of these debates?
Jacques: The US is still the dominant power in the world in probably every sense. China is only challenging it economically by virtue of having a huge population. China’s rapid transformation is clearly already having profound economic consequences, and beginning to have serious political, cultural, intellectual, moral, ethical, and military consequences as well. That’s in a way what President Xi Jinping‘s government represents. The Chinese dream imagines a different place in the world and a different future for China.
Illustration by Matt Kenyon
The west’s bears have always well outnumbered the bulls when it comes to the Chinese economy. A new problem is all too often seen as an intimation of impending crisis, a hard landing, consequent social instability, and perhaps the eventual collapse of the regime. Dream on.
The bears, it goes without saying, have a dreadful record. After 35 years of extraordinary economic growth, China is still growing at 7% annually. True, that is lower than before, but still at a rate that dwarfs anything in the west.
One of the great weaknesses of so much western economic commentary is that it fails to look much beyond the next quarter’s, or even month’s, results. In contrast the Chinese understand where they have come from, where they are and where they need to go. Nor are they complacent: the Chinese leadership readily admits it faces quite new economic challenges.
There is an overwhelming assumption in the West that China’s Achilles heel is the state: that it lacks legitimacy. This is the underlying reason why Westerners believe that China’s transformation is unsustainable: that the political system cannot survive. It would be wrong to suggest that attitudes have not shifted: the endurance of the reform period, now over 35 years old, and the scale of its achievement have bred a growing if still grudging respect, and a less apocalyptic view of Chinese political change. Few now regard it to be imminent and many have extended their time horizons somewhat into the future.
Nevertheless, most Westerners still regard China’s present political order as lacking legitimacy and as ultimately unsustainable. In the post 1945 period, Westerners have come to believe that Western-style democracy – essentially universal suffrage and a multi-party system – is more or less the sole source of a government’s legitimacy. This is a superficial and ahistorical position. Western-style democracy does not ensure the legitimacy of a regime in the eyes of its people: Italy is perhaps the classic example, with successive governments over a long historical period experiencing a chronic lack of legitimacy. And what of China? Although it does not have Western-style democracy, there is plenty of evidence – for example the Pew Global Attitude surveys and the work of Tony Saich at the Harvard Kennedy School – that the Chinese government enjoys high levels of support and legitimacy, much higher indeed than those of Western governments.
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The UK’s decision to become a founder member of the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) is a major historical event. Until then no Western country, with the exception of New Zealand, had signed up to join, not least because of intense American pressure. The UK, moreover, cannot be counted as any old Western nation; on the contrary, ever since 1945, it has been the US’s closest ally. For British politicians, Conservative and Labour alike, the ‘special relationship’, as it has been known, was sacrosanct. A decade ago, the UK stood shoulder to shoulder with the US in the disastrous invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan.
So how do we explain Britain’s about-turn?
The UK is certainly not what it was. Along with the other major European nations, its relative strength in the world has declined precipitously, accelerated in the recent period by the western financial crisis. Today its economy is barely bigger than it was in 2007. Unsurprisingly in such circumstances, economic and commercial considerations have loomed ever larger in the public mind while foreign policy concerns have come to be seen as something of a luxury. This shift in priorities has been accentuated by the dismal failure of the military adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan, not to mention the more recent one in Libya.
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Martin Jacques is the author of ‘When China Rules the World: The End of the Western World and the Birth of a New Global Order’ (Penguin, 2012), and a senior fellow at the Department of Politics and International Studies at Cambridge University.
To all intents and purposes, Europe – including the UK – is more or less frozen. It is still living in the dark shadow cast by the financial crisis. This is the era of stagnation, and it may last for another decade or more. So we can expect that not too much will happen in 2015 – except, of course, in terms of the political fallout from such a condition. While the US is clearly more dynamic, this is overshadowed by its tumultuous decline as a global power. Which brings us to China.
The preoccupation of the western media and financial analysts with China’s reduced economic growth rate has served, once more, to divert attention from the continuing enormity of the changes taking place in China: from the anti-corruption drive and judicial reforms, to the Shanghai free-trade zone and the rise of consumption. However, as 2014 drew to a close, what began to capture global attention was China’s growing dominance in east Asia.
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.