“An economic giant but a political dwarf!” This is the sobriquet that some diplomats attach to the People’s Republic of China.
China’s recent decision to follow Russia by vetoing the resolution on Syria, rather than offer a policy of its own, has made it a candidate for the label.
This is not the first time that the label is used to describe a major economic power unable to punch its weight in the international politics.
In the late 19th century the label was attached to the United States which, by the 1880s, had emerged as the world’s largest economic power while its global influence was close to zero.
After the Second World War, West Germany and Japan failed to assume a political role commensurate with their economic power.
But, wouldn’t “political dwarf” be off the mark for almost a fifth of humanity?
China is the world’s fourth largest country and ranks third in terms of gross domestic product. Third in terms of exports, it is emerging as the biggest importer of crude oil.
China has other important cards. It has the world’s third largest foreign currency reserves while its total public debt does not exceed 20 per cent of its GDP. (The figure for US public debt is 110 per cent of its GDP while Japan copes with almost 200 per cent.)
When it comes to defence, China is one of the top 20 big spenders, devoting five per cent of its GDP to the military.
And, yet, in international politics, China’s image reminds one of the Cheshire cat in Alice in the Wonderland, fading away behind an enigmatic smile. Name any issue and you are unlikely to find a coherent Chinese position. In the United Nations’ Security Council, China seldom goes beyond cryptic and confusing statements. When it comes to voting, China follows Russia as the little lamb did Mary.
China is one of the five powers with a veto in the council. It has used its veto only six times, five of which following Russia.
So, why is China behaving as it does?
The first reason is that China has only recently emerged from almost a century of domination by Western powers, civil wars, revolutions and, more importantly, Maoist upheaval. It takes time for a nation to appreciate its strength, identify its interests and assemble the wherewithal to deal with them.
For decades, Communist China’s foreign policy was a simplified, though not simple, quest for protecting the Maoist regime, seeking international recognition, and, isolating Taiwan. En route, China was dragged into a range of foreign adventures, often against its wishes.
Despite Den Xiaoping’s reforms, China still lacks the know-how, the personnel and contacts needed to develop a global strategy. Almost everywhere it acts as a status quo power, abandoning its role of troublemaker under Mao. In the case of the Greater Middle East there are few Chinese diplomats who have mastered the region’s languages and even fewer who have an understanding of local cultures.
In most cases, the initiative for closer ties has come from Middle-Eastern nations. Several Arab countries are trying to tie the Chinese market to their oil and gas exports. Iran has emerged as a major importer of Chinese weapons. Even Israel, concerned about the loss of American support under President Barack Obama, has suddenly discovered China.
However, China is too bogged down with neighbours to have time and energy for projecting power in other regions.
With the exception of Pakistan, none of China’s 14 neighbours have fully demarcated borders with the People’s Republic. China occupies territories claimed by several neighbours including India and Vietnam. In exchange, large swathes of Chinese territory have been under Russian occupation since the 1960s. Apart from claiming ownership of Taiwan, China has territorial disputes, mostly over islands, with Japan, the Philippines, Malaysia and Brunei among others.
In other words, China has enough problems on its doorstep to think of finding solutions to the problems of people elsewhere.
Another reason for China’s low profile internationally is its leaders’ crude understanding of Marxism. Persuaded that that economic power is the foundation of political power, they have opted for rapid economic growth, mistaking growth for development. They also believe that no nation could wield much influence without military power. This is why over the past two decades they have doubled military expenditure, with a massive effort to develop a blue-water navy.
Chinese policy is designed to cope with three fears.
The first is the fear that what happened to the Soviet Union could happen to the People’s Republic. Ethnic pressures have a strange way of building up alongside social tensions. Every month, China is the scene of thousands of strikes, industrial disputes, village revolts and other acts of defiance against a centralised system.
The second fear is that of actually being attacked by an outsider. It could be Russia or Japan or India or the United States. Even tiny Taiwan could be tempted if and when there is turmoil in the mainland.
The third fear is that of running out of things: food, energy, technology or even water and arable land. The memory of famines that killed tens of millions under Mao is still fresh in many minds.
This is why China is buying farmland all over the world while desperately looking for new sources of oil and gas.
The current slowdown in the economy heightens that fear. The real estate bubble that has helped create a feeling of rising prosperity could burst at any moment, leading to recession on a gargantuan scale. Over 250 million people with precarious employment, called “the precariat”, could produce a sociopolitical flood of unimaginable intensity.
Those fears are aggravated by hubris inspired by economic growth.
To claim world leadership, a power needs three things: a developed economy, a powerful military and an attractive culture. Today, China has none of those. West Germany and Japan created developed economies but failed to build military power while their respective cultures did not achieve global popularity. The Soviet Union created a powerful military machine but failed to develop a modern economy. Culturally, it appealed to only sections of the left.
If it manages its transition from Communism to a more pluralist system, China may have a good chance of developing a leadership role. But that may take years, if not decades. In the meantime, one should not expect China to punch its weight on any major issue.