Winter 2014

China: Ruling the World Without a Blueprint

Bill Emmott

The Western world’s bookshelves are groaning under the weight of tomes pondering What Does China Think? (Mark Leonard, 2008) or what will happen When China Rules the World (Martin Jacques, 2009), along with similar questions. Yet such pondering obscures a vital point. This is that it is the combination of China’s size, history, complexity and rapidity of change that poses the greatest challenge to the old world order, in ways that even the Chinese authorities cannot always get their minds around. The only certainty is that life is going to be – indeed for many, already is – uncomfortable. Things would be so much easier if there existed somewhere in Beijing a plan, a blueprint for how China wants the world to change in order to accommodate its needs and its desires. At least other countries’ intelligence services could then get to work stealing a copy of that plan, or finding agents who would tell them what it contained. But if there ever were such a plan, it wouldn’t be worth the paper it was written on. For it would keep on needing to be superseded by a newer version.

That is inevitable in a country whose economy has been doubling in size every seven years or so for the past three decades, and whose engagement with the world, through trade, capital flows, overseas investments, environmental issues and much more keeps on not just increasing but evolving too. Hence China’s needs and desires keep changing, and will carry on doing so. 

The closest thing to a plan that can be detected is the pattern that is revealed by China’s recent actions. This is a pattern not of specific requirements or ambitions but rather one of a particular attitude. The attitude that can be seen is, strange though it may sound, one that can be interpreted as meaning that China sees itself as what international relations scholars call a status quo power”. But China’s definition of the status quo differs from the normal one. Its attitude reveals that it has an older status quo in mind. This has been shown most clearly by its approach to its neighbours and to territorial issues in East and South-East Asia. Ever since its latest war with Vietnam in 1979, China has shown no sign of wanting to fight any of its neighbours. Nor, since its seizure of Tibet in 1950 has it actively sought further expansion. Even its victorious border war with India in 1962 left India with a bloody nose but its frontiers unchanged. 

With the exception of the border with India, China has over the past 20 years settled all the territorial disputes on its land borders. But it has not settled disputes out at sea. These exceptions are significant: for while the fine detail of China’s land border with Myanmar, for example, is seen as merely a technical matter, the huge border in the Himalayas with India has strategic importance. That importance may be fading with time. But that is not true of borders” out at sea. In fact, those are becoming more and more important as China’s navy itself becomes more important. 

In the light of that, along with the associated fact that if China were ever to be threatened militarily it would likely be from the sea or the air, not the land, what China has sought is to increase its maritime control and its strategic freedom of manœuvre. Such control and freedom of manœuvre are, in its view, simply the conditions that will be fitting for a great power of its size and history, and military vulnerability. 

That is the logic of the now notorious nine-dashed line”, the map that in effect lays claim to the entire South China Sea, brushing aside claims to islands and rocks in that sea made by the other littoral states. First drawn in 1947 by Chiang Kai-Shek’s Kuomintang government, it has remained since then a stock part of Chinese foreign policy, although not one that was stressed until quite recently – which made neighbours hope it had been superseded. It certainly has not been. 

In principle, the nine-dashed line violates the international status quo, which is also true of China’s longstanding claim to the Japanese islands in the East China Sea north of Taiwan, known in Japan as the Senkakus and in China as the Diaoyu. But China believes in a status quo that dates back far longer, to before the country’s decline and semi-collapse. In May 2014, your author was at the annual Shangri-La Dialogue of defence and security officials that the International Institute for Strategic Studies hosts every year in Singapore. There, a senior Chinese military official was challenged publicly about the basis for the nine-dashed line. Jaws dropped when he justified this claim not with any reference to international law or modern conventions, nor even to the sort of historical documentation of 18th or 19th century trading and settlement activity that is the standard fare in territorial disputes, but rather to the history of China’s Han Dynasty, more than 2,000 years ago. It was as if a modern Italian were to lay claim to control of the Mediterranean based on the history of the Roman empire. 

Such a claim sounds preposterous. But China is not Italy. The military man’s claim needs to be understood not as a statement of scholarship or law, but rather of Realpolitik. The attitude is that the Han Dynasty was the sort of great power of its time that felt a need and an ability – and so a right – to control the South China Sea. And so is modern China. Thus it must do so, as part of the logic of being China. 

Chinese actions in support of these claims in the South China and East China Seas have become more assertive in recent years. What they have represented especially has been a desire to put facts on the ground”, or rather on the sea, to borrow an Israeli phrase, often to prevent others from doing so. Control may not be needed today, but it must not be lost. Hence the sending of an oilrig to waters disputed with Vietnam, and the dispatch of flotillas of ships, both military and merchant, and of aircraft, to sail and fly through Japanese waters around the Senkakus. 

The implication of this attitude is that there is little or no scope for negotiation, except over timing. China will not yield in its claims. It sees them as strategic necessities as well as, in effect, entitlements, now that it is in the course of restoring its historical status as the dominant regional power of Asia. 

In fact, on the basis of this attitude, the true disrupter of the status quo is the United States of America, for it is a parvenu power. Its history of size and scope, and even existence, is short. Such a potentially anti-American judgment cannot in truth be seen in the pattern of recent Chinese actions, but rather two other attitudes: first, that while American power and interests are a reality at global level that must be lived with, this does not mean that China should accept American interference locally in Asia, and specifically in the South China Sea; and, second, that while China accepts America’s presence and power globally, it wants to be treated as an equal, not an inferior. 

Most probably, and in line with its attitude in the South China Sea, this means, and will come even more to mean, that China expects the right to take the same attitude to international law and institutions that America does. After all, runs the logic, both are exceptional great powers. They are not like other countries. It is unlikely that, pace Martin Jacques, any Chinese leaders or policy thinkers actually expect to be ruling the world” any time soon, or indeed ever. But they do expect to be one of those powers that rule the world”, and simple self-respect demands that they should expect in due course to do so on an equal basis. 

One might interject that Russia, or at least Vladimir Putin, has the same sort of expectation. America invades countries and changes regimes: so why shouldn’t Russia also do so when it sees fit? China, to go by its recent attitudes, would not agree. In its view Russia is a declining power, and it is not in China’s interests to have lesser, declining powers taking on such rights and causing chaos. 

This, at least, is the logical way to reconcile China’s longstanding argument that multilateral institutions and international law are important and need to be abided by, with its recent assertive behaviour. For what it seems to mean is an American interpretation: multilateral rules and institutions need to be followed by others, but not necessarily or in all cases by China, given the exceptional status to which it aspires or feels entitled. 

If this is true – and it probably should be, given China’s population and economic size, and its history – then the big questions are, first, to what extent this attitude is compatible with the hope that China will become, in the words of Robert Zoellick in 2005 when he was US deputy secretary of state, a responsible stakeholder”, and, second, whether China’s desire for America-like status will be accepted willingly by others. 

On the first question, the answer is likely to be: yes, but we will define responsible”, thank you very much, not you. This can be understood from China’s decision to launch its own new regional development institution, the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, in effect as a rival to the US- and Japan-led Asia Development Bank, and to push forward with the New Development Bank” to be launched with the other BRICs. We do responsible things, such actions imply, but we would like to control them ourselves. 

And on the second? That is where the biggest issues lie. They do also for America, since its legitimacy as a unilateral actor is certainly not unquestioned, even among its allies. Over time, China’s legitimacy may come to be accepted, partly as others become more dependent on it but also as and when its actions come to be seen as on balance more well-intentioned than ill-intentioned. That depends on what the actions are, and how the intentions behind them are interpreted. We shall see. 

The author was Editor-in-Chief of The Economist for thirteen years, and is Chair of the Japan Society and the International Institute for Strategic Studies. Also Co-director of the newly convened Global Commission for Post-Pandemic Policy. He is author of Rivals: How the Power Struggle Between China, India, and Japan Will Shape Our Next Decade and his most recent book is Japan’s Far More Female Future, published in Japanese by Nikkei in July 2019 and in English by Oxford University Press in 2020.