Historians make lousy prophets. We find it hard enough to predict the past, much less what’s going to happen in the future. Nonetheless, I’m going to attempt to predict some imminent geopolitical strategy.
As the People’s Republic of China makes threats against Canada for detaining an executive of a Chinese corporation, as it warns the United States of “stern counter-measures” and as it outrages its southeast Asian neighbours as a result of its claims to the South China Sea, it’s not hard to portray these moves as parts of a new Cold War.
So what historical model can we use to assess China and its future actions?
Will President Xi Jinping’s China, for example, resemble the Soviet Union leadership in the wake of the Second World War?
There’s the similarity of two superpowers facing off over a number of possible flash points – Berlin, Cuba and Vietnam in the previous era, and Taiwan, Hong Kong and intellectual property theft today.
But the difference today is significant. The economy of the Soviet Union was its weakest point post-war, whereas China’s economic muscle gives it significant clout on the international stage.
Soviet leaders weren’t able to make cowards out of world leaders by threatening to withhold supplies of vital rare earths or bribe whole continents with financial aid and technical expertise. China can – and does.
Moreover, China, unlike the Soviet Union, need not occupy neighbouring countries to exercise sway over them.
Should we look to Nazi Germany as the model?
There are a number of interesting similarities between Adolf Hitler’s National Socialists and Xi’s People’s Republic. But, so far, China has shown no inclination to use its military might outside its border territories, unlike Hitler’s ambitions to rule conquered lands from the Atlantic to the Caucasus.
In fact, the state that most nearly resembles China today is the Qing (or Manchu) dynasty that ruled China from 1644 to 1912. The key elements in this model are the notion of sinocentrism, a visceral dislike of foreigners, refusal to accept global diplomatic norms and a winner-takes-all approach to trade.
Sinocentrism is the idea that China is the centre of the world, the only true empire. All other states must be regarded either as tributary nations acknowledging their inferiority to China and receiving trade privileges in return, or as barbarians.
The Qing refused to accept other countries as in any way equal or worthy of having a permanent diplomatic presence in the capital.
Sinocentrism can be seen today in the way China behaves on the world stage:
• It aggressively hacks foreign governments, corporations and news agencies.
• It has sanctioned intellectual property theft on a massive scale.
• It suborns international organizations such as the World Health Organization and Interpol, as well as politicians in other countries’ parliaments.
• Chinese living abroad as students, scientists, businessmen or emigrants are used as agents of influence and espionage.
• China demands that its actions not be criticized and that its enemies, such as Taiwan or the Dalai Lama, be treated as enemies by the rest of the world.
• The rules that are supposed to govern international behaviour mean nothing to China: when one of its grandees is detained in Canada (in luxurious house arrest), innocent Canadians are taken hostage and we’re told to stop our “wrongdoing” and warned of “grave consequences.”
China under the Qing dynasty insisted on making the rules of commerce, running an enormous trade surplus, accepting only silver for its exports and severely restricting foreign imports. This mirrors the enormous trade deficits that modern China is content to profit from in its dealings with most Western countries, including Canada and the United States.
The world, in general, need not worry about Chinese colonization or invasion. But it will seek to ruthlessly maintain its dominance of east Asia. It won’t hesitate to use force in dealing with Hong Kong or Taiwan, or in defending its interests in North Korea and the South China Sea.
We can expect that, unless checked, China’s economic muscle will continue to be used to acquire increasing influence in Africa and South America, and in exercising illegitimate pressures on countries in the West.
It’s essential for world order in the 21st century that China be made to realize it can’t conduct itself unhampered by accepted standards of behaviour.