Xi’s China: new global power?
In just 35 years, China has emerged from a predominantly peasant economy to be the largest trading nation in the world. That fact alone is astonishing. But its relatively seamless shift from environmental pariah to criticising the US president’s rejection of the Paris climate accords is no less remarkable. China has ridden the wave of protest over the crackdown in Tiananmen Square in 1989 to gain a seat on the UN’s human rights council and transformed itself from a Communist pariah to a capitalist power-broker at the World Economic Forum in Davos. It seems that power and influence is shifting from West to East.
Samuel P Huntington’s ‘Clash of Civilisations’ thesis outlined the dangers of competing cultural interests and the tensions of global inequality leading to a fight between Western and non-Western civilisations. A new book by Graham Allison, Destined for War, suggests that military conflict between the West and East is ‘more likely than not’. But even though the new Silk Road initiative seems set to install China in a dominant position in global trade, President Xi Jinping insists that it will not result in a divided world of power blocs, but will promote harmonious business opportunities for all.
China’s first ever conference on international relations was held in 1987 and, ever since, academics have been trying to assess whether China’s moral leadership in world affairs is setting a new global ethical standard. One Chinese academic writes of the need for a ‘world philosophy that speaks on behalf of the world’, referring, of course, to Confucianism.
But it is not all plain sailing. While the ‘Washington Consensus’ seems to be ebbing, the ‘Beijing Consensus’ seems also to have accepted the ‘new normal’ of slower economic growth. Pressures on Chinese and international diplomacy are growing in relation to Hong Kong and Taiwan. While many in the East have historically paid tribute to the Party, there are renewed rumblings for more democratic accountability. Conversely, many commentators in the West are becoming more tolerant of benign unelected authorities in social and political affairs. The Diplomat recently noted that ‘one-party rule certainly has its merits’ in that it maintains internal order and contains the tensions that might otherwise be released by democratic liberty for 1.5 billion people.
Will there be a peaceful transition from Western influence to the East? Is there a growing likelihood that the shift in power relations will give rise to military conflict? Or are reports of the demise of the West and the rise of China greatly exaggerated?