Will China dominate the 21st Century?
October marks the seventieth anniversary of the Chinese Revolution, when Mao Zedong ended the civil war and declared a republic. After many years of political turmoil and social tragedy, it’s only since Mao’s death in 1975 that China has moved from backward peasant economy to modern capitalist power – the world’s largest trading nation.
In military terms, China is moving to become a global superpower, constantly increasing its reach. In 2016, China spent $131 billion on its defence budget and Jane’s Information Group estimates that by 2020 its army will be second only to the US in terms of military efficiency. China is attempting to militarise reefs in the South China Sea and is fast building its submarine, aircraft carrier and missile capability in the region.
China has also backed economic expansion with geo-strategic moves. Through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and its ‘String of Pearls’ network of ports, China is either planning or has already developed infrastructure across Eurasia and Africa. President Xi Jinping insists these moves will help promote business opportunities for every country signing up to them.
But it’s not all plain sailing. China’s debt has grown, and sales of cars have plummeted. Washington is hostile both towards China’s efforts to consolidate its presence in the South China Sea, and towards what the Trump administration sees as Beijing’s theft of US technology. The recent controversy over Huawei in the US and UK has raised questions over how much access Western states are prepared to give Chinese businesses. Pressures on Chinese international diplomacy have spread to its conduct with other developing nations, particularly in Africa.
China also now faces more criticism of its human-rights record at home, especially in relation to the Uyghur in Xinjiang. The recent exposure of Chinese internment of large numbers of Muslims has put these issues high on the agenda. Internal pressures in the regions pose questions as to whether China can maintain its present political structure, and the recent mass protests in Hong Kong have clearly given the government pause for thought.
Does China exemplify the irreversible shift of world power from West to East? Or are laments about the demise of the West and the rise of China greatly exaggerated? Can China really ‘promote harmonious business opportunities for all’ around the world, or will it turn out to be as rapacious as the US and previous global powers? Can China sustain its current approach to internal governance and human rights, or is reform inevitable?