While it is obvious to most people that geopolitical tension in the Asia-Pacific region is rising, and that there is a real threat of a conflict between the power blocks in the world, much less credence is given to the idea that the problem is inflicted on us by the hitherto dominant economies of the world losing their grip on hegemony.
The best place to begin looking at the problem is the West’s alarm over the rapid economic and military rise of China and the resurgence of a resource rich Russia. In response to an increasingly multipolar world which diminishes western dominance and control, the US and its allies push the Manichean narrative of democracy against authoritarianism or good against evil. Such a narrative loses its traction against a more enlightened world which sees the wars and suffering wrought by the US and its allies on hapless nations that would not abide by their “rules based order”.
Even the current war in the Ukraine, for which Russia is censured for violating the sovereignty of Ukraine, carries a number of questions on principle. Firstly, why is it that the US and NATO are against self determination for the Russian speaking regions of Donetsk and Luhansk but would support self determination of Taiwan where 95% of the population are not just ethnic Chinese but “Han” Chinese? If the US-led allies believe in a rules based order, why did they allow Minsk II to fail even though it was a negotiated agreement between the feuding parties overseen by France, Germany and Russia?
It would appear that “rules based order”, like “strategic ambiguity”, is kept deliberately vague in order that the powers that be can interpret them according to expediency. Strategic ambiguity makes a mockery of “rules based order”.
Against the UN resolution that Taiwan is part of China, the US continues to “protect” Taiwan against a takeover by China, threatening military intervention if necessary. Yet the fact that they do nothing to facilitate the orderly reunification of the two parts of Chinese territory indicates that they want Taiwan to remain apart from China for their own strategic reasons.
For those detractors who paint a doomsday scenario for Taiwan should it be reunited with China, I would say that they do not really have the interest of the Taiwanese at heart. There is little doubt that reunification would be less than ideal for many Taiwanese but the choice is between living in limbo with a war looming over their heads or a peacefully negotiated unification. The two situations find arguable examples in the Ukraine war and a Hong Kong living under greater Chinese rule. Of the two, a sensible preference would be for the Hong Kong scenario where life is back to normal and those who really object to living under Chinese rule can still leave for democratic countries with enough sincerity to offer them residence.
The lesson of Ukraine is a real life scenario where people under the influence of third parties see their country being razed to the ground and their people scattered all over Europe living off the largesse of neighbours. Where Ukrainians would either soon find themselves outliving their welcome or being absorbed into the mainstream, gradually losing the identity for which they sacrificed life and limb to defend against Russian culture; albeit that the two have many more similarities. Solving human conflicts without resorting to war is never a zero sum game but a negotiated settlement, preferably overseen by arbitrators to ensure a level of fairness for both sides.
The problems we are experiencing at both ends of the world seem to arise from the game of hegemony played by the US-led dominant economies. Hegemony has never been better demonstrated than on the 24th of March 2021 when President Biden said the US was in stiff competition with China, iterating that “They have an overall goal to become the leading country in the world, the wealthiest country in the world and the most powerful country in the world. That’s not going to happen on my watch, because the United States is going to continue to grow and expand.” In this statement, Biden conflates intent with a natural process. Influence would accrue for a country that is increasingly becoming an important trading partner for countries around the world. Can such a natural phenomenon be shed just to please a competitor? Likewise, working harder and smarter will make a country wealthy, and if unimpeded, the wealthiest with or without intent. Moreover, the most successful will almost always be the most powerful.
In all of China’s statements, either to its own people or to the rest of the world, China has never stated its ambitions in the manner articulated by Biden. In his 100th Anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party speech, Xi Jinping made it very clear to the Chinese people that China aspires for a moderately wealthy society, a Xiaokang in Mandarin. Kerry Brown, in his book “CEO, China: The Rise of Xi Jinping” (2016) put a figure on it of US$13,000 in per capita GDP by 2020, calculated in terms of purchasing parity.
This is a very modest figure that belies President Biden’s interpretation of intent and shows that the US has indeed fallen into a Thucydides Trap. A look at the World Bank statistics for 2021 provides some food for thought. In that year, the per capita GDP for the US was $69,287, for Australia it was $55,807 and for China, it was only $12,556. However, what seems ominous for the present hegemon is that with only a small increase in per capita GDP, China’s total GDP will supersede that of the US’s because of its huge population. Is that so intolerable? Especially if one considers that the extra earnings will come from working hard to produce goods for exchange; and that about 100,000,000 people have still to be lifted out of extreme poverty?
The American attachment to hegemony arises not just from its consciousness of exceptionalism but also from an abiding fear of communism. In order to accommodate the revised or “revisionist” Russian model, it has now modified the term to “authoritarian” regimes. China, with its government still called the Communist Party of China and its 90 million membership fits the mould and is thus the perfect enemy. McCarthyism in a geopolitical dimension is still alive. However, Chinese communism has morphed into a monster that confuses the hegemon.
Against everyone’s wildest expectations, it has embraced capitalism, a deviation that makes Karl Marx turn in his grave. To get an idea of how egregious such a turnabout is, a quote from Marcus Weeks (2015) suffices: “…communism has its roots in the Enlightenment, and developed in opposition to the rise of capitalism in the industrial revolution.” To say it in an irreverent manner, Chinese communism has gone to bed with capitalism; and the hybrid child that issued from this most unedifying liaison is called “Socialism with Chinese characteristics”. It grew monstrously – call it hybrid vigour. The Americans do not know how to deal with a child that outgrows everybody else. American-led Western (including its adjunct member, Japan) hegemony is thus threatened.
China is not without blame for the present state of heightened tension between the Eurasia superpowers and the US-led West. Being a novice in the superpower club, it has made a number of telling mistakes that could prove costly, not just for itself but everyone around the world. The Ukraine problem should teach her that while it is within a country’s legitimate rights to do something, it does not mean that it should be done without care for the feelings of those whose primacy has never been seriously challenged since WWII.