China, a confident global player

China's growing impact raises the central question whether it will uphold the very order that enabled it to rise to prosperity and eminence

October 1, 2021 was the 72nd Founding Anniversary of the People’s Republic of China.

The rise of People’s Republic of China over the past two decades has reshaped the landscape of global politics. After joining WTO, China has rapidly transformed its economy from a low-cost “factory to the world” to a global leader in advanced technologies. It has also successfully transformed the supply chains around the globe with international diplomacy, leveraging its success to become the primary trading and development partner for emerging economies across Asia, Africa, and Latin America.

China’s emergence as a global power has created tensions within the ranks of the Western bloc. As the early expectation that China’s integration into the global economy would lead to liberalisation at home and moderation abroad has proven overly optimistic for the western bloc, especially since President Xi Jinping rose to power in 2012.

China’s “quiet rise” has given way to more vocal expressions of great power aspirations and a more assertive international posture. Combine that with the Chinese military modernisation programme that has put Asia as well as the United States on notice that China’s economic power will have geopolitical implications. Now even the global spread of the COVID-19 pandemic has opened more opportunities for China to expand its influence, even if China’s credibility as a responsible stakeholder and the future of the supply chains have been questioned.

Think tanks around the world are regularly covering China in detail and continue to examine key questions: can China sustain its economic miracle in the face of demographic and environmental challenges? Will China’s military modernisation programme change the balance of power in Asia and beyond? Is China seeking to reshape the rules-based international system to better reflect its interests, or is China’s goal to undermine and replace it?

China has a long history of aid and investment in the developing world. Since 2013, President Xi’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) of global infrastructure investment is making inroads not only in Asia and Africa but also Europe. The BRI has grown into one of the most attractive platforms for international cooperation, a new pathway enabling China to successfully attract more than 126 countries and 29 international organisations, which reflects well on China’s influence.

China’s military modernisation is another reason of its global presence as the upgrading of its forces enhances its professional capabilities to fight at ground, in air and sea. The Chinese defence industry has become a global player with confidence.

In the recent past, China’s President Xi Jinping rose as a strong leader at the world platform. The twin goals, to be achieved by 2049, are the “rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” both economically and territorially by reunifying with Taiwan. President Xi has reason to be grandiloquent. China’s $14 trillion economy is second only to the US; Standard Chartered reckons that based on the purchasing power parity, China will take the number one slot as early as next year. Chinese economy is expected to surpass the US at some point in the 2030s, and in some key areas even earlier.

China is also the world’s largest trading nation in goods. Chinese companies have successfully improved their ranking every year at the Global Fortune 500. It ranks in the world’s top countries for receiving and giving foreign direct investment and is the second biggest spender on research and development at approximately $300 billion.

One of the Chinese leadership’s top priorities is their economic planning and commencement of a number of high-profile initiatives, such as “Made in China 2025”, a plan announced in 2015 to upgrade and modernise China’s manufacturing in 10 key sectors through extensive government assistance in order to make China a major global player in these sectors. However, such measures have also increasingly raised concerns that China intends to use industrial policies to decrease the country’s reliance on foreign technology.

The rise of China will, undoubtedly, be one of the great real time dramas of the twenty-first century. China’s extraordinary economic growth and active diplomacy are already transforming East Asia, and future decades will see even greater increases in Chinese power and influence. The famous historian Niall Ferguson has written that the bloody twentieth century witnessed “the descent of the West” and “a reorientation of the world” toward the East.

Realists go on to note that as China gets more powerful and the West’s position erodes, two things are likely to happen: China will try to use its growing influence to reshape the rules and institutions of the international system to better serve its interests, and the other states in the system.

2021 has been very important for China as the leadership made some important decisions, including the adaptation of 14th Five-Year Plan in spring. It set the agenda for achieving China’s ambition to become more economically independent and for taking the next steps to modernising China’s industry. Innovation strategies, not least in fields like climate protection and environmental technology, will be at the forefront. At the same time, spending on national security and investments in digital surveillance systems are likely to rise significantly.

Learning from the adverse experiences of others, the Chinese leadership has resolved to build a moderately prosperous society instead of some entrepreneurs becoming filthy rich while others languish in poverty. China’s eradication of poverty has been an enigma for foreign scholars. They have summarised the solution as “5Ds”: Determined Leadership, Detailed Blueprint, Development Oriented, Data-based Governance and Decentralised Delivery.

China’s role in world affairs is bound to increase, given its growing weight and relevance due to its population size, its role as the globe’s second, eventually, the largest economy, its military capabilities, its technological advances, and its status as the Permanent Member of the UN Security Council. China’s growing impact, therefore, raises the central question whether it will uphold the very order that enabled it to rise to prosperity and eminence.

China, undeniably, plays a greater role in international affairs, and as this continues it is important to understand grand overarching questions like what its policies are, why they are, where change is occurring, and how they are changing.