One day in the late 1990s, I had the good fortune to witness an extraordinary dialogue in Beijing. A group of students from Tsinghua University, China’s Harvard, was exchanging views with some very senior American businessmen.
At one point one of the Americans asked the students about their ambitions for their country. Without hesitation, unemotionally and in perfect English, a student responded that he wanted China to be “the most powerful country in the world.”
And what, the American continued, equally unemotionally, “would you have your country do with its power?” That question left the students tongue-tied.
It was, perhaps, an unfair follow-up. These were students, after all, not statesmen. They weren’t responsible for their country’s policies. They would have had no occasion to think about the uses of power. Power is good for its own sake, isn’t it? Besides, back then China was a long way from being the world’s most powerful country.
It’s closer today. Some think it’s basically there. In a Pew Research poll of people in 14 developed countries last year, 48% said China is the world’s dominant economic power. Dominant economic power is not exactly the same as world’s most powerful country, but it’s close. Only 35% picked the United States.If not the most powerful country in the world, China is certainly a contender for that title. So the question is worth asking again: “As a great power, if not the greatest, what uses will China make of its power?”
In centuries past great powers colonized and governed other lands. After World War II the Soviet Union installed governments of its choosing in Eastern Europe and sent in troops to squash revolutions against those governments. There’s no reason to think China will follow either of these precedents.
China is, to be sure, fiercely protective of its own territorial integrity. Were Taiwan to declare itself independent, no one can doubt China would invade its “renegade province.” Some fear it might invade even if Taiwan doesn’t declare independence.
Although it’s wrong to talk of a US-China Cold War – the two countries trade with and invest in each other as well as compete – that doesn’t preclude a hot war over Taiwan. The US could find itself forced to defend Taiwan if China invades.
China does not, however, seem to have territorial ambitions beyond its historical borders. Nor is it like the post-World War II Soviet Union, which was both ideologically committed to spreading Communism to other countries and fearful of having hostile neighbors on its western frontier.
If China has an ideological commitment, that commitment is as much to spreading autocracy as a form of government as to communism. China gladly works with autocratic governments, even particularly nasty ones like Myanmar’s after that country’s recent military coup. China doesn’t seem interested in installing such governments, however.
None of this means superpower China is without ambitions. It is, for example, trying to use the United Nations to reshape cyberspace. It has teamed up with Russia in several efforts to impose new cyberspace rules. “It’s breathtaking, really,” writes David Ignatius in the Washington Post. “The nations that have subverted the Internet most aggressively now want to police it, setting their own standards.”
In a world with a dominant China, then, information and ideas would not flow as freely.
The world will certainly have to get used to a great power with a thin skin. When China’s rulers have leverage, they punish criticism. When Australia’s prime minister called for an independent investigation of the origins of the coronavirus last year, China responded by throwing up barriers to Australian exports.
And China is working to increase the leverage it has over other countries. If its 2025 industrial strategy is successful, it will increase the world’s reliance on China for key high-tech products and materials.
If its digital yuan takes hold, more of the world’s trade will be conducted in a currency China controls. Its Belt and Road Initiative also has a leverage-increasing tendency.
It’s too early to predict that China will intervene militarily abroad when it perceives its interests threatened. History suggests that’s what great powers do.
The United States did, in Iraq and Afghanistan among other places. Will China’s concern about Uighur terrorists in Xinjiang province stop at the border, for example? Or if Uighur terrorists started to cause real trouble in China, could we see China’s military chase them into Central Asia?
In a recent speech, Chinese President Xi Jinping laid out a vision of a China interested only in peace and international cooperation. He promised China will never seek hegemony. He pledged not to interfere in other countries’ affairs. He criticized unnamed countries for “bossing others around.”
He meant the United States, of course. China’s complaint is that the US tries to impose its values – human rights, for example – on the world.
Whatever Xi says, it’s hard to believe that if China were the world’s most powerful country it wouldn’t try to export its values. Great powers have been known to do that. It’s fine to preach peace and non-interference but the world will judge China on what it does, not on what Xi says.
As an American, I naturally prefer my country’s values. I am not anti-Chinese. I have tremendous respect for what China has accomplished. Having lived in Hong Kong for nine years and traveled to the mainland frequently, I know and like many Chinese people.
Still, I think the world would be a less happy place if the values of today’s Chinese regime were to win out.
Blocking China’s rise is unrealistic; too many countries have deep economic ties with it to recruit a containment brigade. War would be disastrous – for China, the US and the world.
But if China’s rise seems inevitable, America’s decline isn’t. One of the keys to keeping the peace in the future will be curing China’s rulers of the dangerous misunderstanding that it is.
The world has two great powers, China and the United States, and is likely to have two for some time. What China would do if it were the world’s dominant power is still a theoretical question.