We will all remember 2020 in terms of how COVID-19 spread to the world from Wuhan, China, despite an alert by a dedicated doctor, because the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) leadership dithered in informing the world and the World Health Organization on time. Instead of cooperating in finding the origin of the virus, Chinese President Xi Jingping decided to use the ‘strategic opportunity’ to launch military assaults against Taiwan, India, Vietnam, the Philippines, and Japan to fortify China’s claims on disputed territories.
Signs of Mr. Xi being an ambitious leader were visible early on. Following his appointment as Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission in October 2010, there was a spurt in China’s militarisation of the South China Sea including recurrent forays into disputed territories. After taking over as General Secretary of the CCP in November 2012, Mr. Xi consolidated his hold by eliminating his rivals in an anti-corruption campaign, pushing his relatives and friends into the politburo, and demolishing patronage networks of rival leaders.
In November 2014, Mr. Xi summoned China’s foreign policy and military elite to Beijing and told them that it was time for China “to embrace big country diplomacy”. The following month, he informed politburo members that he planned to make China’s voice heard in the international fora. In October 2017, Mr. Xi spoke of his dream of restoring China to a great power status (on par with the U.S.) by 2049 and building a world-class army by 2035.
But the policies Mr. Xi is following — state domination of the economy with increasing reliance on the public sector, slowing down of market reforms, accumulation of high debt, unproductive expenditures, lack of reforms in education and health, erosion of human freedoms, and increasing isolation of China due to his aggressive policies — will not take China towards greatness; rather, they will slow down economic growth. China does not have the cheap migrant labour and favourable international environment that it had in Deng Xiaoping’s era.
Mr. Xi and other Chinese leaders have closely followed how the U.S. obtained its great power status: by mastering emerging technologies, modernising the armed forces, and setting up a network of allies.
Mr. Xi has used all the tricks available to achieve supremacy in 5G, artificial intelligence, quantum computing, and new materials, including forced transfer and stealing of technologies. The concept of restructuring the armed forces and, particularly, introducing joint theatre commands has been borrowed from the U.S. Mr. Xi has commenced a rapid military build-up that is unprecedented in peacetime in recent history. This is aimed at rivalling the U.S.’s military capability in a few years. China has the biggest navy in the world.
The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) was announced in 2013 to seek new markets and allies for political, economic and strategic use. New ports for civilian and military use are being sought at Gwadar (Pakistan), Jask (Iran), Djibouti, Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Sihanoukville (Cambodia) and other places, to project power overseas.
Scaling back plans
Not unsurprisingly, all this has been done under the CCP’s programme of “socialism with Chinese characteristics”. Little attention has been paid to improve the quality of education in science, technologies and mathematics, which underpins the West’s success in its advances in technology. The capability of high technology equipment like the fifth-generation fighter aircraft, aircraft carriers and long-range bombers remains inferior in China as the country is unable to procure or indigenise advanced technologies. Several American experts believe that Chinese equipment is at least one generation behind theirs.
Debt-ridden China is scaling back its BRI projects as many have become financially unviable; these were conceived to please Mr. Xi and never took into account the vulnerabilities of recipient countries. Concerned about the growth of corruption and its impact on the control of the party, Mr. Xi has slowed down market reforms, which were the backbone of China’s prosperity in the last three decades.
The U.S. model
Despite being the second largest economy, China has few allies and friends (except Pakistan and North Korea). Mr. Xi fails to realise that the U.S.’s status as a global leader was based not only on its wealth and military power but also the lure of its governance model, ability to coordinate responses to international crises, and provision of global public goods such as freedom of ideas, quality education, foreign aid, encouragement of free trade, security of international shipping lanes and fight against terrorism. China has shown little interest in delivering global public goods.
Mr. Xi believes that China will be able to impose its will on the rest of the world by sheer use of power forgetting that besides China, there are a number of other countries such as the U.K., France, Japan, India and Australia which have also acquired economic and military power and are capable of resisting its abusive behaviour.
Worried at the prospect of President-elect Joe Biden uniting the U.S.’s allies and partners in resisting China’s practices, the Xi regime is trying to divide the transatlantic alliance by offering increased market access to EU countries and vaccines against COVID-19 to ASEAN. How much these efforts will succeed remains to be seen.
There is growing concern that Mr. Xi’s unfettered ambition to seek global dominance will create newer conflicts which a pandemic-affected and recession-hit world can ill afford. Given that his colleagues in the politburo are unable to put brakes on his hegemonic ambitions, this year will tell us if the new U.S. President acting with his allies and partners will be able to do so to prevent the world from sliding into new catastrophes.
Yogesh Gupta is a former Ambassador