Power makes China more important than other states

Photo: During Xi Jinping’s visit to Washington in 2015 Nuclear Summit; Courtesy: Anil Sigdel

Dr. Cynthia Watson, National Defense University, Washington DC

In conversation with Dr Anil Sigdel

NCUSCR Town Hall


US-China Great Power Competition and Small and Middle States in the World

I would like to introduce three primary points on China’s global role and US-China great power competition.  First, while China has certainly been a civilization that has been engaged across Asia for millennia for whatever form or dynasty, this is the first time China take a position or role around the world. China is interested in what goes on in Africa, in Latin America, just recently a new report came out on China in the Caribbean. And we all know the Belt and Road Initiative, the signature program under Xi Jinping, the fifth generation leader — barely a day goes by that we don’t hear something from China advocating the importance of that program.

That is just the manifestation that China has both the interest as well as the power to be involved around the world. That was not the case in prior generations. Yes we all have heard about the stories of the 14th century or 15th century voyages of Zheng He going to East Africa. We know there is a book that speculated that particularly China had come to the Western Hemisphere perhaps in the middle part of the 16th century — I don’t think that is conclusive argument at this point.

But by and large China has been involved and has been mindful of territory that surrounds China – argument that amuses me is that ‘China is trying to dominate Asia.’  China is most of Asia – at least from the north of the Himalayas.  Because it is hard to get to very many parts of Asia where China has not had an important role. But that is not true elsewhere around the world. So this manifestation of confidence that is accumulated and become prominent in the last 20 years, certainly in the last 12 years, after the Beijing Olympics, is definitely a change from what we have ever seen. And that is part of, frankly, what makes the whole question of global competition come to fore in the US analysis. Because the US is not accustomed to having seen China taking role around the world.

Secondly, this is happening at a time when US is both re-appraising the benefits of globalization that has been absolutely the cornerstone of the US approach to the world back to the conclusion of the WWII. But this is not just a transformation in our national thought about the world and whether we are benefitting. That transformation actually began as far back as the 1992 election when Texas billionaire Ross Perot had serous qualms as both George W. Bush and Bill Clinton advocated for an expansion of what became known as the North Atlantic Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).  But what Perot asked was whether that transformation was in fact really beneficial arguing that substantial portion of US population was going to lose from that expansion. That only foreshadowed the protest we saw in Seattle during the 1999 creation of World Trade Organization, followed by some of the anxiety obviously related to 9/11 attacks in the sense that the US had been involved in the Middle East at that point for 30 years and had become a target of terrorist groups that sought to alter the international balance of power. And then finally, the 2008 global financial crisis hit the US, originated in the US, so profoundly.

All of those steps together are important for the US, doubting the value of an international engagement. But at the same time, the US begins to wonder whether it is possible to retain its role as the primary state in the world without that engagement because China was involved in so many other places. And that again is a condition that Washington and the US populations have never seen before.  

Certainly during the Cold war, we all know that the US and Soviet Union were in what we saw as global competition. Even that is very different from what we see today.  In that there was very little co-mingling. The reason that we are talking about decoupling today is because the US and China are both so important to each other. And I really want to stress that point, that it is an equally, may be not equal one to one, but it is a bilateral relationship that is important to each side.

And then finally the third thing I will say is, looking at smaller powers I don’t think there is single answer for how a state can navigate through this competition that appears to be developing. Let me spend a little more time in this particular point.

All states are pursuing interests that they believe — at least theoretically, good governance — are important for the protection of their people, for the improvement of the standard of living of their people. And occasionally, you will see states protecting their values around the world although I would argue that is by far lesser national interest of most nations. Most governments, in fact, either worry about security or economic condition of their populations. I don’t think those two things are surprising; those are indeed existential challenges to any government or any nation states.  But in order to do that, you got to have instruments of power with which you can try to reach various conditions or objectives that support your interests, such as singing trade agreements, such as establishing financial arrangements, such as a creating bilateral or multilateral educational opportunities, in many many ways states interact with each other, you all know and we see that every day.

But the problem in the current situation for states ranging from Nepal to Granada in the Caribbean to Tanzania in East Africa to Kazakhstan in the area between Russia and China is that most of the rest of the world does not have anywhere near the same power that the Chinese or the United States nations have. And that is the problem that makes it important for a state to be conscious for what advantage it does have – all too often those advantages get forgotten. What I mean by this: If you are a state in Africa, right now, you actually do have a fairly significant instrument of power that all too often gets ignored. US, but especially China, also India and Russia, the two other relatively important powers, and the 5th one that I would throw into this as Iran, all these 5 countries are interested in resources that are across Africa. And Africa is extraordinarily rich in those resources.

But far too often African has proven unwilling to take decisions that in fact protect the resources in juxtapositioning the question of protecting those resources against government that may be willing to sacrifice their populations’ future for personal gain. Africa has been a place, as a result, where China in particular, for its power, its size, its importance, its historical role, has been more and more willing to assert because of those things. Power makes China more important than other states and that’s different from the way the post-WWII world was established. We forget what the United Nations system did – you like or dislike it — what is often called a “liberal international order.”

What this UN system did was, looking at the world where states accumulate power, what is important in their interactions with each other is that they are a nation state. And that each of a nation state has a legitimate government which is recognized by other countries. And that government is able to govern a population in a particular land area. And once you meet these conditions, that means, in the post-WWII world, again Tanzania is equal to Ghana is equal to China is equal to Japan. China rejects that basic idea. China’s view expressed very very directly at the Hanoi meeting of the ASEAN on 19th of July 2010 is that there are big countries and small countries and China is a big country means that China believes that China has power to use that against other states regardless of whether they meet the legal definition of being equal to China. What’s again is so different about Chinese behavior is that, particularly in the last decade, is China is more than happy to very overtly exercise that power.

I am not going to say United States has not exercised power in international system. There are certainly instances we can cite when the United States under multiple administrations has been willing to talk about its military power, especially 25 or 35 years ago about its vast economic power. But the difference is that United States is not nearly as willing to use all the instruments absolutely to reach the end it desires in a way China is.  In a classic case that comes to mind, is back in 2015, 2016, as Korea, a relatively well developed economy in East Asia, a country that sits in a very vulnerable position, a country that’s only had relations with China back to 1992, made a choice to deploy a THAAD missile system in defense against the fear of attacks from North Korea. Something that we all realize, in the period before 2018, those missile attacks seemed very real — those missile attacks might return we all know.  North Korea as a very very isolated state is very threatening to South Korea and remains an existential threat.

China has long believed that that those missile systems were aimed at them — not aimed at North Korea and that this was part of US role in East Asia. China went to extraordinary steps to try to thwart the deployment of that system, things ranging from cutting off trade, cutting off shops that were able to operate within China, cutting off Chinese tourists going to South Korea seriously undermining Korean economy and then a whole series of other things we could name.

My point here is, China has manifested more of a determination to achieve its ultimate objectives than most other states do. There are times we all know when the US might have wanted to achieve certain outcomes, in particular what transpired Afghanistan over the last 19 years. But at no point would one argue that the US has in fact as completely pushed to achieve its interests and goals as China did, say, in the case of South Korea’s THAAD deployment or other instances we can talk about.

What does this all mean? Because what we are seeing in this competition,  a China because of its fear of or the Communist Party’s fear of anything being used to undermine what it had set up as an assumption or a demand that China be respected in the international system for its size, its power, its wealth, its history, the absolute need to defend that, coupled with a regime that is an authoritarian regime that does not brook any domestic conversation about priorities where there could be a  decision to back off of a particular policy position, means that you have within this competition a China that willing to go further.

That does not mean that the US backs off. And that does not mean that in places where the US sees its interests as absolutely vital the US will back off from commitments or back off from its ties. But I think what we see is a markedly different perspective for states trying to negotiate with China versus negotiating with the United States. Because the United States, in fact, almost invariably will lessen its demands in a way that Beijing does not. This has led to, I think, many of the charges that we see of “debt trap diplomacy,” as states in Africa or along the Indian Ocean need Chinese investment for infrastructure. I would also note that, sometimes when the US (Secretary Pompeo was in Asia just weeks ago) is talking with states along the Indian Ocean parameter about the importance of backing away from ties with China: but China is offering infrastructural investment under BRI that the US is not offering. I am not certain how a government (again back to the needs to protect their people) can  completely ignore those offers of assistance, when there don’t appear to be very many other options for achieving the desired improvement in the living standards its people.

It may be a gamble in many cases. One could argue that there have certainly been instances China has made commitments and not in any way fully met those commitments. The United States gets blamed for not meeting its commitments in many cases in Africa. But the United States has, I would argue, got a fuller relationship with most of the states where it tries to establish relationships than China does. Because Washington is more willing to have a conversation and there is not the obsession with meeting the goal or for fear of not meeting the goal that can lead to national embarrassment.

To conclude, the question that I am left with is as the whole international community seems to be backing away from, in the West, a commitment from this internationalism or to what we call the “equal state theory” that everyone who meets the condition of being a nation state should be treated equally, and that they should have equal access once they meet the right standards for international assistance, what happens as that international system seems to dry up and still China that remains primarily offering technology and cultural advantages?

In the US case in particular I think there is real indication that as we have increasingly focused on competition from a military perspective, without funding other instrument of statecraft, without talking about diplomacy, without taking about economic ties. I personally think that walking away from the TPP has been disastrous for the US position in Asia. I realized that President Trump, as did Secretary Clinton, both said in 2016 that they were both going to walk away from it. But in my mind, it took away another instrument with which the US could engage with states and potentially could have been expanded in other parts of the world where we now see the Belt and Road Initiative expanding.  And I simply think there are other instruments that the US is not using in a way that China is more than happy to use those instruments.

Note: In Part II of this article and in a longer version, Dr. Watson’s response to several questions from the audience will be made available soon

Also read: Made in Nepal by China: China – Nepal Industrial Park