JUST like we as individuals like to believe certain stories, myths and narratives about ourselves, so do states. For America, one such narrative, a declarative statement actually, has always been ‘we’re number one!’ It’s easy to believe because for the most part, it has been the truth. America has enjoyed unprecedented military dominance for decades, complemented and supplemented by the world’s largest economy and technology sectors. Its cultural dominance also lends a great deal of ‘soft’ power to its endeavours.
But change is the only constant and now it seems that America will lose that coveted ‘number one’ slot to China, at least as far as the economy is concerned. A yearly report published by the renowned Centre for Economic and Business Research (CEBR) predicts that by 2028 China would overtake the US to become the world’s largest economy.
Originally, this was predicted to happen in 2033 but China’s handling of Covid-19, as compared to the disastrous situation in the US, shaved off five years. Indeed, China is the one major economy to have avoided recession in 2020 and, in fact, managed to achieve two per cent growth. In the CEBR’s words: “The Covid-19 pandemic and corresponding economic fallout have certainly tipped this [US-China economic] rivalry in China’s favour.”
The effect on the American psyche will be predictable as no nation enjoying this level of dominance for so long will be psychologically equipped to handle its loss. The belief in US supremacy is literally the ideological oxygen they breathe.
The US will lose its coveted ‘number one’ slot.
In the last column, I wrote about America’s blueprint for containing China, as laid out in a report commissioned by Congress from the Centre for a New American Security, with special emphasis on what their plans are in South Asia and, in particular, how they intend to strengthen India as a counterweight to China.
This is, of course, a small part of the overall strategy which is, indeed, global in scale and envisions competition across military, economic and ideological fronts. The latter is important as it helps the US frame the coming (or perhaps ongoing) conflict not simply as the rearguard action of a (fading?) superpower against an upstart challenger, but in terms of a global conflict between good and evil, between a ‘free’ and ‘closed’ world. Framing a power struggle in these terms allows the US to convince itself that this is a redux of the Cold War, with all the cosmic battles, excesses and hyperbole that entailed.
But the world has moved on; 2021 isn’t the 1970s and China is not the USSR. Unlike Soviet Russia, China is not an expansionist, ideologically driven, revolution-exporting empire seeking to replace the world system with a design of its own making. In fact, China has greater stakes in the existing system (minor modifications notwithstanding) than most states, and is acting accordingly. Take the UN. China is now the second largest contributor to the UN and deploys more peacekeepers than the rest of the Security Council put together. Thanks to the crass brand of American isolationism that we saw in the Trump years, China also took advantage by expanding its footprint in the UN itself and now heads four of the UN’s 15 specialised agencies: the Food and Agriculture Organisation, the UN Industrial Development Organisation, the International Telecommunication Union and the International Civil Aviation Organisation. In addition, there has been a steady increase in the number of Chinese nationals staffing the UN bureaucracy.
The American strategy will naturally involve peeling off Chinese allies and/ or marginalising them with the use of various regimes and international organisations, and that job too will become more complicated as China increases its say in the UN, to name just one such organisation. Moreover the investments made in the name of the Belt and Road index aren’t only to boost China’s economy or, as Western pundits claim, to ensnare poorer states in debt traps but also serve the purpose of tying said states to China’s own interests, and this will be reflected in their unwillingness to join in a larger anti-China coalition. Take Africa, where Beijing has bilateral investment deals with 52 out of 54 African countries and is even conducting training for African political parties aimed at showing them the merits of the Chinese system. After all, nothing succeeds like success.
And it’s not like America’s own historical allies are falling in line: in spite of criticism and pressure from the US, the EU recently finalised a major investment agreement with China, allowing European companies greater access to Chinese markets.
To win over states, the US will have to match or exceed what Beijing offers and, unlike the former USSR, this is not an inefficient adversary that can be outspent. After all, as Bill Clinton’s election slogan read: “It’s the economy, stupid.” And China’s economy is just getting bigger.
The writer is a journalist.
Published in Dawn, January 4th, 2021