The emergence of a new global power has often profoundly shifted the geopolitical landscape and caused considerable discomfort among the established order. China’s economic and political resurgence is doing that, but apart from the inevitable uncertainty and tension associated with any shift in global power, much of the angst in China’s case stems from its failure to engage in behavior concomitant with its increased global responsibilities – or even to acknowledge an obligation to do so.
China has ascended rapidly onto the global stage by virtue of its economic might, even as it retains characteristics of a developing country by GDP per capita. China seems to want it both ways – it plays geopolitical power games as a force to be reckoned with among equals, yet declines to shoulder the burdens of a great power, or even demands that it be afforded the benefits ordinarily due to an underdeveloped charity case. In this regard, China’s leadership simultaneously nurses a profound grievance against “colonialists” and “aggressors” as it expands its direct political and economic influence across the globe. China’s leaders show bravado when on the world stage, but seem deeply paranoid that their rule at home could all fall apart at any time.
While China’s public pronouncements may at times appear mercurial, they are part of a well-conceived strategy. On one hand, China seeks to leverage benefits consistent with being a developing country, plays upon the west’s historical guilt over colonialism, and exploits the west’s continued belief that economic development will inexorably lead to pluralism. On the other hand, it does not hesitate to attempt to parlay its growing power into influence whenever and wherever it can. This Janus-like strategy gives China leeway and flexibility in crafting its international political and economic policy.
At home, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) has established Socialism with Chinese characteristics, or, less euphemistically, state capitalism, that necessitates state powers using markets to create wealth, while ensuring political survival of the ruling class. As a government that now presides over the second largest (soon to be the largest) economy in the world — and one that depends intimately on flows of international goods and capital — the CCP no longer simply practices state capitalism at home: it applies it globally.