BEIJING – Washington’s aggressive pursuit of containment of China and Beijing’s difficulty in launching major economic and political reforms will likely prove an explosive mixture. Meanwhile, Japan, India, and other Asian powers exploit the logic of “two ovens”.
The 18th Congress of the Chinese Communist Party was to be the springboard for economic and political renewal in the world’s second power. Many Chinese – and others – hoped it would mark the beginning of a new era of reform.
The main challenge was, and remains, the fate of state-owned industries (state-owned enterprises, SOEs), which are often
controlled or influenced by top party leaders or their families. The reform and even partial privatization of SOEs would on the one hand promote growth and expand the economic base of China with a view to better distribution of wealth and consumption. On the other, it could be accompanied by a gradual opening to democratic competition in the political system, which is still dominated by the party-state.
Democracy and the rule of law, albeit in a Chinese cloak, would give greater guarantees primarily to private investors, domestic and foreign. On the geopolitical level, they would rein in the crisis of negative propaganda coming from America, Europe, and China’s Asian neighbors – especially India, Japan, and Vietnam – condemning the closed-off authoritarian regime in Beijing and keeping China under constant pressure.
But the harshness of the political struggle that preceded and accompanied the ascent of the new Chinese communists leadership at the recent congress has slowed the momentum of reformers. After outgoing supreme leader Hu Jintao decided to leave all the posts, including that of president of the strategic Central Military Commission, the balance found by the new secretary-general and the next president, Xi Jinping, who seems open to reform, must take into account the resistance of conservatives.
So next to Xi and his number-two, Li Keqiang, who have been installed at the head of the government in the Politburo Standing Committee, the inner sanctum of power, there are five older members who could be more inclined to conservatism than to accepting the risks of the reforms. However, looking at the whole Politburo, one sees also many new faces, including Sun Zhencai and Hu Chunhua (born in 1963), who are meant to rise to the highest offices of the party and the state in 2022, at the end of the decade of Xi and Li. As for the Central Committee’s 205 members, 80% were born after 1950, and nine after 1960.
Reading between the lines of the very opaque mechanisms for forming the leading groups of the CCP, for the next 10 years, the watchword will be “forward, with judgment”.
This could not happen without addressing the core issues of the economic and political system, but so far there has been no clear indication of a sudden push in this direction. Evidently, Beijing’s leaders think they have more time and do not want to accelerate change, which threatens to jeopardize the delicate balance of power within the Communist Party and the People’s Republic itself.
Conservatives might have forced the reformists – by threats or against the backdrop of the dramatic story of Bo Xilai and the other scandals that followed, involving the Western press and various parties’ revelations against former president Xi Jinping (a Bloomberg story) or against former premier Wen Jiabao (a New York Times story) or against president Hu Jintao’s former head of staff Ling Jihua – that this is not the time for acceleration.
But the world will be not waiting for the slow decision process of next group of leaders, during the next 10 years. Indeed, a look at today’s geopolitical context in China should lead to courageous decisions in the national interest. By moving the horizon of democratic change – however undefined – at least a decade, Beijing has left a long period of time to Washington’s hawks eager to paint China as a rising dictatorship to be stopped.
By using this time frame, the US could step up its pressure against the rise of the challenge of a rival power from a position of relative strength. Because the United States has not resigned itself to the prospect of a “Chinese Century,” it could do many things to slow economic growth and hamper the geopolitical power of the People’s Republic, which for many Americans, even in the political elite, still remains Red China.
Lonely at the top
Recently re-elected US President Barack Obama has made progress in Asia, confirming and emphasizing the movement of the center of gravity of American strategic interests toward a region whose other political center is the somewhat lonely communist China. Obama, unlike the Chinese, is in a hurry. At the beginning of his first term, in 2009, Obama offered an olive branch to Beijing, hoping to build some form of de facto alliance with America’s largest creditor and competitor. His plan was substantiated in the fascinating idea of formulating a Group of Two (G2). A Sino-American pact could ruffle many feathers in the world, but this offer received a lukewarm, and as usual cautious reaction from China.
The leaders of the Communist Party, preparing for their leadership succession, did not give reassuring answers to Obama’s overtures. In the end, Obama probably weighed the meaning of the unstoppable rise of the Middle Kingdom to the pinnacle of world power – just as the United States was in the throes of one of the most serious crises in its history, the 2008 financial crisis – against significant consequences in terms of credibility, image, and soft power.
Perhaps Obama did not offer the G2 with enough clarity and force, perhaps the Chinese leaders did not perceive the urgency of the G2 perspective, noting in 2009 how in the world may global players had begun to distance themselves – and not only rhetorically – from the former “only superpower.” The fact is that now the opportunity has passed, and it will be difficult to reopen a window for a deep US-China strategic understanding.
The United States then launched a strategy to contain China: the pivot to Asia. It’s about building an informal alliance between China’s neighbors and other Asian countries in order to put pressure on Beijing and to prevent China from creating a sphere of Chinese influence.
In this context, Obama’s trip to Asia last November is a very clear signal, even though it was not crowned a complete success. When the US president, after visiting Thailand and the newly rehabilitated (for geostrategic purposes) Myanmar, traveled to Phnom Penh, the capital of Cambodia, to attend a summit of ASEAN (the Association of Southeast Asian Nations), he found that the group of countries, essential in the strategy to contain China, remains divided.
If countries such as Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, and Malaysia appear more or less open to America’s approach, others, including Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and Thailand expressed considerable reservations. All countries of the region, however, see in the Sino-American rivalry the opportunity to practice the traditional policy of “two ovens,” taking advantage of the offers both sides pledge to win favors and to counter the influence of the other side.
With its formidable military, the US offers itself as the guarantor of last resort for the safety of those countries, and it sides with Vietnam, the Philippines, South Korea, and Japan in disputes with China on strategic areas around the South China Sea and in Eastern Europe. They have some capital to use to support emerging Asia on its way to full development.
China is in a position symmetrically opposite: not only can it not provide credible guarantees of protection, but rather China is perceived as a potential destabilizing geopolitical force, if not as an aggressor. At the same time, the Chinese offer substantial financial incentives to neighbors in exchange for their willingness to make regional agreements with Beijing that would create de facto a buffer zone around China. The “double oven” is even more true for Japan and India, the two other giants of East Asia and South Asia, which both have ongoing historical border disputes – and not just near the cumbersome Chinese.
It must be considered that the American approach to China in the Asian region is still not comparable to American efforts to contain the Soviet Union during the Cold War. At that time, it was a zero-sum game between two enemies who had no economic relationship – or almost no relationship. Now the two major economies of the world are symbiotic, so the advantage of one helps the other, and vice versa.
In contrast, a strategy of strangulation of the partner/competitor can be a refined form of suicide. Obama’s goal is not to blow up China, but to guide and help manage the growth in economic power and geopolitical sway over neighboring countries. The intention is to prevent other nations from ending up under the heel of Beijing, and rather for China’s rise to become heavily conditioned by its neighbors and to curb its rise to the pinnacle of world power.
All this, to keep the comparison with the Cold War, would be done with no money to launch a new Marshall Plan. In the afterthoughts of some Pentagon strategists, there is the prospect of a sort of North Atlantic Treaty Organization among key anti-Chinese Asian nations, a realistic approach to the region leads to the conclusion that it is a chimera (the precedent of SEATO [the South East Asia Treaty Organization], put to bipolar use at the time of the USSR, is not encouraging).
The paradoxical outcome of US containment of China could be the development of a number of new and old Asian powers – India and Japan, but also Vietnam and Indonesia – who could rise on the shoulders of the two rivals’ frictions thanks to the policy of “two ovens”. It could bring to the fore nations much more independent and aggressive than Washington (and perhaps Beijing) tends to imagine. The result might be that to stem the headlong rush of China, delaying it maybe a couple of decades, the United States is setting a trap in which they risk losing their remaining Asian influence to a new crowd of aggressive powers. In any case, it should be much less difficult to manage a region of two than of five or six or seven – as Russia is till in the region and always very interested in its developments.
Are there alternatives to Washington containing China? Certainly, yes. The most promising would be an agreement with the Chinese Communist Party, since it is a leading force in the People’s Republic. The agreement could allow the two countries to build a new form of bilateralism, this time not a zero-sum game but something more or less cooperative and competitive. Of course, returning to the prospect of G2 after Beijing closed the door in Obama’s face is not an attractive option for him. It would hardly be taken well by the American public, even if the president has the advantage of not having to be reelected.
To restore credibility to a new form of G2 in America, it could be suitable for the CCP to present the proposal in a clear form. Here, too, there may be strong resistance in the domestic public opinion, with rising concerns about reaching out to Americans as they seem to be sinking in the quicksand of debt and the economic crisis. In China you do not vote (yet), but with each passing day public opinion becomes more powerful and an increasingly influential voice, which even the non-elected leaders must take into account. They do not have their hands completely free to determine the geopolitical strategies.
So if, as now seems likely, the G2 de facto partnership between the US and the CCP, were not to take shape the risk of a confrontation between China and the United States would become consistent. It would therefore create tension threatening almost a return to the times of the “Warring States.” After several years of US containment of China, if China were to end any serious agreement with the US, say in five to 10, to 20 years, the possibility of a war between two nuclear powers could not at all be excluded.
The spark to ignite the war could be one of those countries that is poised between American and Chinese influence and that, having grown thanks to the “two ovens” would feel able to express without concern its exclusive and aggressive nationalism which in turn could spark a war between the two major powers. The thought turns, first of all – but not only – to Korea, where already in the 1950s American and Chinese troops found themselves fighting on opposite sides. Or to Vietnam, which at the time of the Cold War fought and won against the United States first, and then entered into two conflicts with China – although the scope and effects are incomparable.
The containment of the Soviet Union in Asia was the premise of the American victory in the Cold War. However, history does not repeat itself, and this time the new containment of China, along with the difficulty of the Chinese Communist Party to reform the country and open to the world, could be a step toward a major war with unimaginable consequences for the planet. Unless this deadlock is broken a by a clear determination of the party to step up with political reforms. This could be the true content of Xi’s trip to the south, emulating Deng’s trip to Shenzhen 20 years ago. It is a strong sign for reforms, only we don’t know how far reaching these reforms will be.