Responding to China



Listening to Asia-Pacific leaders and geopoliticians these days is to largely hear long musings about China and what to do about this superpower in the making. Like that song from Sound of Music, “What Do You Do About a Problem Like Maria?” the refrain of these musings is basically what does the international system do about a country the size of China.

My most recent musing experience, and a very long one, was with an Asia-Pacific foreign minister with a particularly long and involved experience of China. Drawing from what he and others have said, I draw the falling conclusions.

One, much of what Beijing does today in its foreign policy has its origins in its opaque domestic politics. Thus much of its recent assertiveness can be connected to the faction battling that went on inside the Chinese leadership in the runup to the part congress. So Hu Jintao needed something to firm up his standing with the army, so he took on India over Arunachal. On the other hand, because Hu and Li Kejiang were seen as Japanophiles, other members racked up the tension with Japan to expose Hu and company.

Two, no one who knows where the Chinese economy is going in the next decade or so. But doom and gloom sayers are almost certainly wrong. China is slowing down but it just needs some reforms to get its engine room purring again. This Asian statesman had no doubts that the new standing committee were in consensus on the economic change needed but not on how to do it. But Beijing has a formidable rep of getting what it wants done. Therefore, assume the growth story moves down a gear but continues to move forward.

Three, the Chinese political system remains fragile. It won’t fall, but it remains fearful of dissidence and organised protest in ways that seem almost comical. It continues to have a legitimacy bug in its system whose main consequence is to make Beijing just a bit high strung in a way that is at odds with its power.

In effect, far from having a foreign policy that is becoming internationalised, China’s external relationship with the world is becoming increasingly tied up with its domestic condition.

Which all sounds a bit scary. But what is more unnerving is that most geopoliticians I meet don’t have any real solution to China and its inner demons. Keep talking, keep trading and keep your gunpowder dry is the standard response — which is more or less common sense. And band together. China vs the rest of the world would be slightly more evenly matched.

So what do we about Maria, remains somewhat undefined.

“Many a thing you know you’d like to tell her Many a thing she ought to understand. But how do you make her stay. And listen to all you say. How do you keep a wave upon the sand.”

Maria’s problem was flightiness; China’s is an overdose of power. The former was tamed by being part of a family. And, in a way, that is also what most prescribes for the Middle Kingdom as well. It is just that one needs a very large family.

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