By Peter Marino – The strategic environment in which China’s “lay low” approach to international affairs has helped to make it the world’s second-largest economy is changing – and a broader backlash against China is beginning.
The global conditions that favored China’s rise began at the end of the Cold War. With the fall of the Soviet Union, the West in general and the United States in particular were eager to bring additional countries into the world order they felt they had created. Throughout the 1990s, faith in the liberalizing power of commerce, and in Francis Fukuyama’s thesis that the West’s triumph over Soviet socialism heralded the “End of History,” was at its height. As a consequence, concerns about China’s autocratic model were largely shelved in Western capitals.
The United States in particular pushed for China’s accession to the World Trade Organization, which ultimately served as an inflection point in China’s economic growth.
While this was happening, Beijing played its hand skillfully. Deng Xiaopin advocated avoiding flashy shows of power in order to shield Chinese efforts from outside scrutiny while the country wasn’t positioned to handle them properly.
The last five years upended nearly all of this in very short order. Indirect diplomatic suggestions have been swapped for attention-grabbing proposals, strategic ambiguity has been abandoned for international military bases, high-profile drills, showy parades and standoffs with neighboring countries. Fueled by large state-subsidized loans, large Chinese firms were sent on international buying binges.
Modern China has never faced simultaneous suspicion of its motives and objectives in both the West and the developing world. Beijing’s diplomats are more experienced at sidestepping or deflecting critics than at engaging them, and the party’s domestic politics demand a near-absolute protection of “core interests.” This does not bode well for a country that will have to start addressing legitimate diplomatic concerns around the world. more>