The past few weeks have seen China’s formidable presence on the world stage, with domestic politics keeping the sole superpower, the United States, busy.
The footprints of Beijing were clearly visible on the global diplomatic front as it sought to broker peace between arch rivals Russia and Ukraine, mediated a diplomatic concord in the Middle East, and hosted some top global leaders.
While Chinese President Xi Zinping was having a meeting with his French counterpart Emanuel Macron along with European Commission Chief Ursula von der Leyen in Beijing, the former US President Donald Trump was in the dock in connection with dozens of felonies. Trump, while addressing his close supporters in Florida right after a Manhattan Court hearing, said: “America is on the verge of division and most likely to witness a crucial threat to democracy.”
Trump expressed his fury and worry against his own nation and revealed that the US is currently focused on a few limited stories such as Russia, Ukraine, Trump himself, and China and Taiwan. In any case, whatever precedent the indictment of Donald Trump sets in domestic politics, the American credibility is likely to suffer.
Immediately after President Xi returned to Beijing from the Kremlin by brokering a peace deal in the Russia-Ukraine war, European leaders visited Beijing to pursuade China to maturely conciliate the peace compact. Macron, on his way home, accentuated Europe’s “diplomatic autonomy” by saying: “Europe should not always be an admirer of the US and be dragged into the Sino-US dispute on the issue of Taiwan.” This signifies that Europe is likely to remain silent on the Taiwan issue, which further indicates that Europe wants to ‘reset’ relations and remain close to China. After the EU leaders’ return, Brazilian President Luiz Inacio Lula da Silva visited China, while German Foreign Minister Annalena Baerbock was also on a visit to the same country. All these diplomatic developments point toward China’s rise as a global leader.
Looking back, the 9/11 terror attack on the US brought nations together. Then came the 2003 Iraq war for global power balancing. But the coronavirus crisis pushed the worldwide balance to the brink. China’s rising clout in the global stage and the magnitude of the Russia-Ukraine war are about to further test this balance. As China is getting stronger—economically, militarily, technologically, strategically and diplomatically—and expanding its influence globally, the world is most likely to witness a much tougher and terrific global balance of power than ever before.
The author’s intention, however, is neither to overestimate China nor to underrate the US, but to assess the prospects of both the nations in various domains–technology, macroeconomics, defense structure and spending, and soft potentials based on data, facts and inferences, and explore whether China is decently prepared for Global leadership?
China on world stage
China’s sensible engagement in diverse affairs–economic, development and diplomatic–through multilateralism is making it a resilient and more responsible emergent leader not only in the region, but also in the global sphere. It has maintained substantial membership cum leadership in different supranational organizations and institutions such as BRICS, SCO, APEC, ASEAN (dialogue partner), AIIB and NDB (New Development Bank under the BRICS framework), South-South Cooperation Fund, and China Silk Road Fund (project under the BRI framework). AIIB is said to be the World Bank of “Chinese characteristics” that has 57 member countries, including four of the G7 nations (Britain, Germany, France, and Italy), Australia, India and South Korea, among others. This shows that China has been rationally successful in influencing the developing and developed economies as well and bringing them under its pragmatic economic leadership. AIIB was reportedly established to defy the US-dominated ADB and WB, and to “contend the US at the global economic table”. NDB is perhaps established to make an arrangement of direct currency exchange of Yuan with the respective currencies of BRICS members in the long run, besides its said objectives. Recently, China and Brazil have announced a new agreement for direct exchange of Yuan (Chinese currency) with Reals (Brazilian currency) without converting into the US dollar, which is likely to challenge the financial hegemony of the “elite currency”. Notably, the two emerging developing economies—China and Brazil—had a trade volume of more than $154bn in 2022 (CGTN). Meanwhile, former Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff has been elected the new head of NDB, whereas current Brazilian President Lula attended the inauguration of Rousseff in China. This signifies that China-Brazil relations are going to be renewed and strengthened as Lula is an ardent supporter of “One China Policy”. Arguably, China earned one more strategic partner in Latin America since Brazil, under Lula, is said to prefer a multipolar world, especially a China-led world order. Likewise, Malaysia is said to have proposed to China to establish the Asian Monetary Fund (AMF), which is expected to counter the IMF. The establishment of AIIB and AMF would indeed help China to “extend its sphere of economic and political influence” that would further help it to “take a leadership role in the global economy” (The New York Times).
China has made significant economic advancement and diplomatic influence over the past three years despite the Covid-19 pandemic and heavy sanctions on its tech and trade from the US and its allies. Realizing the urgency of emergency medical response, China made remarkable cooperation in many countries in Asia, Europe, Latin America and Africa, irrespective of political ideology. China executed a pragmatic ‘Medical Diplomacy’ as part of humanity without any political prejudice, which helped achieve some of its global strategic objectives. China has been passionately expanding its diplomatic sphere in recent years. As a result, it has been successful in influencing countries in every continent.
China is emerging as a global leader as it has received tremendous praise for its patience and comprehensive measures in handling the coronavirus crisis. It has a strong diplomatic grip in Europe through the “Medical Silk-Road” initiated when the pandemic was at its peak. The ‘Medical Diplomacy’ adopted during the global medical emergency has certainly helped strengthen and widen the sphere of BRI prospects in Europe and beyond.
China has been successful enough to influence about 149 countries (44 in sub-Saharan Africa, 35 in Europe and Central Asia, 25 in East Asia and Pacific, 21 in Latina America and Caribbean, 18 in the Middle East and North Africa, 6 in South East Asia; out of which, 18 are EU countries and 9 are G20 countries) around the world through infrastructure development under the BRI (OECD).
Earlier, the US dominated most parts of the world to pursue its strategic interests. China must have understood that it cannot leverage by “making others uncertain and miraculous” unlike the US.
China has been apparently overshadowing the US influence in many parts of the world, including the Middle East, Asia, Africa, Latin America and Europe. Following the China-brokered diplomatic deal between Saudi Arabia and Iran, the erstwhile rivals in the Gulf have come to a common ground of state relations such as agreeing to resume flights, bilateral visits and making diplomatic missions functional. Meanwhile, Arab Foreign Ministers held talks on the Syrian crisis and bringing Syria back to the Arab League. Also, Saudi Arabia mediated peace talks with Houthi rebels in Yemen. Arguably, the US played multiple roles for mediation between different rivals in the Gulf, to little avail, while the recent China-led mediation has resulted in perceptible outcomes.
China not only brokered diplomatic deals and promoted unity in the Gulf region, but also encouraged Islamic nations for peace, harmony and sustainable security architecture, which makes sense in the political sphere in the region and beyond. Eventually, the more cohesive the Arab World, the higher credit China would get.
The US pull-out from Afghanistan following its foreign policy fiasco in Iraq and Afghanistan in the past has not only left an evil reputation behind in the Middle East and South Asia, but has also unlocked and widened the door for its nearest rival China to consolidate its presence in both the regions. Earlier, the US struggled hard to make inroads into Venezuela, Iran, North Korea, Russia and China, while it is detrimentally concentrating on Russia, Ukraine and Taiwan at the present. America had been smart enough in winning hearts, minds and spirits in each continent of the globe in the past. Conversely, it is now applicable and functional to China. Donald Trump’s plank of “Make America Great Again”, has been propelled to make China and Russia great, while India is in the waiting line. American emphasis on democracy, human rights, international law, multiculturalism and multilateralism were the key constituents of its security and legacy in the past, while American critics within are questioning them now. The US’ withdrawal from the Iran Nuclear Deal- 2015, under the Trump administration in 2018, perhaps has prompted Iran to align with China and deliberately rejuvenate its relations with Saudi Arabia.
When we see China’s political march, tech and AI mastery, economic growth patterns, diplomatic influence, soft power enhancement, military achievements and global diplomatic influence, it has become clear that Beijing is preparing for a global leadership role. To materialize the ambition of such a scale, China should take its immediate neighbors, including Nepal and India, into confidence, and resolve all the misunderstandings by being honest, pragmatic, and responsible.
Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang, the South China Sea, and the border dispute with India are China’s major domestic and bilateral issues right now. How it handles these issues will determine China’s prospective path to Global leadership. How China maintains its relations with East Asian countries, including Japan and South Korea, and what role it would play to bring peace in the Korean Peninsula would make China’s global march more comfortable. According to the Wall Street Journal (April 2, 2023), Japan is breaking with the US allies and buying Russian oil despite sanctions on Russia by the Western nations, including the US and its allies. Japan is said to be the only G7 nation that did not send lethal weapons to Ukraine against Russia. South Korea has also been reluctant in directly sending weapons to Ukraine, as South Korean law restricts supply of arms that would “affect” international peace. This signifies that Japan and South Korea could warm up to the China-Russia-led world order.
Recently, Chinese Defense Minister Li Shangfu, during a meeting with Russian President Vladimir Putin in Moscow, agreed to start joint “military” and “military-technical cooperation” (Reuters). As part of “no limit” friendship, China and Russia have deepened relations not only in economic and political cooperation, but also in military collaboration. Likewise, China, Russia and Iran are reportedly in a new “missile mission”, whereas they are said to be engaged in supplying Iran a key chemical compound used in propelling ballistic missiles (Politico). China, Russia, Pakistan and Iran also recently held foreign minister-level meetings on the issue of Afghanistan. Perhaps, they want to take optimum advantage of American troops leaving Afghanistan. All these events and developments suggest the global world order is headed for more intense rivalry between the great power and the superpower.
The second part of this article will be published next week