Sun, Sep 09, 2018 - Page 7 News List

What a Chinese superpower would look like

China aims to expand its influence from one polar cap to the other, but debt, demographics and a middle-income trap stand in the way

By Marc Champion  /  Bloomberg

Illustration: Louise Ting

What struck Wang Wen (王文) about Antarctica, beyond the brutality of the December cold, was the scale of US operations in such an inhospitable environment, and the US flag fluttering by the sign that marks the geographic South Pole. Observing the academic mission of hundreds of US scientists in a region rich in resource potential, he was determined that China must catch up.

The report Wang, 32, wrote this summer for the Chongyang Institute for Financial Studies at Renmin University of China in Beijing, where he is executive dean, reflects China’s growing dilemma as it muscles its way into an international system it did not create.

For the first time in its long history, China has in President Xi Jinping (習近平) a leader with a truly global vision. So, inevitably, Beijing looks to the US, the sole superpower, for a yardstick as to what that requires — be it a blue-water navy or more research stations in Antarctica.

Yet Chinese Communist Party leaders also recoil at being seen as the next global hegemon and are reluctant to shoulder the expense that goes with it. They studiously avoid the word “superpower” and see the US version of it as ideologically unacceptable and spent.

Whether China does become a superpower and whether it could sustain the costs involved are questions that will affect the world for decades. They will shape terms of trade, a changing global order, and issues of war and peace.

“We don’t know,” Wang said over dinner a few floors below his institute, when asked what Chinese great power would look like. “Anything but America.”

Yet to misquote Leon Trotsky, even if China is not interested in becoming a superpower, superpower is interested in it.

The US, too, began its journey on the world stage determined not to replicate earlier colonial empires. Today, 11 carrier groups and a network of military bases span the globe to protect its interests.

China might be heading down a similar path. An aircraft carrier construction program is under way. Its first overseas military base opened last year, in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa. Spending for diplomatic service is up sharply. Xi’s “Made in China 2025” economic project aims to displace the US as the world’s technological power, while another plan calls for dominance in artificial intelligence by 2030.

The country raised defense spending from US$21 billion in 1990 to US$228 billion last year — more than three times Russia’s budget, the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute said.

The ease with which it did so — the military’s share of overall government spending actually fell — suggests that China can be any kind of power it wants.

Already there are signs a Chinese model for development, based on an authoritarian political system and state-directed market economy, could gain traction against the more liberal ideals long promoted by the US and post-war institutions like the IMF.

Some countries, such as Cambodia, now follow Beijing’s direction, attracted by China’s deep pockets.

Still, Beijing’s crackdown on free speech and other social liberties does not suggest a self-confident regime. A budding trade war with the US has helped shave about 20 percent off Chinese equities since January, triggering a domestic debate over whether Xi has already overreached by bidding so openly to challenge the US.

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