The 73rd National Day of the People’s Republic of China on Saturday provided reason to reflect on its global ambitions. China’s future remains mired in inevitable challenges and has the greatest potential, depending on what its intentions are.
Growing mid-sized and small powers look to China as a source of economic and financial salvation, not for the security of its ideological superiority. Beijing’s intentions are confusing and contradictory: It is firm in its quest to shape an alternative global order, but its methods continue to alienate the international community and fuel uncertainty.
If China chooses a low-key path to achieve the “Chinese Dream” by 2049 — gradually transitioning toward an open and democratic nation — the returns would be greater and faster than its current approach. The US might be late to the game and at times dysfunctional in facing China and defending its global leadership, but it still holds a more persuasive card in calling for global commitment in projecting the common fear of Beijing and in supporting Washington’s entrenched values.
Geopolitical realities mean that China will forever have to contend with threats from its east, southeast and even an uncertain north from Russia. The US, on the other hand, would only need to contend with fish and hurricanes to its west and east in the Pacific and the Atlantic oceans.
Until and unless China drastically increases its power projection and capacity to capably challenge the US’ power structure right at its doorstep, it would remain secondary to Washington’s military supremacy and dominance for the next century at least.
It presents a new quandary, where Beijing has the economic momentum of volume and size, but to have staying power, it requires a new game of values and conviction of principles to persuade and enforce.
China needs the West more than the West needs it. Beijing hopes the West keeps to its premise of rules-based engagement and the conviction that it would not unilaterally contravene those rules to start a war with China. Beijing realizes that for a major full-blown conflict to start, it would be either a serious miscalculation or the fault of China itself going too far in its actions, pushing the West to break its own norms. It is too late for Beijing to step back, as decades of enemy framing and stirring up local sentiment have created unstoppable momentum.
In the end, the biggest question is: Will China be willing to stand up for a broader global cause and not just a Chinese cause? Is Beijing prepared to assume the global obligation of transcending and superseding its core national interests and demands of Chinese? Does it have the mandate and desire of its people and cultural design to execute a different task that is predominantly different from what they are used to and expecting? All of this remains to be seen.
Collins Chong Yew Keat provides analysis and opinion to international media on contemporary global and regional issues.
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