China wants to take America’s place in the new world order, filling what the U.S. will leave behind as an empty leadership chair in the Asia table of nations.
In several different ways, China is aspiring to instill confidence around the world that it is indeed ready to take on the new mantle of “leader of the free world”. It is very ironic that a nation which is not a democracy, which is not a truly open market, which suppresses internal dissent, which censors internet and free communications, which is usurping neighbouring nations’ rights for freedom to navigate the sea, and so on and so forth, has finally arrived at an uncontested milestone in its development as a nation-state. China is finally going to claim its role as the first and only super power from Asia.
But will the Asian countries accept its leadership?
Contrary to what you think, the answer could be a qualified YES. I wanted to write that the answer “should” be a NO. But then I would have inserted my wish into the equation in a forcible manner, as I control this writing of my blog post. Asian nations, are, in general afraid to challenge power equations, even when these threaten the world order, even when these disturb the peace and equilibrium in their neighbourhood.
Example? Just look at The Philippines. It has (had) been a rock-solid ally of the U.S. for over six decades, was colonized by the U.S., continues to be highly Westernized with strong pro-American tilt amongst its people, contributes the third largest immigrant population to the U.S., and what not. But now witness – the country is surely and inevitably sliding towards China. This is despite the fact that it won an international arbitration against China – I thought that the Philippines would try to enforce the ruling. But China played the charm game, and now the Philippines is almost at their feet, begging them to replace the U.S. as the benefactor.
Malaysia has been growing close to China as well, but has maintained a healthy relationship with the Obama government. One does not know how it will handle the Trump administration.
Sri Lanka is moving closer to China, with Chinese investments pouring into that country. Nepal and Myanmar are looking at the involvement of China in their respective economies. Thailand is inching closer to China. May be India is a standout, but that would be because it is also a large country, with its share of border troubles with China over the past five decades, and so it will be wary. China has been making huge progress in African investments and is also encroaching into South America.
Given all of the above, you would think that it should be a cake walk for China to take the place of the U.S. But that is not to be……
Two powerful countries – South Korea and Japan – are going to challenge the hegemony of China. And, the U.S. itself has been challenging China’s military moves in the South China Sea and its claims against disputed islands which are under Japanese control. Taiwan is another big pain for China, with its democratic party not so close to China. So, North Asia is a huge problem for China, and North Korea has not been helpful in its aggressive nuclear posturing.
And, small countries like Singapore, which plays by international laws, will stay neutral in any emerging equation. The U.S. is too important for many of these same countries, and they will play a waiting game as situations develop. While China will play its trade and investment games around Asia, Africa and elsewhere, it is not unusual for China’s intentions to be investigated and questioned. Unfortunately, people do not view China using the same glasses that they use when viewing the U.S. The U.S. has always been welcome throughout Asia (so far).
So, it is going to be problematic for China unless it develops the “soft power” that the U.S. has so effectively utilized over the years. But for that, China needs powerful consumer and industrial brands which it lacks. China also needs to be seen as an engaging and well-meaning power, and not as a bully in one’s backyard. Intentions have to be clarified before cheque books are opened. China has not even been able to attract other countries to launch their satellites using the powerful rockets that they have developed, whereas India gets good business in the matter of launching satellites for many countries. It is critical China engages an “image and brand” consultant and builds a positive image for itself around the world. And, it needs to realize that the South China dispute is doing no good for its image. Nobody likes a big country to come hundreds and thousands of miles from its shores and claim reefs, corals, sand, and rocks as its territory, and threatens the economic lifeline of other much smaller nations around the sea. What is the purpose? China never did such stuff before Xi Jinping arrived as its President.
China cannot have the cake and eat it too. It is time it realizes that it needs the rest of the world if it has to successfully position itself as the leader of the “free” (not so free after all!) world. China’s citizens will never be free as long as there is lack of democracy, and increasing affluence is not going to lead them to freedom, or even partial freedom. However, China’s image can be changed by prudent design.
Will China do it? The jury is out, and the world is watching.
5th February 2017