It is not often that one hears the putative lone superpower ruefully ventilating its frustrations in public. That is exactly the impression that one gets from the statement of the US Foreign Secretary, echoing Nixon's apprehensions and urging the world to stand up to the "Frankenstein," referring to China, or more exactly, to the Chinese Communist Party. By comparing China with the sapient monster created by the young scientist, he would have the world believe that China has broken free of the fetters of those that helped it grow to the level that it has now reached, and has gained the clout to turn against its "progenitors" by dictating its own terms and ordering the course of the future world order, a situation that some refer to as the post-Covid world order. Pompeo's frustration is understandable, and the outburst and the kind of language not heard of in recent times, reflect US despondency. He does not mince words when he accuses China of biting "the international hands that were feeding it."
In Pompeo's outburst is an indirect acknowledgement that China's enlarged economic and geopolitical footprint is posing a threat to the US, a country which, since the end of the Cold War, has faced little challenge to its position.
It also reflects the psychological state of a power that has been completely battered at home by a most destructive virus that has affected the greater part of humanity, and with which it is still grappling. Pundits had predicted that the virus would, at the end of the day, affect all, big and small, equally. What was important was to watch which among these countries would emerge less battered. It seems that the Pompeo "Frankenstein" has emerged the better of the two.
But to the main point regarding China's aspirations to achieve the status of a leading world power; China, the US thinks, is posing as a pretender, claiming the sceptre and the orb of global power.
It is true that China's rise is owed to a large extent to the US and their mutual relationship since the seventies, and also because for the last two decades particularly, China has been the most attractive and largest destination of foreign direct investment (FDI). For example, from a mere five billion dollars FDI in the early nineties, China became the largest recipient of FDI nearing the end of the decade, accounting for 38 percent of total FDI i.e. about 38 billion dollars.
The fact is China has become the world's largest economy on a purchasing power parity basis (achieved in 2014), and a huge foreign exchange reserve. This has been helped by a sustained 10 percent average annual GDP growth through 2018. China was described by the World Bank as "the fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history." The US happens to be China's biggest export market and the third largest importer of US goods, which runs up a huge trade deficit with China every year. China, too, helps fund the US federal debt, it being the largest foreign holder of US Treasury securities.
However, since 1979, when its economy was opened up under Deng Xiao Ping, with the slogan of "capitalism with Chinese characteristics", the economic modernisation has been influenced more by Chinese characteristics than the precepts of capitalism. However, at the individual level, the common Chinese believe that the shortest way to capitalism is through communism, and I make so bold as to also suggest that the Chinese leadership also believe in it without admitting as much.
And that is what had come as a dampener to the West, which had hoped that helping China to modernise would push China to join their bandwagon. But the West's expectations about China not falling in line with it were gross miscalculations. Martin Jacques, in his famous book When China Rules The World, where he makes some bold predictions which many policymakers in the US find "disturbing", exposes two misperceptions of the West about China. The West, in its effort to wean China away from its current state system, partnered with it on its path to economic transformation with the pious hope that China would adapt western values and integrate fully with the international economic order. That was highly optimistic, as apparent from its more assertive postures in regional and bilateral issues in recent times, and the spread in the ambit of China's economic and political influence; the opportunities of it further expanding its influence, experts aver, have been opened up by the Covid-19 pandemic.
And China did not collapse either, belying another western miscalculation which assumed that, in spite of the economic growth, China like the Soviet Union would implode from within unless China's economic modernisation was accompanied by political transformation fashioned on the western model. But instead, China's military modernisation has run in tandem with its economic modernisation. That is the inevitable consequence of gaining economic strength which manifests in both expressed and demonstrated aspirations and more aggressive policy and actions not only regionally, but also well beyond its borders and to other continents. That is what has prompted Pompeo to also express US' fear of China's military becoming "stronger and more menacing" and call for an "alliance of democracies."
Obviously, the US has either not seen the writing on the wall or is not willing to acknowledge it. There has been a shifting of the balance of power from the West to the East, and it will continue despite Covid-19. Clearly, the US is unwilling to accept any challenge to its authority as the sole global power dictating world order as suits its own "enlightened" self interest. The quicker the US realises that China's rise is a reality and its claim to the top position is inevitable, and adapt to the changed realities, the better it is. It will be well for the US to also realise that the days of its right to tell the rest of the world what is best for them, and what to do, are over.
Although China has a long way to go to catch up with the US as an economic powerhouse, the momentum China had gained in the geopolitical realm to claim its position in global diplomacy through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) strategy, may be somewhat blunted by the economic impact of Covid-19. But that will not detract it from pursuing its aim of becoming an important stakeholder in international diplomacy. What the world wants to see is whether China plays its role with responsibility. But, as Singaporean academic and former diplomat Kishore Mahbubani had suggested, how China behaves as world number one would very much depend on how the US behaves as world number one. That was in 2014, and since then, it would not be wrong to suggest, China's geo-economic policies and actions have been cast in the policies and actions adopted by the US. That is another reality that the US and the West must absorb.
Brig Gen Shahedul Anam Khan, ndc, psc (Retd), is a former Associate Editor of The Daily Star.