By Asanga Abeyagoonasekera, Executive Director SAFN
Pic: June 27, 2023, “The Future of the Belt and Road Initiative” at the 14th Annual Meeting of the New Champions, also known as the Summer Davos, in north China’s Tianjin Municipality. (Xinhua/Li Ran)
Washington, DC – Is China a developed nation? Or is China still developing? China will always remain a developing nation since China understands once you’re developed, you’re done. The timespan as a developing nation gives China ample time to strengthen its inner capability in all areas. As a developing country, China practiced Deng Xiaoping’s words to “Hide your strength, bide your time.” During my recent visit to China World Economic Forum’s Summer Davos’, I learned this while conducting a workshop on ‘China’s Shared Future.’
Everything under heaven
To win her economic battles in different geographies, China practiced another phrase by Deng, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice.” Some participants at the conference were critical and anti-China, but this doesn’t bother China anymore. China will use them as long as they carry one message: “China’s economic strength and the role China wishes to play on the world stage.” Chinese Communist rule and policies don’t matter to many developing nations of the global South trying to bootstrap their way out of poverty. China is offering the ‘Chinese development miracle’ to the world’s forgotten people. Will they buy it?
It was a different China from the pre-pandemic time when I visited Beijing in 2019. There were more electric cars, and much more glamor China has added to their surrounding infrastructure. A friend I was traveling with from New York Brookline, a Human Rights activist, quickly observed, “It’s like flintstones coming to jet setters world.” The Ritz Carlton, where Huawei hosted the guests for their evening reception, was ten times larger than any Ritz worldwide. One thousand five hundred guests traveled from around the world for the “Summer Davos” in Tianjin, a phrase deriving from the flagship annual conference of the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland.
In China, it is as if the Chinese narrative has become more direct, and they were more prepared to take the top seat of the world as a rule setter, not the rule taker anymore. The question is whether China is ready for this position. Many Singaporean and East Asian investors I met at the conference want to bring Chinese money to their economies to create joint industrial parks. It is as if the entire global South, the developing nations, has come to the emperor to ask for assistance, where China’s ancient concept of tianxia (天下), “everything under heaven,” has come to a reality. The $18 trillion economy China has built is unique. It was developed by the one-party system, the CCP Leninist structure. China boasts about 800 million of its population moving out of poverty, and this could be replicated in the global South, which the West has ignored for many years.
Sri Lankan foreign minister Ali Sabry was one of the participants who came to ask for assistance to restructure the debt and bring some relief to its ailing economy. The Sri Lankan transport minister was another participant with whom I interacted briefly; he only saw China as a last resort for the Island nation. Many debt-distressed countries, around 50 nations according to IMF, are going through the same struggle.
While assisting the global South to achieve its development targets, China plays a political role which they deny. At the same time I was visiting China, one Rajapaksa family member was in China on a private visit. The visit was kept under the radar as a private visit. While Sri Lankan president Wickremesinghe was busy on his Indian visit, China entertained the Rajapaksa and perhaps developed a path for the next election. China has read Sri Lankan leadership and knows precisely the limitations of ‘the Tamil question’ and the Sinhalese Buddhist nationalism in the country. President Wickremasinghe was identified by the general public as a traitor back in the past when he signed the Norwegian peace deal and when he proposed to build a physical bridge with India to move forward with the 13th amendment. Wickremasinghe will be caught in the same ‘ultra-nationalist trap,’ just like in the past on this question of sovereignty, where he will displease the Sinhalese Buddhist majority. China doesn’t care if it’s Wickremasinghe, Rajapaksa, or any of the internal issues, as long as they execute and manage the strategic projects in the small island nation, winning the public perception supporting China’s global vision to execute the ‘Shared Future smoothly.’
China has more trade with the global South than the global North. China wishes to become the leader, the last resort for economic assistance for the global South. The West ignored the leaders of the deprived world for many years. The West failed to stabilize and bring economic prosperity to many regions, including the middle east, central Europe, Latin America, and Pacific Island Countries (PIC). Why else would Solomon Island Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare sign nine agreements last month with the Chinese Prime Minister in Beijing? Why would the small island ask for law enforcement and police assistance despite having a pact with Australia? It is as if the global South has had enough of relying on the West and its allies and has chosen an alternative path, supporting China’s shared future. Many nations in the global South have brought the Chinese developmental model that will raise its people out of poverty and obscurity to a better-developed life.
Revisiting Bandung Spirit
Institute Teknologi Bandung (ITB) is a state university in Bandung, Indonesia. Established in 1920, it’s the nation’s oldest technology-oriented university. Today it’s called Huawei University. ITB teaches Indonesian students Huawei’s technologies and courses, the generation of telecommunication and technology engineers the country requires. Bandung is significant for another reason, the 1955 Bandung conference, the landmark conference of the non-aligned countries, where China and India, with many nations from the global South, discussed the new world order, a third way – non-alignment from the US-Soviet sphere. Bandung was a push against the colonial empire and Western-dominated world, where nearly 50 percent of GDP globally was in the hands of the US. Many nations of the global South who participated were victims of direct aggression from Colonialism, which plundered their country’s wealth. According to C Raja Mohan, “the pursuit of a third way, in the name of non-alignment, became the anchor of India’s external relation.” While some see non-alignment as a relic, India and many other nations, including Sri Lanka, use its non-alignment, even in the present Ukraine war, to stay away from geopolitical competition, keep relations with Russia, and not take sides. While the current alliance of India-US has chipped away at the core of non-alignment, it has not impacted the relationship with Russia. Many nations will follow this third way due to economic and security interests.
China could revisit the Bandung spirit from its ‘Shared Future’ vision to draw a new world order for Asia in the present geopolitical environment. Unlike in 1955, China has the economic muscle and informal networks from East Asia to other parts of the world already established. China could provide the global South assistance without much dependence on the North. The obstacle for China is India, where the world’s largest population has to be integrated to win this status. Today China’s BRI traverses around India, excluding India. When I posed the question of the future of the BRI panel discussion, “How do we bring India into the BRI?” there was no answer from the entire panel. Since China is reviving its ancient Silk Road, it is leaving behind an integral partner from the ancient days, where places like Nalanda and Taxila and many cities were conduits of a synergy of Chinese and Indian wisdom. Buddhism from India traveled to China and many other nations through the ancient silk road. China’s vision of a Shared future is incomplete and cannot be built by excluding India.
China’s Expansion and US Foreign Policy
The US is in a gray zone where China could win and has built its capability to land its boats in Taiwan, where 15 years ago, this was not imaginable. Walter Russel Mead sees this as “we have sat immovable talking of soft power diplomacy while allowing this danger to rise to a critical stage; this is madness and failure of duty” in US foreign policy. During my recent visit to Tianjin World Economic Forum, the Chinese economic muscle was well displayed. China’s ambition is to create a new world order with principles of three pillars: the Global Development Initiative (GDI), Global Security Initiative (GSI), and Global Civilizational Initiative (GCI). The pillars will create a ‘Shared Future’ vision, a new global order clearly articulated by China. Years of preparation in the background, absent from expensive proxy wars unlike the US, but razor-focused only on its development which was a proven case, where China uplifted 800 million out of poverty. The global South looks at this Chinese development with the hope that they could also import the same model for economic prosperity.
Escalation, Cluster Bombs to Ukraine
The single most destructive bombing raid in human history was carried out by the US against the Japanese on the night of 9th and 10th March 1945, killing 130,000 people. According to David Fedman from Stanford University and Cary Karacas from City University, ‘The United States intelligence services were aware of how vulnerable the region [Tokyo] remained to fire, with the Office of Strategic Services (OSS) (the earlier name for CIA), rating it as containing the most combustible districts in Tokyo.’ It was the US geographers and cartographers, along with military intelligence, that believed in a precision strategic bombing of military industries which was proven wrong, killing many civilians. In war, it is as if such measures are a necessity to win. But today’s world has evolved to prevent such catastrophes and act as responsible actors in the global theater.
In the present day, the Biden administration agrees to send cluster bombs to Ukraine. Fired by artillery with a 155-millimeter shell packed with 72 armor-piercing can strike from 20 miles away and scatter them over a vast area. Due to high civilian casualty in the past experiences from the scattered clusters around a larger area that could strike many civilians, 123 nations — including US allies and most NATO members agreed never to use, transfer, produce, or stockpile cluster munitions. The UN treaty against cluster munition is opposed by the US and gives cover to China and Russia, which store the largest stockpile of cluster munition.
US national security adviser Jake Sullivan justified the administration’s decision to send cluster munitions, saying, “Russia has been using cluster munitions since the start of this war to attack Ukraine” Many Democrats and Members of the House’s defense appropriations subcommittee opposed this decision. Rep. Betty McCollum, the ranking member of the House’s defense appropriations subcommittee, said, “The legacy of cluster bombs is misery, death, and expensive cleanup generations after their use.”
The US decision to send cluster munitions to Ukraine amounts to a clear escalation of a conflict that has already become too brutal and destructive. While the rain of bomblets may give Ukraine a military advantage in the short term, it would not outweigh the damage in suffering to civilians in Ukraine in the future and the ripple effect of Russia seeing the US as a clear adversary. The US entanglement will be far too much, tilting its foreign policy towards two strategic rivals, Russia and China, in the Asian theater. Unfortunately, some research circles in Washington do not believe the US is at war with either of the two adversaries. If history could teach us something, it would be a lesson to evade another human destruction. Unfortunately, it is as if we have not learned anything, thus pushing the agenda toward another World War.
War in Ukraine has already cost more than 350,000 human lives. Russia, which was targeted by economic sanctions – seen as a way to thwart and cripple the Putin regime – has failed. In the same way, the Russian invasion was miscalculated, as a quick takeover of Ukraine failed. Both sides have been pushing each other and creating geopolitical ripple effects through economic and security spheres of influence, dragging and jolting out nations from their passive foreign policy positions toward the war. Sweden is the newcomer who joins NATO as the 32nd member after Türkiye’s approval for economic reasons to improve its trade with the West and to acquire F16s from the US. While NATO expands, seen as a victory for strengthening the security alliance further to overcome any aggression, the security block will create a significant geopolitical rift between the West and East.
At the annual Shangri-la dialogue, this rift was clearly expressed by the Chinese delegates: ‘The containment in the Atlantic has triggered war in Ukraine; will the same containment and block politics create another war in the Indo-Pacific theater?’ This was a valid question from the Chinese perspective, questioning the reorganization of the earlier US-led Asia-Pacific architecture into the present-day Indo-Pacific, comprising two blocks, the QUAD and AUKUS. China believes the two blocks have created a direct containment strategy against China. General Li Shangfu from PLA, speaking at the dialogue, said, “Some countries are expanding military bases, reinforcing military presence and intensifying arms race in the region and transferring nuclear-weapon technologies to a non-nuclear state, or such practices which it often resorts to are designed to make enemy/confrontation, fuel the fire and fish in troubled waters” hinting on US behavior in the Indo-Pacific theater.
US-China De-risking to Diverse
With the tense geopolitical contest, the US has carved a path to work with China with a proposition of ‘de-risking’ instead of decoupling with China. The reason is the US has learned China’s maneuvering space in the Asian theater in terms of economic muscle and market integration is too large. China is a necessary partner where escalating tension in two theaters, Russia and China, is a much heavier burden. However, Chinese Premier Li Qiang rejected the decoupling and de-risking propositions. At the World Economic Forum, Qiang explained, “As you know, some in the West are hyping up the so-called phraseologies of reducing dependencies and de-risking, these two concepts, I would say, are false propositions.”
The tension around the US position on ‘de-risking’ was defused to an extent with the visit of US Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen to China. She avoided mentioning ‘de-risking’ and repeatedly emphasized the United States’ wish for diverse supply chains, a much comforting term for the Chinese and a longtime public policy goal of China as well.
Since the war began in Ukraine, the Biden administration and the US Congress have directed more than $75 billion in assistance to Ukraine, which includes humanitarian, financial, and military support. The US will be exhausted in another major war that will cost the US domestically and in the international arena where already multilateral mechanisms such as BRICS expansion to rebalance a new world order are in the making targeting the G7 nations. It is an alternative path to the sanctions regime from G7 that had the underlying impact on many economies in the Global South. Rather than moving along with the US, there is a ‘plan B’ followed by many nations, including Saudi Arabia and UAE, working with China and Russia. There should be more security and reassurance to the world from the US of consistency in its foreign policy. “America needs to get its act together so that the foreign policy is consistent from administration to administration,” argues Walter Russel Mead. The concern among many in the US is the deep domestic political polarization and the upcoming presidential race, which could directly impact US foreign policy.
The above commentary was initially published by Global Strat News, Washington DC