26 December
Written by Brian Wong

A parade to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the founding of Communist China, pictured in October 2019: China must recognize that sharp power cannot substitute for soft power.

Brian Wong is a Rhodes scholar from Hong Kong and founding editor-in-chief of the Oxford Political Review.
As tensions between the world’s two largest economies continue to escalate, the so-called Thucydides’ trap phenomenon has gained acceptance.

Coined by U.S. political scientist Graham Allison, the phrase alludes to Thucydides’ famous account of the life-or-death struggle between Sparta and Athens, and posits that when one great power threatens to displace another, war becomes inevitable.

Most recent discussions have centered on how the U.S. should approach the rise of China, but the few dealing with how China should manage its own rise either call for unrealistically radical political transformations, or are undergirded by ultranationalist sentiments.

What China really needs is progressive, outcome-driven reforms that would help it adapt to global rules at large, without undermining its political fundamentals and right to non-interference by outside forces. It is a fine line, but China should seek to change the rules for the betterment of its people — not just break the rules.

Recent years have seen a surge in “wolf warrior” diplomacy from China, as well as increasing hawkishness from bureaucrats and administrators concerning issues of sovereignty. Such bellicosity is regrettable, though understandable.

Rooted in China’s narrative of having endured a “Century of Humiliation” at the hands of the West, and amplified by the collapse of the Soviet Union and the Sino-phobic rhetoric that has surged in the aftermath of the COVID-19 outbreak, the Communist Party leadership perceives any and all foreign criticisms of the regime as the manifestation of neo-colonialism and imperialist efforts to undermine its governance.

Acceding to any foreign demands is seen by the Politburo as a sign of capitulation and weakness that would undermine its domestic political legitimacy, as well as its ability to hold court internationally.

Yet an unbridled, head-on confrontation with the world’s supreme military power — and arguably its most important economic partner — would actually be in the worst interest, not just of the Chinese Communist Party, but the country itself.

Indeed, as a recent opinion piece by former vice foreign minister Fu Ying published by The New York Times last month made clear, bureaucrats in Beijing are acutely aware of the need for “cooperative competition,” and that the two powers’ rivalry requires prudent management and tactful cooperation on critical issues. War, in other words, is not an answer for China.

There is a way out for China — one that enables it to progressively evolve into the world’s leading economic power, while refraining from heading down a dangerous path of assertive political expansionism.

Primarily, China must eschew thinking over-defensively, in favor of acting progressively. Through framing everything of potential concern — ranging from domestic anti-Chinese commentary in Australia, to perhaps unfounded skepticism toward Chinese technology companies in Europe, to the country’s border relations with its neighbors, the past three years have seen China accrue significantly more enemies than friends on the international stage.

By adopting nonnegotiable baselines, Beijing incurs two significant risks.
The first is that by overexertion, it risks alienating the very allies and regional partners it needs in order to supplement its economic growth, while limiting a U.S. presence within the region.

The second is the propagation of a self-fulfilling prophecy: Sinosceptics have had a field day with the doctrinaire, almost caricature gestures that have emerged from the country’s most outspoken officials — ranging from caustic Twitter exchanges to spurious claims concerning COVID’s origins. That story writes itself.

Winning over the hearts and minds of undecided, wavering states and their peoples requires tact, but it is also crucial if China is to achieve self-sufficiency in areas where it remains dependent on imports including semiconductors and energy. China must also recognize that sharp power cannot substitute for soft power.

Whether it be the Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank or the Belt and Road Initiative, Beijing must be attuned to the interests of those countries it wants to include within its economic vision. Simply put, China’s foreign projects do not have to be imperialist, and nor is that in Beijing’s interests.
A proposed construction model of the Colombo Port City project, a Chinese-built offshore development to build a modern commercial hub, pictured in December 2019: China’s foreign projects do not have to be imperialist, and nor is that in Beijing’s interests.  

Many of China’s more liberal diplomats would staunchly vouch for a doctrine of noninterference. They would even heed Allison’s own call for the U.S. to acknowledge structural realities and history — intercountry relations thrive best when there are mutual incentives for both parties. Multilateral dialogue, honest conversations, sensible compromises — these are options that sustain, not setback, a nation’s progress.

Finally, history matters. The post-1980s economic reforms and limited, low-level political changes to the Chinese Communist Party were pivotal in facilitating immense improvements to the quality of life for at least a sizable proportion of the country’s population.

China’s comparative advantages have historically rested with its substantial population, cheap wages, an assiduous work ethic, and prudent acceptance of foreign capital to boost domestic innovation. For nearly a decade, China has used artificial intelligence and other high-end technology to keep incomes growing, yet this cannot continue without strong economic partners.

As America becomes more hostile to China’s rise, Beijing must rekindle and consolidate its partnerships with the European Union. And in doing so, it should avoid conflating the moderate, pragmatic recommendations of potential allies, with the ideologically reductionist attacks of those whom it will never win over. Engaging constructively with the existing world order has worked — and can continue to work.

A more progressive, dynamic, and internationally agreeable China does not equate, in any sense, to capitulation or regime change. If China’s rise is to continue sustainably, it must quickly seize the opportunity to reform.