Publication: Survival: Global Politics and Strategy February–March 2018
30 January 2018
Like his American counterpart, Chinese President Xi Jinping wants to make his country great again. But there is a crucial difference: not only does Xi have the vision, he also has a strategy, aimed at restoring the dominant regional role that China enjoyed for centuries, while pushing Chinese influence far beyond its borders and into the wider world. If he succeeds, Beijing will present most other nations with political, economic and military challenges unprecedented in modern times. And, to date, Xi’s efforts, built on those of his predecessors, have achieved remarkable gains at home and abroad.
Firstly, let us look at China’s economic achievements. As Graham Allison notes in his recent book, Destined for War: Can America and China Escape Thucydides’s Trap?, China has soared in the last generation to displace the US as the number-one producer of automobiles, computers, smartphones and solar panels, and is gaining ground in artificial intelligence. As Allison puts it:
If the US were a corporation it would have accounted for 50 percent of the global economic market in the years immediately after World War II. By 1980 that had declined to 22 percent. Three decades of double-digit Chinese growth has reduced that share to 16 percent today. If current trends continue, the US share of global economic output will decline further over the next three decades to just 11 percent. Over this same period, China’s share of the global economy will have soared from 2 percent in 1980 to 18 percent in 2016, well on its way to 30 percent in 2040.1
For most of this period of dramatic growth China adopted a low international profile, effectively opting not to exercise a foreign policy beyond doing whatever was necessary to create an external environment conducive to economic development. A shift had started to become evident in the aftermath of the 2008 financial crisis. But the appointment of Xi Jinping as Communist Party Secretary-General and head of state in 2012 brought with it a dramatic change in China’s global posture.