Sunday, June 12, 2016

China, the shy superpower

This once sleeping dragon has taken full flight but believes in flapping its wings softly to allay fears of its real intentions. 

Vision and ambition: Xi (right) speaking with US Secretary of State John Kerry at the end of the eighth round of the US-China Strategic and Economic Dialogue at the Great Hall of the People in Beijing, China. — EPA
TWO years ago, it was predicted that China’s economy would surpass the United States as the world’s biggest. But instead of rejoicing and thumping its chest, the Chinese government strenuously sought to play it down.

This led to several articles on the Internet sporting headlines like “Why China doesn’t want to be number one”, “Why China hates being No. 1” and “China ‘fearful’ of becoming world’s number one economy”. This was in the first half of 2014.

Indeed, China was declared No. 1 by the end of that year but with the slowing down of its economy, it has slipped back to second place with the United States taking back the pole position.

Beijing must have heaved a sigh of relief but to many, China is still the power to reckon with. After all, the ambitious One Belt, One Road (Obor) Initiative launched by President Xi Jinping in 2013 remains a key strategy, through which China will become an undisputed regional and global power.

In fact, even if its economy is now second to the United States, China is widely seen as the superpower of the 21st century. But that is also a title Beijing is extremely uncomfortable with and one which Chinese leaders reject vehemently.

“China is not a superpower, we are still a developing country ... we have a long way to go to realise modernisation” was how Chinese premier Li Keqiang responded to questions from visiting editors from Asia News Network in Beijing on May 31.

Granted, China is a very big country and there are still millions among its 1.3 billion citizens who need to be lifted out of poverty. But by just about every yardstick, China measures up to superpowerhood.

By some reckoning, it achieved that status when it successfully detonated its first nuclear bomb in the late 1960s. Since then, it has built up a formidable military force with the world’s biggest standing army of 2.2 million.

Results from a survey in Australia and major Asian countries by a group of regional think tanks released last week showed that a wide majority of Australians and significant numbers of Asians already consider China more powerful than the United States.

China, once the sleeping dragon, is fully awake and airborne, creating huge turbulence and strong winds that are felt across the globe.

But no, “there are no grounds for China to become a superpower and neither does China have the intention to be one,” Li told the ANN editors.

Neither does it see itself as a Big Brother but a good friend to all, regardless of size and wealth.

The same consistent message of assurance was given by Jin Liqun, president of the Asian Infrastruc­ture Investment Bank (AIIB), when he met the editors in a separate session.

The AIIB was one of the financial institutions created to support Obor, now renamed the Belt and Road Initiative, which came about because China was dissatisfied with existing multilateral lending entities like the World Bank, the International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.

But the AIIB has also created suspicion and skepticism over China’s motives.

The eloquent Jin, who fielded a wide range of questions, kept to the script which was to give the assurance that China had no ill intentions and that the AIIB would be fully transparent in its activities and guided by three principles in choosing the projects to fund, namely that they must be financially sustainable, environmentally friendly and socially acceptable.

What’s more, he pointed out that if the AIIB is so bad, why have 57 countries become members and another 30 on the waiting list?

Why indeed. While he admitted that the AIIB had an international trust and credibility issue, he bristled when I suggested that nations signed up because they were basically hedging their bets.

After all, which country wouldn’t want the chance to get their development projects funded by a new lender in town? It is no skin off their nose.

Neither did Jin take kindly to my comment that he had painted a very rosy picture of the bank and its aims.

“I take issue with you. I never pick the rosy pictures, I always pick the realistic pictures,” he said.

Yet for all his claims of openness and transparency, no editor could pin him down on details on the type of projects that the AIIB would fund and the shortcomings of existing development banks that led to the creation of the AIIB.

Instead, Jin quoted from Jane Austen’s Mansfield Park, “Skepticism must always be forgiven, you know, because there is no hope of a cure”, substituting “selfishness” in the original text with “skepticism”.

Even though the editors met Jin and Li separately, their answers to all the questions were essentially same: China comes in peace; all it wants is cooperation and stability; it believes in prospering with its neighbours and has no desire to bully any country, no matter how small or weak; and it definitely has no wish to be a superpower.

As the Chinese say, you can talk till your saliva dries up but to no avail. China is just too massively important and influential, and it also harbours ambitions that go beyond military and economic ascendancy.

It is, as the BBC puts it, even “supersizing science” in its quest to become a global leader in science and technology. One of its most visible efforts is the building of the biggest radio telescope, the 500m Aperture Spherical Teles­cope, that when completed in September, will dwarf the current title holder, the 300m Arecibo Observatory in Puerto Rico.

It is also making huge investments in medical research and in the exploration of both inner and outer space. Its scientists have built a vessel to explore the world’s deepest oceanic trenches, all in the name of science.

But even that has reportedly spooked certain nations as they fear China will use its advanced marine technology to further its control in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea which have been dragging on for years.

The world’s “beautiful game” too has caught China’s fancy. It wants to be a football superpower by 2050 and has unveiled a blueprint on how to achieve it: build at least 20,000 football training centres and 70,000 pitches by 2020, according to the BBC.

Clearly, this is a nation with great ambitions and many achievements that it can be justifiably proud of, so why such extreme modesty and humility in dealing with the world?

Back in 2014, various experts and observers gave their take on it. The general consensus was that one of the biggest reasons was China’s fear of responsibility as in the classic line, “with great power comes great responsibility”.

Fortune.com opined that while the Chinese government would love to brag about its growing global influence, it is also pragmatic. It doesn’t want the “cumbersome international obligations” like being the world’s policeman and donor that are expected of a superpower or economic giant.

It would also seem that Chinese leaders believe taking the “softly, softly does it” line of diplomacy is most reassuring to the rest of the world and will create the least line of resistance to their overtures.

But it appears that this overly modest and diffident approach hasn’t quite worked as planned. Beijing may want to rethink its strategy because, to quote Shake­speare, it’s a case of “the lady doth protest too much, me thinks”.

By June H.L. Wong Sunday Star Focus

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