With a new White House document in May — the “Strategic Approach to the People’s Republic of China” — the administration of US President Donald Trump has firmly set its hyper-competitive line to tackle geoeconomic and geostrategic rivalry, followed by several reinforcing speeches by Trump and other Cabinet-level officials.
By identifying China as a near-equal rival, the strategy resonates well with the bipartisan consensus on China in today’s severely divided US. In the face of China’s rapidly growing aggression, the move is long overdue, yet relevant for the maintenance of the international “status quo.”
The strategy seems to herald a new “cold war,” given that it employs ideas and rhetoric reminiscent of the US-Soviet ideological rivalry: liberal democracy versus communist dictatorship, and free-market capitalism versus “socialist capitalism.”
However, it is evident that the Chinese communist regime neither pursues a global revolution nor world domination.
It simply behaves as a classical imperialist power bent on aggrandizing its sphere of influence through its Belt and Road Initiative and massive arms buildups, while exercising egregious domestic oppression via law enforcement organs and extensive overseas political maneuvering through intelligence organizations.
The strategy misidentifies the exact nature of the regime and thus prescribes suboptimal, if not totally off-the-mark, policies. Facing China’s threats, Americans are, understandably enough, frightened with the illusion of communism.
China’s nakedly invasive hegemonism and imperialist colonialism, particularly to its “near abroad,” are not unique to the communist regime, but are continually found in the historic Sino-centric world, where dynasties rose and fell according to the cyclical pattern of expansion and contraction, and of centralization and decentralization in tandem with natural and social catastrophes.
The dynamics resulted from a chain of the vicious cycles of destruction of natural environment, overpopulation, natural disasters, famine, mass movements of refugees, large-scale uprisings and wars, among other events.
Dynastic official records justify the dynamics as a shift of the mandate of heaven from one imperial family to another, whereas the Sino-centric order and the imperial system remained essentially intact.
More notably, a Chinese dynasty, when small and weak vis-a-vis kingdoms on the periphery, had to keep a low-profile external policy, while avoiding military confrontation. Once sufficiently large and strong, a Chinese empire invaded and conquered. There were continual pendulum shifts in external orientation, while the tributary system helped stabilize the Sino-centric order when China proper as its core was neither soft nor hard.
Yet, the fear of social catastrophes led to persistent popular expectation toward a strong and stable Chinese empire under benevolent and competent emperors, which ironically reinforced propensity toward external expansion, overtaxation, and natural and social catastrophes. Evidently, this interactive causation forms the basic feature of China’s macro-historical pattern.
Furthermore, the running of such an imperial system necessitated the centralization of power at the emperors. Yet, they inevitably relied on mandarins in the outer part of the imperial court to govern a huge and complex system. Thus, emperors concurrently made use of eunuchs in the inner court as a counterweight.
The aforementioned macro-historic dynamics and its epiphenomena make much more sense than the Cold War metaphor in grasping today’s China under Chinese President Xi Jinping (習近平). The country remains fully bound by similar dynamics, in that, despite its nominal designation, the communist regime constitutes a de facto dynasty.
Communist China underwent serious destruction of the natural environment during the Great Leap Forward (1958-1962) and social catastrophe during a nationwide upheaval during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), both under Mao Zedong’s (毛澤東) imperial-chairmanship. At the time, when it was miserably impoverished and weak in world politics, the regime kept a low-profile approach to aggrandize its economic, technological and, thereupon, military power in an attempt to catch up with the declining US hegemony. With some significant attainment of the objective, the regime has swiftly shifted from the four-decade-long accommodative approach to nakedly aggressive external behavior.
Meanwhile, China has been trapped in a chain of the accelerating vicious cycles toward natural and social catastrophes. Consequently, it has become a super-sized, but internally hyper-vulnerable power.
As expected, Xi first played himself up as a benevolent and competent top leader who purges predatory state and party officials through a series of anti-corruption campaigns, while selectively targeting his political opponents to strengthen his power position. He then abolished term limits of the regime’s top leadership through a constitutional amendment, replacing the collective leadership with his personal dictatorship. Apparently, he is emulating Mao and historic emperors. Similarly, he has centralized his power by chairing several informal key “leading small groups” under the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee in important policy issues, such as security, finance and anti-corruption, among others. Xi’s evolving leadership style is isomorphic to that of historic emperors.
China is a problem not because it is red, but because it is China. This is crystal clear to Tibetans, Uighurs, Inner Mongolians and other ethnic minorities who have suffered unspeakable oppression, by both historic and communist China.
Certainly, China’s aggressiveness has to be countered, but, as long as anti-communism is employed as a key policy concept, Trump’s new China strategy will likely misfire.
Masahiro Matsumura is a professor of international politics at St Andrew’s University in Osaka, Japan.
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