Napoleon Bonaparte once described China as “a sleeping giant. Let her sleep, for when she wakes she will move the world.” Since Deng Xiao Ping roused China and opened it to the world, Beijing has bided its time and has refused to take a leadership role in international affairs. Building a rich and prosperous country first was paramount in achieving “The Chinese Dream” of national rejuvenation. But once it has the strength, how will China achieve this elusive dream? Will it seek hegemony of its own? Will it challenge the rules? Was China’s relentless pursuit of economic development, part of a larger plan to overthrow the United States (US) and the liberal international order, in hopes of restoring China as the middle kingdom, from which it can impose its “China model” on the rest of the world?
After the recent changes to China’s Constitution – most notable of which was the removal of the two-term presidential limits –it is clear that the giant has not only awoken; it has done its morning stretches, had its breakfast and is now ready to roam the world. This latest entrenchment of power in President Xi Jin Ping has been met with widespread concern amongst the Chinese people and its leadership. But amongst foreign nations and international markets, the reaction has been muted: our own Foreign Minister Julie Bishop confined this issue to “a matter for China”. The foreign policy consequences of President Xi’s move have evidently been underestimated; this is a matter for the world.
So why would President Xi move in this way at the risk of causing unrest among his people? Is it for domestic political reasons? Or is this an announcement to the United States (US) and the world that one-party rule and the autocratic state are here to stay – that there is a successful alternative to the liberal international order and China is its champion. Regardless of the intentions, for President Xi, an indefinite presidency does not necessarily increase his power; it pales in comparison to his power as General Secretary (which has no limit, except the implied 68 age limit). But the Chinese President has more direct channels of communication with foreign leaders than a General Secretary. He is the face of China in international affairs. This constitutional change forges a path for President Xi to continue representing China as the head of international diplomacy for the foreseeable future.
As a result, presidency for life will facilitate a consistent implementation of long-term foreign policy goals: reunification with Taiwan; mending ethnic divides; resolving the South China Sea dispute; consolidating the “One Belt and One Road” initiative; gathering support for the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB); and establishment of the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP). China now has the resources, and possibly the power to achieve these aspirations. The only thing that is missing is the moral high-ground that will allow it to justify its actions: soft power. The dissemination of a Chinese alternative to the western liberal international order will be fundamental to attaining soft power.
This Chinese alternative is grounded on its distinctive development approach. Foremost, is the principle of non-interference, distinguishing itself from the liberal interventionist character of America’s leadership; and an emphasis on mutual, harmonious, innovative, economic development that provides “win-win” solutions and a pledge to “never pursue hegemony or expansion, nor seek to create spheres of influence.” It portrays itself as a defender and spokesperson for disadvantaged and developing countries like Africa; and while other countries condemn its human rights abuses, China maintains a human rights agenda that begins and ends with economic development. It promotes free trade and economic globalisation as the best method to lift countries out of poverty, mimicking its own developmental path. Ultimately, China regards itself as seeking to democratise international relations by giving developing countries an equal voice in the construction of the international order, and by helping create a harmonious, free-market community grounded in mutual economic development.
Whether China’s intentions are as benign or successful as it claims, the narrative that China is constructing a new hegemony in conflict with the US is gaining more credibility. Whether it be the AIIB (Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank), an alternative to the World Bank; or the RCEP (Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership) an alternative to the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement), historical allies from Britain to the Philippines have supported China’s initiatives. Likewise, developing countries like Africa and Kazakhstan have embraced China’s offers of financial aid rather than seek it from an America. By pursuing economics as a priority, China has created a parallel order, a power comprised of trade deals, infrastructure and mutual benefit. Its assurances of non-interference and mutual respect, can present an enticing alternative to developing countries fed up with US dominance. To attain soft power, a country needs a long-term plan and stability at the head. Perhaps, this is the true impetus for President Xi’s consolidation of power.
The removal of the presidential limits heralds that China has an international diplomatic policy for the long-term, and this is the first step in its implementation. From this moment on, China’s true intentions will be revealed: is it a country that seeks a community of equal countries united by mutual gain or is this a return to great power politics? The sleeping giant has awoken, and now it will move the world.
Alex Tu is an intern with the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW. He is in his final year of a Juris Doctor at the University of Sydney, previously completing a Bachelor of International and Global Studies (Chinese Studies & Government and International Relations). In 2013 & 2014, he spent 2 months on short term exchange at Peking University to study Chinese. Last year, he also did a one month intensive at East China University of Political Science studying Chinese Law. He has a passion for Chinese culture, history and its law with a strong focus on international law.