Under Mao Zedong, China defined itself as a socialist country – albeit one with “Chinese characteristics”. But in the nearly 40 years since it began to “open up” under Deng Xiaoping in 1979, it has evolved into something much more puzzling. It has embraced capitalism to a large extent, though the state retains a relatively large role in the economy through planning and state-owned enterprises. But its political system remains authoritarian – as Richard McGregor puts in his book The Party, the Chinese state “still runs on Soviet hardware”. In fact, under Xi Jinping, it seems to be becoming more authoritarian. I wonder what George Orwell – one of my political heroes – would have made of it. It seems to me that China’s authoritarian capitalism was the exact opposite of what Orwell, who described himself as a democratic socialist, believed in.
Last month I took part in a workshop run by the Transatlantic Academy in Washington on the development of the relationship between China and Russia – and its consequences for the West. Immediately after the European Union and the United States imposed sanctions on Russia following the annexation of Crimea, President Vladimir Putin signed a series of trade deals with China, including a $400 billion deal to export Russian gas to China. Since then, the two countries have also agreed to “co-ordinate” the development of the Eurasian Economic Union and the Silk Road Economic Belt. Beyond China’s need for energy and Russia’s need to replace trade with, and investment from, Europe, the two countries also share an interest in challenging U.S. power and in creating a “multipolar world”. So should the West worry about a relationship? And if so, how should it respond?
In a recent article on relations between China and India by the historian Srinath Raghavan, I was struck by the following line: “Not since the late 19th century has infrastructure been so prominent an issue in great power relations.” Raghavan had in mind the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, China’s new alternative to the Asian Development Bank, which will be used to fund projects such as the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and the Silk Road Economic Belt. China presents them as futuristic projects that exemplify a “win-win” logic in international relations. But perhaps, as Raghavan’s reference to the late nineteenth century suggests, they are more old-fashioned and zero-sum than China’s liberal rhetoric suggests. In particular, the Silk Road Economic Belt – which will run from China through Central Asia to Europe – reminds me of nothing so much as the Berlin-Baghdad railway.
Since taking part in a study trip to Tokyo (which prompted me to write another post on Japan and the concept of “civilian power”) over the summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about the role of collective memory in international relations in Asia. In Tokyo, where we spent a week in discussions with policymakers and analysts from all over Asia, we talked a lot about history and the role it plays in tensions between Asian countries. In particular, there is an ongoing dispute between China and Japan over the Japanese occupation of Manchuria in 1931 and the Nanking massacre in 1937. This is particularly important because it plays into the dispute between China and Japan over the Senkaku islands, which the Chinese call the Diaoyu. There are also acrimonious disputes between Japan and Korea over issues such as the “comfort women” the Japanese forced into sexual slavery during World War II.
These days foreign-policy analysts – including my colleagues at the European Council on Foreign Relations – talk a lot about the prospect of a “post-Western” world. The idea is that, as rising powers like China and India emerge, the West is losing its dominance in global affairs. In some ways, this de-centering of the West may be no bad thing – in particular, it may lead to a more equal world. But because countries like China and India will also inevitably have different ideas than the West about how the international system should be run, the transition to a post-Western world will be more than just a redistribution of power from west to east. So what will happen to the idea of the West – the normative project about which Heinrich August Winkler writes? In other words, as the economic and political power of the West declines relatively, will the ideas that have emerged from it – and which inform the values for which it stands – also lose their traction? Does it matter if they do?