The re-emergence of China as a global power does raise a number of questions on what grand strategy China may chose, how China’s power is managed, and what the consequences may be. Against a backdrop of intense, often quarrelsome debate about these issues, five power predicaments facing China must be acknowledged.
•First is how to evaluate its power accurately.
China is still a conflicted country since how people define, measure and observe “rising” would lead to their different conclusions about the existence and pace of China’s rise.
The country is the world’s most populous nation, the biggest trader, the biggest recipient of foreign direct investment, and the second largest economy (in gross domestic product at purchasing power parity per capita). Nevertheless, its G.D.P. per capita and human development level (a United Nations ranking of standard of living) are respectively 120 and 101 in the world.
China has limited resources on a per capita basis, and a rapidly aging population, with more than 700 million living in rural areas and 150 million under the poverty line (people living on less than $2 per day account for 36 percent of the overall population).
• Second is how to translate its power resources into real power and influence.
Power resources are one thing, power and influence are another. Due to its population size, growing G.D.P. and military spending, China does possess vast power resources, but it still has a long way to go to equal those of the United States, especially in “soft power” — the attractiveness of political values and civil society.
In the coming decade, the mechanism of translating power resources into real power should be much more complicated. Moreover, most assessments of Chinese power resources are based on linear projections, while China’s growth is unbalanced and unsustainable in the long term, and environmental and social factors could considerably hinder its future development.
•Third is how to exercise power properly and effectively.
We are living in an era of great change, in a remarkably “plastic” moment of world history, due to the ongoing power shift and power diffusion. The nature of power is evolving and shifting. One country cannot be truly powerful unless it becomes the hub of networks and skillful in forging connections with relevant players.
China is still unfamiliar with these new power games.
The complex web of national security threats facing China underscores the need for greater efforts to integrate the strategic tools of diplomacy, defense and development. What is more, China has not yet found a way of utilize “civil power” in achieving sustainable diplomatic successes.
•Fourth is how to share power and reassure other countries.
It is inevitable that China’s military power will increase so long as its economy and global interests grows, and this will make China appear more dangerous. That in turn could prompt the formation of countervailing coalitions, which would undermine China’s power position.
Indeed, the Middle Kingdom is at a disadvantage geopolitically and lacks the historical experience of sharing power and practicing multilateralism.
While the Chinese truly believe in their declared peaceful intentions, they have yet to convince others, especially the United States and Asian neighbors. China needs to boost its participation in multilateral forums and readjust its approach to stress the sincerity of its commitment to peaceful development.
•The fifth and final predicament is how to conserve power and avoid strategic myopia and exhaustion.
The biggest temptation for a powerful country is to use power, or rather squander power. For China, it is necessary, albeit challenging, to maintain a strategic restraint over the coming years in light of its territorial disputes with neighboring countries, rising nationalism and growing diversity in foreign policy making.
A successful strategy for China ought to be milieu-oriented rather than position-oriented. It would be costly and self-defeating if China mistakenly came to regard any one country as the overarching threat and focused on competing for primacy instead of investing in a favorable external environment.
If China is to accept that “more is not always better” in terms of power accumulation, it needs to change its behavior, values and policies to handle its growing power capabilities and curb its imperialistic impulses.
China needs to learn to listen and to do more to embed itself in the open and rule-based world order, to which there is no alternative.
At the same time, the international community should better understand China’s anxieties, aspirations and difficulties in keeping itself fed and modernized, as well as its complex power predicaments.
An exaggerated fear of China’s capacities and intentions can itself become a cause of conflict and lead to tragic results. China’s entry into the world must be accompanied by a new dynamic of mutual accommodation with that world.
Minghao Zhao is a research fellow at the China Center for Contemporary World Studies, the think tank of the International Department of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China. The views expressed in this article are his own.