As the dust settles on the 21st century, it has become more evident that global politics has a new player on the field, and ignoring its rise is no longer an option. The China of today starkly contrasts with that of the early 2000s, a time when the United States spearheaded a unipolar world order that unabashedly championed liberal engagement and facilitated the rise of the present-day Asian economic powerhouse. Under the leadership of Xi Jinping, China’s global influence has grown significantly, marked by a departure from its longstanding stance of neutrality towards a more assertive and at times confrontational approach.
One example of this shift has recently been evidenced in China’s recent 12-point document urging for a ceasefire and peace talks between Moscow and Kyiv, which highlights the document’s emphasis on the dysfunctionality of Western sanctions and the perceived “Cold War mentality.” Concurrently, China’s Foreign Minister, Qin Gang, has expressed scepticism regarding the Ukraine crisis, suggesting that it may be the result of “invisible hands” seeking to prolong and exacerbate the conflict.
“Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented severe challenges to our country’s development,” said Jinping, by uncovering this “invisible hand”.
The recent publication of the “US Hegemony and Perils” report by the Chinese Foreign Ministry has garnered attention for its comprehensive and critical analysis of various aspects of American global leadership. This report is noteworthy not only for its tone but also for its wide-ranging coverage of political, economic, military, technological, and cultural topics. The report specifically identifies the US as the main culprit of the long-standing climate of chaos in regions ranging from Ukraine to Iraq and Yemen.
Other reports from the Chinese Foreign Ministry published on February also criticise the US for issues related to weapons and drugs. This multi-faceted critique represents an unprecedented momentum in China’s aspiration to articulate its growing dissent regarding the US-led international system, resonating the possibility of conflict. “If the US does not hit the brakes but continues to speed down the wrong path, no amount of guardrail can prevent derailing, and there will surely be conflict and confrontation,” said Chinese Foreign Minister Qin Gang.
At the outset, it is evident that contemporary China is distinct from its early 2000s counterpart, and as such, there exists no room for American dominance in President Xi’s world. Consequently, we must contemplate the nature of the world that China envisions. However, contrary to what some argued, it is unnecessary to delve into President Xi Jinping’s profound ideological beliefs, historical materialism, Marxism, or the intellectual debates of the archaic Maoist era. Assuming that the behaviours of global actors are driven solely by ideological considerations would imply that a conciliatory leader succeeding Xi would bring about a more composed foreign policy trajectory for China, which is not a viable possibility in Xi’s worldview that completely reflects a realist, power-centric playbook.
The central issue at hand is not the complex theoretical discussions or admitted remarks on regime types that leaders publicly speak. Accordingly, it appears that British PM Rishi Sunak’s remarks on the rise of authoritarianism and the end of the UK-China “golden age” may actually serve as a smokescreen for advocating containment of China as it challenges the traditional power structures in Asia. Similarly, while President Obama had previously expressed concerns over human rights violations in China, his administration did pursue constructive engagement and refrained from containment until the Trump administration initiated a trade war.
The shift towards containment of China can be attributed to a unique factor that sets it apart from China of the past. Surprisingly, the United States, after the Cold War, unwittingly created a conducive environment for the rise of China. China has taken full advantage of this situation by using economic cooperation as a gateway to enhance its visibility and reputation worldwide. An example of this strategy can be seen in the China-GCC Summit held in December 2022. It is important to note that although it may be difficult to predict significant changes in the long-standing oil diplomacy between the US and the Gulf, which primarily hinges on oil exchange for security guarantee, China’s pivot to the Gulf will not be limited to economic cooperation, as the common security partnership was one of the highlighted themes.
The expanding Chinese influence in Africa has created a situation akin to the one about the Gulf. The trade volume between them skyrocketed to a staggering $282 billion in 2022, highlighting the strengthening economic ties. Furthermore, China’s presence in the African continent has been amplified by its establishment of military bases and sale of defense equipment. It would not come as a surprise that this development could lead to China’s regional dominance being realised first in Africa, rather than in the Asia-Pacific region.
The US must come to terms with the fact that it has played a significant role in creating the conditions that have led to this predicament. As China continues to assert itself on the global stage, it challenges the Western monopoly of the global order and the foreign policy prescriptions designed with the unstable premises of liberalism three decades ago. While China may continue to express its commitment to the UN Charter, its actions will likely be guided by its own interest-based playbook. The path forward is unclear, and only time will tell how these competing powers will navigate the shifting geopolitical landscape. However, one thing is certain: There is no room for American supremacy in the Xi’s world.