Geopolitics: enmity, rapprochement, concrete political or military decisions besides straightforward interests are often based on perceptions and influenced by the (lack of) understanding of the counterpart. That is what call the geopolitics of perceptions which is probably more important than we think. It is true in the Sino-European relations that have a long history.
What would we see if we took a quick look at China’s few thousand years of history? A vast country with a sophisticated culture, which for thousands of years was miles ahead of the rest of the world both in terms of wealth and intellectual achievements. A people that gave the world porcelain, gunpowder, paper, the compass, steel-making and the printing press. A country that managed to protect its territory from invading barbarians for long centuries. A country that at one time considered itself so developed and perfect that it sealed its doors off to the outside world, much to its own misfortune. But, one day, China’s splendid isolation was disturbed as men from the faraway continent of Europe appeared. More and more arrived on bigger and bigger ships guns. Even the most knowledgeable of the European had a limited understanding of China and its people at that time. David Hume considered non-whites (including the Chinese) to be inferior peoples. Immanuel Kant believed that the Chinese race was a mix of Hindi Indians and Mongols.
Zhongguo or ”Central Kingdom”, i.e. the middle of the universe — this is what China is to the Chinese. Surrounded by devils: black devils in Africa and dog-headed big-nosed ones in Europe. Social autism and a tendency to isolationism, which caused China’s 19th-century decline, have always been characteristic of this great nation, the most ancient of all living cultures. Chinese culture has had an impact on all of Asia for thousands of years and since the Middle Ages (the European “Middle Ages” that is) on Europe too. China, as is so often the case, only looks homogeneous from a distance. There may be no borders, but this continent of a country is just as diverse genetically, linguistically and culturally as Europe. In the light of its heterogeneity and size, it is even more amazing that China is the oldest political unit in the world.
One of the secrets is that the elite exercising political control has always been the sole holder of all wealth, law and justice. The political function has always dominated the way Chinese society is organized. There have never been separate religious, economic or military elites as was customary in Europe. Political power is the absolute power in China, and the one and only focus of this political power is the state. This is something we must keep in mind when assessing today’s China with its malformed democracy and uncompromising immense state projects. In China there is hardly any public opinion, there are only decisions and implementation. The Himalayas keep China conveniently closed off from the West and India. Westerners must accept that China is different from our Indo-European cultures: the way it sees the world, politics, arts, law and religion is completely different. God and property are sacred values in the West — not in China. We seek the truth, the moral, the punchline, all of which are worthless to a Chinese. Westerners and Indians divide the world into categories; the Chinese see the world as dynamic, accidental and symbolic. How postmodern, one might say, using a Western term.
The relationship between China and Europe has always been shaped by two factors. The first one, distance, proved to be insuperable for a long time but was surmounted with the help of modern technology and improved transport. The second one, trade, remains a central element of Sino-European relations. Trade links between the two continents can be traced all the way back to early Christianity. The volume of goods transported on the famous Silk Road showed a considerable imbalance from the beginning and all Rome could offer in return were precious metals and valuables. This trade imbalance has always been present, but today is caused by China’s role in the global supply chain rather than by its self-sufficiency.
Even a “What you need to know”-type abridged version of Chinese history would run longer than the New Testament, so I will only pick out a few interesting episodes. During the rule of the Yuan Dynasty (which was of Mongol origin) from 1271 to 1368, travel to China became easier as the areas between China and Western Asia were mostly controlled by Mongol khans. The gates of China opened to foreigners. Kublai Khan even sent his envoys to Pope Clement IV with a request for a hundred Christian missionaries to promote Christianity and Western sciences among the Mongols. The Venetian merchant Marco Polo was probably the best-known foreign visitor ever to set foot in China and Mongolia. He arrived in 1275. On his account, when the 21-year-old was led to the Khan, he offered his services to the great Khan, who accepted, eventually rewarding the young Venetian with senior administrative posts. He spent the next twenty or so years under Kublai Khan. Marco Polo was appointed a member of the Khan’s Privy Council in 1277 and for three years he was a tax inspector in Yanzhou. In his book on his epic journey, Marco Polo describes a flourishing, developed and wealthy China handed down from the late Song dynasty and yet unspoiled by Mongol rule.
The Travels of Marco Polo became a medieval bestseller, but readers did not take the book altogether seriously, nicknaming the traveler Marco Milione and his book Il Milione (The Million, probably hinting at the number of lies told). Just like modern readers, his contemporaries were skeptical about Marco Polo’s writings, which bore an uncanny resemblance to the works of Arab and Persian travelers of the time. An armchair scholar or a great traveler, undoubtedly he left his mark on European geography, literature and history. But Marco Polo was only the first of many Europeans who made the long trip to China. Still under the Yuan Dynasty, Pope Nicholas IV sent Giovanni da Montecorvino as a Roman legate to the Great Khan, and he was consecrated as the first archbishop of Peking in 1307. Mongol emperors, who never had an unclouded relationship with the Chinese they governed, had the habit of appointing foreigners to public office, opened China to foreign traders and allowed — sometimes even promoted — all kinds of strange new religions. The Yuan era was the last period of the Empire when China was not characterized by introversion. From the 15th century on, China practically sealed off its gates to the outside world.
Portuguese vessels first landed in China in 1514, followed by the Spanish in 1543 and the Dutch another five decades later. European missionaries tried for centuries to gain a foothold on Chinese soil. One of the most successful missionaries was the Italian Jesuit priest Matteo Ricci, who traveled around China disguised as a Buddhist monk before settling in Beijing in 1601. The Chinese were usually more interested in European technological innovations than spiritual dogmas (yet another Chinese trait we consider contemporary but in fact one with a very long history), and the Jesuits were happy to satisfy their curiosity. Ricci, who took the time and energy to learn about Chinese culture, introduced several technological novelties, among them the watch. He ended up being named the patron saint of Chinese watchmakers. Until the 19th century, Jesuits fulfilled an important cultural mission in the Chinese court, playing a vital role in the promotion of Europe’s cultural, scientific and technological achievements.
Between 1500 and 1800, China had a significant impact on the modernization of Europe. From the beginning of the 16th century, there were continuous and direct relations between Europe and China. Geoffrey Hudons labeled this period “China Besieged”, by which he meant that European nations drew a cordon around China both by sea and land but were never able to conquer it. In fact, European traders were restricted to a handful of ports, and although the Jesuits brought with them a superior knowledge of mathematics and astronomy, resulting in a more accurate calendar, European presence never left a lasting mark on the Chinese mentality.
The impact was much more significant the other way around: Europe was more influenced by China than vice versa. The reports of the Portuguese and Jesuits on China’s achievements in standards of living, urbanization, technology and governance had a major impact on Europe at the time of the Enlightenment. Leibniz and Voltaire, two key thinkers of the Enlightenment, were greatly influenced by Confucianism and Chinese philosophy. The philosopher Leibniz praised the Chinese for their efficiency in adapting ethics and politics to practical life. Voltaire was impressed in particular by the secular nature of Confucianism and by the absence of clerical influence within government. However, many idealized the example of China in their fight against the ancien regime. Similarly, in the 1960s, Western student movements adopted the rhetoric of Mao’s Cultural Revolution in their protests against the establishment.
China was not only used as a model in fighting the existing order; some Chinese ideals were used as a basis for new theories. One example is Francois Quesnay, who in the 18th century started out from his theory on ”natural order” and — influenced by Chinese philosophy — arrived at his economic doctrine of laissez faire. Others, such as Rousseau, were more critical of China. Nevertheless, China’s influence on the European continent at the time is unquestionable. The import of porcelain and tea established new social customs; the cult of Chinese products bred the fashion of chinoiserie, which spread from the affluent to the rising middle classes. Europe’s admiration for China stemmed from its perceived superiority but, by the end of the 18th century, people’s enthusiasm for all things Chinese faded due to the Enlightenment, the industrial revolution and China’s resistance to change.
It took several decades from the arrival of Portuguese vessels on the Chinese coast to establish serious trading links between Europe and China. In 1699, England set up a trade representation in Canton in South China, which became and remained the center of Chinese-Western trade for centuries. Despite earning a hefty profit from customs duties levied on goods going through the port of Canton, China tried to restrict and control foreign trade as much as it could. England, on the other hand, wanted to boost trade and gain more access to Chinese markets and ports. A British embassy sent in 1793 to the court of the Emperor was given a welcome befitting a barbarian king’s envoy offering submission, their gifts were considered as “tribute,” but the Emperor refused to listen to British demands. Apart from trade restrictions, Britain had another problem with China. While the West wanted tea, silk and porcelain from China, it had little to offer in return. European merchants had to pay in silver, the only commodity the Chinese would accept. As a result, a lot of European silver was ending up in Chinese pockets. China was one of the world’s biggest economies. (Curiously, history repeats itself: two hundred years on, the trade balance between China and the West looks uncannily similar. The West buys what China exports. It is not accidental that China had accumulated trillions of dollars in reserves by the beginning of the 21st century.) By the 1820s, however, the flow of silver to China was reversed as Britain found a product that tickled China’s fancy: opium. With contraband opium Britain could finally reverse the trade deficit and get its silver back.
By the end of the 19th century, China was no longer a remote, mysterious land sealed off from the outside world. With the help of its merchants and missionaries the West had penetrated the Great Wall. In the 19th century; China underwent a shock therapy of social, economic and intellectual changes and was repeatedly humiliated ignominiously by Europeans. A series of military defeats and embarrassing treaties delivered a serious blow to China’s national pride and traditional worldview. The disdain for foreigners shifted into anti-European sentiment and mass xenophobia. The most extreme example was the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. This popular uprising by the “Righteous Fists of Harmony” — called Boxers in the West — was a violent anti-imperialist, anti-Christian movement triggered by Western expansion into North China. The rebel leaders called for the death of all foreigners and Christians in the country. They went as far as murdering the German envoy, who was on his way to the Empress dowager. The rebels laid siege to the Legation Quarter in Beijing, where foreigners sought refuge. The poorly armed Boxer rebels were unable to break into the compound, which was relieved by European, Japanese and US troops, which quashed the rebellion. Under the terms of the Boxer Protocol, the West exacted enormous war reparations from China. Chinese customs duties and salt taxes were enlisted as guarantees of the indemnity, and the Legation Quarters occupied by foreigners were removed from Chinese jurisdiction.
In the second half of the 19th century, China went on the defensive against European aggression. One of the most shameful and sordid episodes in European history was Britain’s illicit opium trade, which happened with the tacit agreement of the Crown and generated fabulous profits. Some historians suggest that the British East India Company conducted extensive market research to find a moneymaker that it could offer in exchange for Chinese silver. They chose opium, which had been widely used in China as an analgesic drug for centuries, and using the same methods as drug cartels in the 20th century, started “pushing” opium and gradually built up the illicit drug trade. Opium consumption spread quickly throughout China, opium parlors proliferated, and by the 1830s drug trafficking was a major business. The East India Company, with its monopoly on opium production in India, had a nearly limitless supply, exporting 200 chests in 1729, 20,000 chests in 1860 and 100,000 chests in 1873. The Chinese government tried to curb the opium trade and the outflow of silver. A newly appointed Imperial commissioner confiscated and destroyed more than 20,000 chests of contraband opium in a large-scale crackdown in 1839. In response, the British blockaded the city of Canton and the First Opium War broke out. Faced with the superior British fleet and army, China was defeated and forced to sign an ignominious peace treaty in 1842. The Treaty of Nanking ceded Hong Kong to Great Britain and opened five key ports to British trade. With a series of unfair and unequal treaties the colonizing powers managed to open almost a hundred Chinese ports and over thirty concession zones. Still, the West could never take full control of this vast country, let alone make it an exclusive colony of a single power. Instead, the rival colonial empires each established their own areas of interest on Chinese territory.
Western powers, in particular Britain and France, exploiting the weakness of the Chinese Emperor and enjoying the support of Russia and the USA, launched a military campaign against the Chinese government, which became known as the Second Opium War (1856-60). Unable to resist the advancing British and French, the Chinese negotiated yet another Treaty. The Treaty of Tianjin, among others, opened additional ports to foreign trade and required China to pay considerable war reparations. Until the reparations were paid in full, Western powers would occupy the city of Tianjin and another two ports. As a result of the opium wars, China lost much of its sovereignty to foreign powers. The once great and proud Chinese Empire was forced into semi-colonial status.
To the Chinese the Opium Wars marked the beginning of long years of humiliation and exploitation by foreigners. This is the period where we find the roots of China’s mixed feelings towards the West: on the one hand, they admire the developed Western economy and technology as well as the achievements of Western civilization; on the other hand the idea of the “colonizing white man” especially British sends shivers down their spines and stirs animosity towards the West as a whole. When I visited the Chinese Foreign Ministry in 2014 my Chinese counterpart made a half-funny remark on his English interpreter, saying that “she speaks a very good English but she still needs to learn the American accent, as we prefer it to the British one around here.”
In the 19th century, Europe brought extensive and rapid changes to a country that had been stable for thousands of years and whose society, economy and culture had been used to slow, gradual change. Europe first knocked on the door, but China being reluctant to let the newcomer in, Europe kicked the door open. At the turn of the 19th century, China’s agriculture, which employed 80% of the 400-million strong population, still used ancient technology and obsolete methods. As the country’s population grew, the area of farmed land remained unchanged. Farming technology too was unchanged, well behind the times. Rural communities were largely self-sufficient, capable of producing little marketable surplus. These economic circumstances considerably limited urbanization and industrialization. What China was unable to do on its own, Europe did for her: the Chinese economy was in these years largely built with and therefore dominated by foreign capital. The banking system, shipping companies, railroad construction, mining, and certain industrial sectors, such as iron and steelmaking and textiles, all owed their birth to Western investment. The Chinese elite had to decide how much of the old China it could try to keep and how much of the West to accept for the sake of modernization. It remains a disputed question whether China would have been able to modernize itself without the West and whether the West fulfilled a mission by modernizing China or simply destroyed the old China.
Western ideas breached the Great Wall of China way before the Opium Wars: this process began with the translation of the Bible and other religious texts into Chinese. However, the translation of Western literature into the local language only began on a large scale in the early 19th century. At this time the Chinese elite became interested in the West, its military, industrial and technological advances, as well as its philosophy, political institutions, social structures and literature. Various schools of thought sought to copy Western models and modernize the traditional system of Confucianism. China sought to modernize itself to be able to keep up with the European invaders. But it was too late; China was unable to lift itself out of trouble. It proved too feeble and had fallen too far behind the West for such a bootstrapping act.
Europe’s position in China was considerably weakened by the two world wars and reached its lowest ebb during the Cold War. With the Cold War over a reunified Europe and an ever-changing China were given a new opportunity to reshape their bilateral relations. However, a new breaking point appeared alongside the traditional geopolitical opposition: Europe and China had drifted apart ideologically in the wake of Communism’s victory in China.
We have seen that throughout the 19th and 20th centuries Europe had a crucial impact on China. The key legacy of this period, which China refers to as “the century of shame and humiliation”, lay not so much in the military defeats and conquests as in the psychological and intellectual spillover effects. Before, the Chinese intelligentsia had always seen conquerors as barbarians who might have been superior in military terms but whose material and intellectual inferiority to Chinese civilization was unquestionable. In the wake of its defeats in the two Opium Wars, China realized that it faced an unprecedented historic challenge. Yet, the reasons behind China’s defeat were considered mainly technological; thus the solution was thought to be a better navy and improved weapons. The slogan, which held true for Mao’s China and continues to hold true today, is: modernization to the greatest extent possible in order to preserve the Chinese state and culture. In other words, changes necessitated by practical challenges are only accepted as long as they do not affect the core of the system.
Mao Zedong proclaimed the People’s Republic of China on 1 October 1949. The Middle Kingdom was transformed into a Communist dictatorship. Chinese policy, however, has come a long way in the last fifty years. While Stalin was a real father figure for Mao, Khrushchev was simply a distant cousin. After Mao’s death, China began dismantling the ideological and economic walls built around it. During the Cold War years, between 1949 and 1989, Sino-European relations were shaped by ideological opposition as much as by the two sides’ links with the superpowers. The relationship between NATO member countries and China was primarily defined by US foreign policy. Accordingly, relations are best described as icy until 1971, when US-Chinese relations were normalized (and even started improving). From that point on, Europe made advances towards China, remaining careful not to upset its sensitive links with the Soviet Union. China wished to amend ties with Europe to bypass the US embargo, and later, in the ’70s and ’80s, to gain access to European civilian and military technology as well as to reinforce its position vis-à-vis the Soviets.
From the 1970s, political and economic ties developed steadily. European countries re-established diplomatic representations in China, which pursued the policy of the “Three Worlds”. In the Three Worlds theory Europe belonged to the Second World, the middle element between the two superpowers of the First World and the developing countries of the Third World. The aim was to align Europe against the Soviet Union. But the huge political and ideological gap between China and Europe was a natural obstacle to such strategic cooperation. Later, economic reforms turned China’s attention to Eastern European countries, whose new economies were more similar to its own than Western Europe’s. Nonetheless, China did recognize the danger that Eastern European economic reforms and Gorbachev’s perestroika posed to its political system. The increasingly close relations between China and Europe were cut off abruptly with the Tiananmen Square shootings in 1989. Europe was hoping that China would soon follow in the footsteps of the Soviet Union and Eastern European regimes and the Communist system would dismantle. These sweeping political changes came as a shock . Once again, Europe and China became estranged. But the wounds healed rapidly and relations warmed up soon. The handover of Hong Kong in 1997 and of Macau in 1999 were symbolic. While China negotiated these handovers with the UK and Portugal, trade talks were conducted with the European Union. The years that followed marked a meteoric rise in trade relations. The EU became China’s number one trading partner and vice versa. But the biggest leap forward was that China relaxed its ideological rigidity as it entered the mainstream of global capitalism squaring the circle and reconcile capitalism and free markets with autocracy. In modern China, especially among the most dynamic social class of entrepreneurs, economic capitalism is no longer an obscene word; it is rather a model to imitate, the key to prosperity and progress.
Deeper meanings of the Hong Kong protests: Is China a gamechanger or yet another winner?
Does our history only appear overheated, while it is essentially calmly predetermined? Is it directional or conceivable, dialectic and eclectic or cyclical, and therefore cynical? Surely, our history warns. Does it also provide for a hope? Hence, what is in front of us: destiny or future?
Theory loves to teach us that extensive debates on what kind of economic system is most conductive to human wellbeing is what consumed most of our civilizational vertical. However, our history has a different say: It seems that the manipulation of the global political economy – far more than the introduction of ideologies – is the dominant and arguably more durable way that human elites usually conspired to build or break civilizations, as planned projects. Somewhere down the process, it deceived us, becoming the self-entrapment. How?
One of the biggest (nearly schizophrenic) dilemmas of liberalism, ever since David Hume and Adam Smith, was an insight into reality: Whether the world is essentially Hobbesian or Kantian. As postulated, the main task of any liberal state is to enable and maintain wealth of its nation, which of course rests upon wealthy individuals inhabiting the particular state. That imperative brought about another dilemma: if wealthy individual, the state will rob you, but in absence of it, the pauperized masses will mob you.
The invisible hand of Smith’s followers have found the satisfactory answer – sovereign debt. That ‘invention’ meant: relatively strong central government of the state. Instead of popular control through the democratic checks-&-balance mechanism, such a state should be rather heavily indebted. Debt – firstly to local merchants, than to foreigners – is a far more powerful deterrent, as it resides outside the popular check domain.
With such a mixed blessing, no empire can easily demonetize its legitimacy, and abandon its hierarchical but invisible and unconstitutional controls. This is how a debtor empire was born. A blessing or totalitarian curse? Let us briefly examine it.
The Soviet Union – much as (the pre-Deng’s) China itself – was far more of a classic continental military empire (overtly brutal; rigid, authoritative, anti-individual, apparent, secretive), while the US was more a financial-trading empire (covertly coercive; hierarchical, yet asocial, exploitive, pervasive, polarizing). On opposite sides of the globe and cognition, to each other they remained enigmatic, mysterious and incalculable: Bear of permafrost vs. Fish of the warm seas. Sparta vs. Athens. Rome vs. Phoenicia… However, common for the both was a super-appetite for omnipresence. Along with the price to pay for it.
Consequently, the Soviets went bankrupt by mid 1980s – they cracked under its own weight, imperially overstretched. So did the Americans – the ‘white man burden’ fractured them already by the Vietnam war, with the Nixon shock only officializing it. However, the US imperium managed to survive and to outlive the Soviets. How?
The United States, with its financial capital (or an outfoxing illusion of it), evolved into a debtor empire through the Wall Street guaranties. Titanium-made Sputnik vs. gold mine of printed-paper… Nothing epitomizes this better than the words of the longest serving US Federal Reserve’s boss, Alan Greenspan, who famously quoted J.B. Connally to then French President Jacques Chirac: “True, the dollar is our currency, but your problem”. Hegemony vs. hegemoney.
House of Cards
Conventional economic theory teaches us that money is a universal equivalent to all goods. Historically, currencies were a space and time-related, to say locality-dependent. However, like no currency ever before, the US dollar became – past the WWII – the universal equivalent to all other moneys of the world. According to history of currencies, the core component of the non-precious metals’ money is a so-called promissory note – intangible belief that,by any given point in future, a particular shiny paper (self-styled as money) will be smoothly exchanged for real goods.
Thus, roughly speaking, money is nothing else but a civilizational construct about imagined/projected tomorrow – that the next day (which nobody has ever seen in the history of humankind, but everybody operates with) definitely comes (i), and that this tomorrow will certainly be a better day then our yesterday or even our today (ii).
This and similar types of collective constructs (horizontal and vertical) over our social contracts hold society together as much as its economy keeps it alive and evolving. Hence, it is money that powers economy, but our blind faith in constructed (imagined) tomorrows and its alleged certainty is what empowers money.
Clearly, the universal equivalent of all equivalents – the US dollar – follows the same pattern: Bold and widely accepted promise. What does the US dollar promise when there is no gold cover attached to it ever since the time of Nixon shock of 1971?
Pentagon promises that the oceanic sea-lanes will remain opened (read: controlled by the US Navy), pathways unhindered, and that the most traded world’s commodity – oil, will be delivered. So, it is not a crude or its delivery what is a cover to the US dollar – it is a promise that oil of tomorrow will be deliverable. That is a real might of the US dollar, which in return finances Pentagon’s massive expenditures and shoulders its supremacy.
Admired and feared, Pentagon further fans our planetary belief in tomorrow’s deliverability – if we only keep our faith in dollar (and hydrocarbons’ energized economy), and so on and on in perpetuated circle of mutual reinforcements.
These two pillars of the US might from the East coast (the US Treasury/Wall Street and Pentagon) together with the two pillars of the West coast – both financed and amplified by the US dollar, and spread through the open sea-routs (Silicone Valley and Hollywood), are an essence of the US posture.
This very nature of power explains why the Americans have missed to take the mankind into completely other direction; towards the non-confrontational, decarbonized, de-monetized/de-financialized and de-psychologized, the self-realizing and green humankind. In short, to turn history into a moral success story. They had such a chance when, past the Gorbachev’s unconditional surrender of the Soviet bloc, and the Deng’s Copernicus-shift of China, the US – unconstrained as a lonely superpower – solely dictated terms of reference; our common destiny and direction/s to our future/s.
Winner is rarely a game-changer
Sadly enough, that was not the first missed opportunity for the US to soften and delay its forthcoming, imminent multidimensional imperial retreat. The very epilogue of the WWII meant a full security guaranty for the US: Geo-economically – 54% of anything manufactured in the world was carrying the Made in USA label, and geostrategically – the US had uninterruptedly enjoyed nearly a decade of the ‘nuclear monopoly’. Up to this very day, the US scores the biggest number of N-tests conducted, the largest stockpile of nuclear weaponry, and it represents the only power ever deploying this ‘ultimate weapon’ on other nation. To complete the irony, Americans enjoy geographic advantage like no other empire before. Save the US, as Ikenberry notes: “…every major power in the world lives in a crowded geopolitical neighborhood where shifts in power routinely provoke counterbalancing”. Look the map, at Russia or China and their packed surroundings. The US is blessed with its insular position, by neighboring oceans. All that should harbor tranquility, peace and prosperity, foresightedness.
Why the lonely might, an empire by invitation did not evolve into empire of relaxation, a generator of harmony? Why does it hold (extra-judicially) captive more political prisoners on Cuban soil than the badmouthed Cuban regime has ever had? Why does it remain obsessed with armament for at home and abroad? Why existential anxieties for at home and security challenges for abroad ? (Eg. 78% of all weaponry at disposal in the wider MENA theater is manufactured in the US, while domestically Americans – only for their civilian purpose – have 1,2 small arms pieces per capita.)
Why the fall of Berlin Wall 30 years ago marked a beginning of decades of stagnant or failing incomes in the US (and elsewhere in the OECD world) coupled with alarming inequalities. What are we talking about here; the inadequate intensity of our tireless confrontational push or about the false course of our civilizational direction?
Indeed, no successful and enduring empire does merely rely on coercion, be it abroad or at home. The grand design of every empire in past rested on a skillful calibration between obedience and initiative – at home, and between bandwagoning and engagement – abroad. In XXI century, one wins when one convinces not when one coerces. Hence, if unable to escape its inner logics and deeply-rooted appeal of confrontational nostalgia, the prevailing archrival is only a winner, rarely a game-changer.
To sum up; After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Americans accelerated expansion while waiting for (real or imagined) adversaries to further decline, ‘liberalize’ and bandwagon behind the US. Expansion is the path to security dictatum only exacerbated the problems afflicting the Pax Americana. That is how the capability of the US to maintain its order started to erode faster than the capacity of its opponents to challenge it. A classical imperial self-entrapment!!
The repeated failure to notice and recalibrate its imperial retreat brought the painful hangovers to Washington by the last presidential elections. Inability to manage the rising costs of sustaining the imperial order only increased the domestic popular revolt and political pressure to abandon its ‘mission’ altogether. Perfectly hitting the target to miss everything else …
Hence, Americans are not fixing the world any more. They are only managing its decline. Look at their (winner) footprint in former Yugoslavia, Afghanistan, Iraq, Libya and Syria – to mention but a few.
When the Soviets lost their own indigenous ideological matrix and maverick confrontational stance, and when the US dominated West missed to triumph although winning the Cold War, how to expect from the imitator to score the lasting moral or even amomentary economic victory?
Neither more confrontation and more carbons nor more weaponized trade and traded weapons will save our day. It failed in past, it will fail again any given day.
Interestingly, China opposed the I World, left the II in rift, and ever since Bandung of 1955 it neither won over nor (truly) joined the III Way. Today, many see it as a main contestant. But, where is a lasting success?
(The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is what the most attribute as an instrument of the Chinese planetary posture. Chinese leaders promised massive infrastructure projects all around by burning trillions of dollars. Still, numbers are more moderate. As the recent The II BRI Summit has shown, so far, Chinese companies had invested $90 worldwide. Seems, neither People’s Republic is as rich as many (wish to) think nor it will be able to finance its promised projects without seeking for a global private capital. Such a capital –if ever – will not flow without conditionalities. The Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and the BRICS or ‘New Development’ – Bank have some $150 billion at hand, and the Silk Road Infrastructure Fund (SRIF) has up to $40 billion. Chinese state and semi-private companies can access – according to the OECD estimates – just another $600 billion (much of it tight) from the home, state-controlled financial sector. That means that China runs short on the BRI deliveries worldwide. Ergo, either bad news to the (BRI) world or the conditionalities’ constrained China.)
Greening international relations along with a greening of economy – geopolitical and environmental understanding, de-acidification and relaxation is the only way out.
That necessitates both at once: less confrontation over the art-of-day technology and their monopolies’ redistribution (as preached by the Sino-American high priests of globalization) as well as the resolute work on the so-called Tesla-ian implosive/fusion-holistic systems(including free-energy technologies; carbon-sequestration; antigravity and self-navigational solutions; bioinformatics and nanorobotics). More of initiative than of obedience (including more public control over data hoovering). More effort to excellence (creation) than struggle for preeminence (partition).
Finally, no global leader has ever in history emerged from a shaky and distrustful neighborhood, or by offering a little bit more of the same in lieu of an innovative technological advancement. (Eg. many see the Chinese 5G as an illiberal innovation, which may end up servicing authoritarianism, anywhere. And indeed, the AI deep learning inspired by biological neurons (neural science) including its three methods: supervised, unsupervised and reinforced learning can end up used for the digital authoritarianism, predictive policing and manufactured social governance based on the bonus-malus behavioral social credits.)
Ergo, it all starts from within, from at home. Without support from a home base (including that of Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Tibet), there is no game changer. China’s home is Asia. Its size and its centrality along with its impressive output is constraining it enough.
Hence, it is not only a new, non-imitative, turn of technology what is needed. Without truly and sincerely embracing mechanisms such as the NaM, ASEAN and SAARC (eventually even the OSCE) and the main champions of multilateralism in Asia, those being India Indonesia and Japan first of all, China has no future of what is planetary awaited – the third force, a game-changer, lasting visionary and trusted global leader.
To varying degrees, but all throughout a premodern and modern history, nearly every world’s major foreign policy originator was dependent (and still depends) on what happens in, and to, Russia. It is not only a size, but also centrality of Russia that matters. It is as much (if not even more), as it is an omnipresence of the US and as it is a hyper production of the PR China.
Ergo, it is an uninterrupted flow of manufactured goods to the whole world, it is balancing of the oversized and centrally positioned one, and it is the ability to controllably destruct the way in and insert itself of the peripheral one. The oscillatory interplay of these three is what characterizes our days.
Uyghur asylum seeker puts international community on the spot
Ablikim Yusuf, a 53-year old Uyghur Muslim seeking a safe haven from potential Chinese persecution, landed this week in the United States, his new home.
But Mr. Yusuf’s perilous search that took him from Pakistan to Qatar to Bosnia Herzegovina where was refused entry and back to Qatar highlighted China’s inability to enforce its depiction of the brutal clampdown on Turkic Muslims in its troubled, north-western province of Xinjiang as a purely domestic matter.
Mr. Yusuf’s case also spotlighted the risk of increased mass migration in a world in which ethnic and religious minorities increasingly feel existentially threatened by civilizationalist policies pursued by illiberal and authoritarian leaders as well as supremacists, racists and far-right nationalist groups.
By choosing Qatar Airways and making Doha his first point of landing after leaving his residence in Pakistan, Mr. Yusuf further underscored the fragility of Muslim acquiescence in the Chinese clampdown and called into question application of Qatar’s asylum law. With the adoption of the law, Qatar last year became the first Arab state to legalize asylum.
While Mr. Yusuf is fortunate to have ended his ordeal with his arrival in the United States, his case accentuated the hypocrisy of the Trump administration that has demonized migrants and refugees and “weaponized” US human rights policy.
Mr. Yusuf’s plight serves the United States as it fights an escalating trade war with China and has made the clampdown in Xinjiang one of the opportunistically selected cases of human rights violations it is willing to emphasize.
Mr Yusuf put Qatar and the international community on the spot when he last weekend posted online a mobile phone video pleading for help hours before he was slated to be deported from Doha’s Hamad International Airport to Beijing.
The plea generated thousands of retweets by Uyghur activists and won him assistance from an American human rights lawyer and ultimately asylum in the US.
If deported to China, Mr. Yusuf would have risked being incarcerated in a re-education camp which has been an involuntary home for an estimated one million Uyghurs in China as part of what amounts to the worst assault on a faith in recent history.
China said last month that the majority of the detainees in what it describes as vocational training facilities had been released and “returned to society” but independent observers say there is no evidence that the camps are being emptied.
Mr. Yusuf decided to leave his home in Pakistan for safer pastures after Pakistan became one of up to 50 countries that signed a letter in support of the clampdown.
Concerned that Pakistan, the largest beneficiary of Chinese Belt and Road-related investment, could deport its Uyghur residents, Mr. Yusuf travelled on a Chinese travel document rather than a passport that was valid only for travel to China. China’s issuance of such documents is designed to force Uyghurs to return.
The travel document provided cover for Qatar’s initial decision to return him to China rather than potentially spark Chinese ire by granting him asylum. International pressure persuaded Qatar to give Mr. Yusuf the opportunity to find a country that would accept him.
China’s clampdown in Xinjiang is but the sharp edge of a global trend fuelled by the rise of leaders across the globe in countries ranging from the United States to China, Russia, India, Hungary, Turkey and Myanmar who think in civilizational terms, undermine minority rights, wittingly or unwittingly legitimize violence, and risk persuading large population groups to migrate in search of safer pastures.
Hate crimes have gripped the United States with critics of President Donald J. Trump charging, despite his explicit condemnation this week of white supremacism, that his hardline attitude and language when it comes to migrants and refugees has created an enabling environment.
Violence against Muslims in India, home to the world’s second largest Muslim community, has increased dramatically with 90 percent of religious hate crimes in the last decade having occurred since Narendra Modi became prime minister.
Some 750,000 Rohingya linger in Bangladeshi refugee camps after fleeing persecution in Myanmar while Islamophobia has become part of US, European and Chinese discourse and Jews in Europe fear a new wave of anti-Semitism.
Italy took efforts to counter migration that are likely to aggravate rather than alleviate a crisis a step further by adopting a law that would slap fines of up to US$1.12 million on those seeking to rescue migrants adrift at sea.
The Chinese clampdown that bars most Uyghurs from travel and seeks to force those abroad to return has so far spared the world yet another stream of people desperate to find a secure and safe home. The risk of an eventual Uyghur exodus remains with the fallout of the Chinese re-education effort yet to be seen.
Mr. Yusuf could well prove to be not only the tip of the Uyghur iceberg but of a future global crisis as a result of an international community that not only increasingly has turned its back on those in need but also pursues exclusionary rather than inclusionary policies.
China’s risky bets
China’s infrastructure and energy driven US$1 trillion Belt and Road initiative involves risky bets across a swath of land populated by often illiberal or autocratic governments exercising power without independent checks and balances.
Seeking to reduce risk, China is bumping up against the limits of its own long-standing foreign and defence policy principles, foremost among which its insistence on non-interference in the domestic affairs of others, the equivalent of the United States’ preference for stability rather than political change.
Anti-corruption sentiment fuelled the 2011 popular Arab revolts that toppled the leaders of Tunisia, Egypt, Libya and Yemen and are at the root of current anti-government protests across the globe in countries as far flung as Brazil, Haiti, Jamaica, Puerto Rico, Russia, Zambia, the Czech Republic, Albania and Romania
China’s risks were evident in the wake of the fall in 2011 of Col. Moammar Gaddafi when the post-revolt Libyan authorities advised China that it would be low on the totem pole as a result of its support of the ancien regime.
The risks are also evident with Baloch militants targeting Chinese assets and personnel in Pakistan.
To minimize the risk and expand its aggressive domestic anti-graft campaign, China’s top anti-corruption body, the Communist party’s Central Commission for Discipline Inspection (CCDI), is embedding inspectors in Belt and Road projects, who will be based in recipient countries.
The move helps China counter allegations that it exploits corruption in recipient Belt and Road countries to further its objectives.
Anti-corruption is a signature policy of president Xi Jinping and has allowed him to purge senior Chinese leaders as well as tens of thousands of low-level bureaucrats.
The CCDI is building on the success of a pilot project in Laos where it embedded in late 2017 inspectors in a US$6 billion railway project being built by state-owned China Railway Group. The anti-graft officials, working with the Chinese company, established a joint inspection team with their Laotian counterpart.
The question is whether the anti-corruption effort in countries like Laos or Central Asian nations that consistently rank in the bottom half of Transparency International’s corruption index will bump up against China’s non-interference principle.
Or in other words, can China successfully guard against corruption in Belt and Road projects without pressuring recipient countries to adopt broader transparency and anti-corruption measures?
“How can you strike hard on corruption here at home and give a free hand to Chinese people and business groups [that are] reckless abroad?” CCDI’s director-general for international co-operation La Yifan asked in a Financial Times interview.
Mr. La said China had organized seminars with more than 30 countries to link up anti-corruption regulators. “That is my dream, that we create a network of law enforcement of all these Belt and Road countries,” he said.
Imposing transparency and anti-corruption in Belt and Road partners would be the equivalent of all kinds of environmental, safety and human rights criteria that the United States haphazardly and opportunistically maintains in dealings with foreign countries that have been severely criticized by China.
China has long prided itself on what it terms win-win economic situations in which it imposes commercial terms that often primarily benefit the People’s Republic.
The terms, coupled with the clampdown on Turkic Muslims in China’s province of Xinjiang, has fuelled anti-Chinese sentiment in Turkey and Central Asia with their close ethnic and cultural ties to the troubled Chinese region.
Turkish officials highlighted these sensitivities by denying Chinese media reports that president Recep Tayyip Erdogan had praised the success of Beijing’s brutal approach in Xinjiang during a recent visit to China.
Muslim nations have largely remained silent about the clampdown that amounts to the most frontal assault on a faith in recent history or in some instances even tacitly endorsed it.
In the absence of democracy, “governments can manage their pro-Beijing stance without informing their public, but a pro-Beijing policy over the Uyghur issue can barely be sustained in Turkey. Turkey is still a functioning democracy and total control of the public is not possible. Besides, there is a very strong Uyghur lobby and public sentiment towards the Uyghurs in Turkey,” said Turkish Centre for Asia-Pacific Studies director Selcuk Colakoglu.
Taking its anti-corruption campaign global, raises the broader question of whether it would threaten a pillar of autocracy that China’s non-interference principle has de facto sought to perpetuate.
Political scientists Alexander Cooley and John Heathershaw argue that what they call the instruments of global authoritarianism — an army of largely Western bankers, lawyers, brokers and intermediaries that park illicitly gained monies in off-shore accounts and manage the investment of those funds – help keep autocrats in power.
The success of the globalization of China’s anti-corruption effort as well as its campaign to significantly reduce graft at home, would establish autocrats’ ability to satisfactorily deliver public goods and services alongside brute power as the cornerstone of their sustainability.
In doing so, it would give greater meaning to China’s assertion that it does not want to fundamentally alter the established multi-lateral world order but rather make it more equitable and more a reflection of a world that is multi- not unipolar.
It would also cement China’s model of economic reform and state capitalism without political liberalization as the example autocratic and authoritarian regimes want to emulate even if the jury is out on whether autocrats can remain relatively clean without a system of independent checks and balances.
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