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So China’s peaked and is now in decline? The West is engaging in wishful thinking if it really believes Beijing’s rise is over

Tom Fowdy
Tom Fowdy

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

is a British writer and analyst of politics and international relations with a primary focus on East Asia.

So China’s peaked and is now in decline? The West is engaging in wishful thinking if it really believes Beijing’s rise is over
Analysis posted in two influential American publications argues that China is on the wane, due to its economy slowing down and it facing pressure from the West. That’s fallacious nonsense rooted in ideological bias and fear.

On Saturday, Xi Jinping made a speech celebrating the 110th anniversary of the 1911 Revolution, an upheaval which brought an end to the Chinese Imperial system and established ‘The First Republic of China’. Although this state was not the start of the current People’s Republic, the legacy nonetheless remains important to China as it started the country on a path to modernization. 

Xi used the anniversary to commemorate what he described as “the national rejuvenation of China” and doubled down on the Taiwan issue, stating that “national reunification” was inevitable and in the best interests of the island. 

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Yet not all commentators are convinced about this “rejuvenation.” Last week, an article was published in Foreign Affairs, the influential US publication, written by Michael Beckley and Hal Brands and entitled ‘The End of China’s Rise – Beijing Is Running Out of Time to Remake the World’. The two authors then proceeded to post a similar article in Foreign Policy, called ‘China is a Declining Power – and That’s the Problem’. 

What is their argument in both pieces? That “China's economy is slowing down,” that the West is becoming hostile to China and pushing back, and that China's shift under Xi is detrimental to its rise. It then proceeds to argue that these factors are elevating the risk of war. 

Is China's rise over? Has it peaked? I don't think so. First of all, since when did opposition to a rising power mean that such a power was automatically no longer ‘rising’? This is a bizarre line of argument. It is a structural process of international relations that when one power rises, status quo powers feel insecure and seek to attain equilibrium in order to sustain balance against it. This has been a frequent story in history, where every single “rising power” has met resistance, irrespective of whether it succeeds in the end or not. Take the Kingdom of England, for example; as it transitioned from a medieval state into a modern colonial one in the Tudor Era, it experienced pushback from the Spanish Empire. 

Did this pushback from Madrid mean that England botched its own rise and was responsible for messing it up in the way China apparently is today? Or, likewise, had the rise of the US ‘peaked’ by the early 19th century because the British Empire opposed it and burned down Washington, DC in 1812? 

Of course, there are examples where rising would-be empires were halted by resistance, such as Napoleon and the Ottoman Empire, but the problem with this argument is that it is ahistorical, fatalist, and rooted in a contemporary ideological bias that ‘China must fail’. It also peddles a further flawed argument that China is failing because “it is responsible for a pushback against it,” which is a frequent mainstream media line used to manufacture consent for tough Western anti-China policies. It views events through how Western eyes want to see them, not necessarily how they actually are, and lacks any historical hindsight.

It is this precise lack of hindsight which exposes a logical fallacy: that the United States would have accepted a rising China in any circumstances, even if it were on preferential terms and conditions to its enormous power, which extends across an enormous spectrum of political systems, ideology, economics, and technology. Those who make this false argument omit the fact that China’s rise from 1978-2018 was made conditional on a belief that the Communist Party would reform and eventually collapse, not consolidate, as the Soviet Union did.

The blindingly obvious geopolitical reality is that America will not accept a rival power which diminishes its Pax-Americana unipolar control, which it has enjoyed since 1991, and which it believes is the inevitable, logical, and most desirable state for the world. 

It is not a surprise, therefore, that the US has accordingly sought to demonize China and enlist allies against it, and subsequently uses Beijing's own retaliations to this process as further cause to demonize it. For so-called expert analysts to opt for the argument that if China “did the right thing” it could rise to power without any pushback from Washington is silly, and presented in these articles in ludicrously bad faith. 

The mainstream Western media likes to say the US pushback on China is happening because of Hong Kong or Xinjiang, etc, but it fails to realize how these things have been propagated, or to recognize that, in any circumstances, the US would have always found something to blame, attack, and demonize a rising China for. 

Next, the articles move the goalposts by repeating the Washington trope that China is trying to remake the entire international system in its own image. In pretending that China aspires to make its own world order and destroy the US one, it’s easy to rally alarmed allies. But this isn’t what China is trying to do. Its preferences are much narrower and are primarily economic and security related, and while it’s true that this would change the global balance of power drastically if fulfilled, the US wouldn’t be disfigured or face a USSR-like outcome.

But the question still stands, has China peaked? When it comes to the details, this is also wishful thinking. China's military and technological capabilities continue to rise; there are no indications of a peak here. The US Navy now officially acknowledges that China has the world’s largest fleet. Its economy, for all the doom-mongering over electricity and real estate, is still forecasted to grow 7-8% in 2021, and it continues to export at ever-growing levels as foreign investors are not being put off by propaganda. If its GDP forecasts have been downgraded slightly, so have everyone else's. Does this sound like a country that has peaked? And has nothing left but frustration? 

Ultimately, opposition from a select few countries, who for the most part continue to seek economic ties with China anyway, does not equate to a decline or ‘peaking’. These erroneous conclusions from American ‘experts’ reveal Washington’s greatest fear, that the global balance of power is rapidly changing against it. That’s why the US is seeking to contain and thwart China’s rise in every way it can: it’s frightened of losing its hegemonic grip on the world.

The pieces also miss the point that things in politics can change very suddenly or unpredictably. It is a project of outcomes, not just trends. Take, for example, the Taiwan issue, which has been in the media over the weekend, given Xi placed maximum emphasis upon achieving its peaceful reunification with the mainland as part and parcel of the “national rejuvenation.” Logically speaking, if China finds a way to succeed with that, then the political shockwaves of this victory alone would be enough to permanently shift the global balance of power and affirm China's ‘rise’, while humiliating the West.

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Of course, there are a huge number of risks, downsides and improbabilities along the way, but that also serves as a warning that it is simply too premature to write China off. 

Such articles involve a process called ‘wishcasting’, where they signal their hopes of China's failure as reality. What we are seeing now is not a decline of China, but an outcome that was always awaiting it on the path it’s taken. It is silly to assume it is failing just because it didn’t evolve in the way the ideological preferences of the West wanted. 

So how will this important and fascinating struggle end? That’s what we can’t say. But what I do know – sorry to disappoint all those American armchair analysts – is that the game is far from up for Beijing.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.

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