Superpowers come and go. In the last century, quite a few Great Powers as they were called are shadows of the past. History records blunders, unnecessary conflicts, and above all, flat-footed diplomacy. China is making all the same moves.
The world has been far less than impressed with Donald Trump’s boorish, talent-less, systematic antagonising of allies. He’s a monument to diplomatic ineptitude. Instead of capitalising on Trump’s endlessly annoying behaviour, China is doing much the same things.
It’s an odd sight to see. The Chinese do good business around the world. They’re winning the trade war without firing a shot, thanks to US tariffs and a polarised America which seems at war with itself on just about every subject. But China seems to have lost sight of the big picture in ongoing diplomatic spats about relatively trivial things.
China’s current hyperreactive state is getting messier and more complex by the second. New, annoying issues are opening up like Spring flowers:
- The South China Sea remains volatile. It’s a saga of disputes and territorialism, but it’s hardly endearing China to the affected nations. These islands are very close to Chinese home waters, but even so, they’ve taken on a life of their own as a constant distraction to relationships. Other Chinese moves in the Pacific have also generated some heat in relationships.
- The proposed coronavirus enquiry has been perhaps deliberately misread in China on a purely political, not scientific, basis. That may make sense to cadres somewhere in an office in Beijing, but as a practical response to a serious global health threat, it leaves a lot to be desired. This damn virus could well crash the global economy yet, and it’s come close. There’s absolutely nothing to be said for not doing the science.
- Taiwan remains an issue, understandably so, but it’s an easy point to score against a China which is treading on so many toes so often.
- The cyberwar, hacking, and “state actors” in cyberspace is a genuine cause for grievance. China’s response to perhaps tens of thousands of complaints and protests has been absolute zero. That’s easy fodder for anti-Chinese rhetoric, and a rather astonishing oversight diplomatically. The cyberwar has done a lot to undermine trust in China’s good faith.
- The overarching “China or the US” mantra in global diplomacy is getting old, stale and above all, extremely annoying to everyone else. This us or them approach can go nowhere, whether it takes days or decades. Global trade and relations simply can’t work like that anymore. The world is now economically and logistically integrated, (if very sloppily), to the point that everything from the New Silk Road to basic trade can be negatively affected by too many “incidents”.
- Trade also includes another problem. If America’s baffling descent into pre-war protectionism and ancient tariffs has infuriated the world, China doing the same thing is no better. Penalising countries, directly or indirectly, for their longstanding relations with the US, for example, misses the points on just about every single trade and relationship reality.
History is Dangerous
It’s not exactly diplomatic to remind China of its insular Imperial past. Sorry (to a degree), but it has to be done in this case. It’s an unpleasant subject a best, but it would be hypocritical not to make this point – Chinese emperors shut out the outside world, with hideous consequences.
At that time, when the West was trying to open up trade with China, China was the undisputed world’s economic superpower. They decided they didn’t need trade with the world. The barbarians could take it or leave it, was the response. It backfired, horrifically.
The tale of woe goes that they missed out on the technology and even the trade they needed to progress for the next few centuries. China was at a horrible disadvantage, technologically.
The huge wealth of China literally evaporated in the Opium Wars and related local issues. (That’s a very much too oversimplified version of a horrendous time in Chinese history. In practice, China squandered opportunities and stagnated, causing massive social upheaval and the fall of the Qing Dynasty.)
It was a catastrophic series of mistakes, made much worse by the effectively criminal behaviour of the colonial powers. China suffered horribly on a scale which makes even World War 2 in Europe look relatively benign in some ways. The resentment remains in China, if usually unstated to foreigners.
The irony of the historical analogy is that the world badly underestimated China. In a couple of decades, China reinvented its economy, and became the giant it is today. It’s an astonishing, unparalleled success story.
The further irony is far less inspiring in the current climate, China succeeded through excellent trade, great relationships, practical solutions, and with a minimum of political issues. Hard work, including some pretty laborious solving of relationship issues with the United States, achieved these things.
Now, China is doing the exact opposite? Everything is a problem? Every word in some tiresome partisan Western press statement is a big, insurmountable crisis? Every criticism, pig-ignorant or otherwise, is a diplomatic row? In the name of better Spring rolls, what on Earth for? What use is it to anyone, particularly China?
There’s a Chinese expression, “hiding a dagger in a smile”. It means the friendly-looking smile is dishonest and dangerous. Hiding a smile in a dagger means you don’t even see the smile, just the sharp, nasty-looking dagger. The blade conducts the relationship. It’s a matter of opinion which is worse, but neither can lead to anything good for anyone.