First of three parts
THE growing rivalry between sole superpower United States of America and emerging power People’s Republic of China has been shaping the contours of international relations in recent years. How did it come about?
The collapse of communism in Eastern Europe in 1989 and the subsequent disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991 ended the Cold War. While this landmark event has solidified the US position as the world’s dominant power, it also gave rise to questions on whether America would slide into isolationism or be “strategically engaged” in the global stage.
Succeeding American presidents manifested US presence in their respective ways. But it was President Barack Obama, in particular, who made it evidently clear that the US is globally involved and in an expansive way, at that. Thousands of American troops are stationed in bases abroad, from Germany to the Middle East down to Japan and South Korea. The US is committed to counter terrorism, the Islamic jihadist struggle of al-Qaeda and the Taliban threat in Afghanistan. Currently, America is trying to thwart the ambition of the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), a breakaway group of al-Qaeda, to establish a “caliphate” in the Middle East.
In his foreign policy speech in May 2014 at West Point, Obama proclaimed America as the “indispensable nation” and affirmed “American exceptionalism.” Despite its recent economic woes, the US is still the force to reckon with—politically, economically, militarily and culturally. On the other side of the fence, China, the most populous nation on earth with 1.3 billion people, has acquired power and influence commensurate with its size. A backward and impoverished land, China was declared a communist nation by Mao Zedong sixty-five (65) years ago. In 1978, Deng Xiaoping introduced economic reforms that opened China to foreign investment. Since then China has achieved unprecedented economic progress and is now awash in superlatives: the world’s second biggest economy (and will soon replace the US as the biggest), the biggest exporter, the biggest consumer by 2015, and has the biggest foreign exchange reserves at over $2 trillion, 800 billion of which is held in US Treasury bonds. Its enormous economic power is being complemented by a zealous drive to upgrade its military capability. China’s People’s Liberation Army has 2.3 million members.
China has characterized its ascendancy as “peaceful rise,” a term that induces puzzlement when viewed from the standpoint of its assertive and bellicose claims and actions in the South China Sea.
Soon after he assumed the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party in November 2012, President Xi Jinping adopted “China Dream” as his mantra to revive the erstwhile Chinese Empire epithet of Middle Kingdom, which connotes feudal suzerainty and China’s supposed location at the center of the earth. Painfully aware of his country’s humiliation when Western powers were carving their respective spheres of influence in Chinese territory (the so-called “cutting up of the Chinese melon”) during the bygone period of colonialism, Xi wants China to be respected for its honored place in civilization and to be treated as a world power. He seems to be secure in the knowledge that China now has the wherewithal to compete with the US in the global arena.
Undeniably, both the US and China possess hard power and soft power. Prof. Joseph S. Nye, Jr. of Harvard University defines hard power as a country’s ability to coerce on account of its military or economic might while soft power denotes a country’s ability to get what it wants through the attractiveness of its culture, political ideals and policies.
China has been employing soft power to win adherents in Africa, Latin America and Asia through its aid, investment and building activities in these places.
To be continued
The second and third parts of this series will come out in the PAFI Ambassadors Corner column on Jan 17 and Jan 24 respectively.