After 500 years of Western hegemony, has China managed to replicate the several “killer apps” that gave the West the edge over the rest? Niall Ferguson believes so.
Several emerging economies have now developed most of the technological, economic, cultural and scientific underpinnings that gave competitive advantage to the advanced market democracies, from competition and modern medicine to the work ethic and scientific innovation.
The balance of global power is shifting towards the East as Beijing starts to convert its economic wealth into political power through a new grand strategy he characterizes as the Four “Mores”:
Consume more, import more, invest abroad more and innovate more. In each case, a change of economic strategy pays a handsome geopolitical dividend.
But Ferguson declines to address the consequence of China’s failure to develop one of the essential “killer apps,” namely the rule of law and representative government – “This optimal system of social and political order emerged in the English-speaking world, based on property rights and the representation of property owners in elected legislatures.”
Democracy proved essential in stabilizing and legitimizing the West’s market democracies, and its absence will likely prove detrimental to sustaining or reconciling the multiple head-spinning contradictions of China’s Market-Leninism.
Beijing is energetically striving to convert economic leverage into political influence way beyond its borders.
The communist authorities have devoted considerable resources to influencing global opinion, not least in the developing “South”, notes a recent report from the Center for International Media Assistance, prompting influential voices to suggest that China’s developmental authoritarianism is an attractive and feasible alternative to liberal democracy.
“The perennial question about China’s rise is when will Beijing be able to translate its cash into power. In Cambodia, it already has,” writes The Washington Post’s John Pomfret.
He cites Phnom Penh’s deference on water supply, diplomatic recognition of Taiwan and the recent deportation of Uighur dissidents – and episode which confirms that China is not only projecting its soft power and influence to enhance its power and reputation, but also to undermine democratic standards.
In the Middle East, China’s drive for access to energy and raw materials is facilitated by the fact its foreign policy is “devoid of moral concerns,” note David Schenker and Christina Lin of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy.
“Indeed, the very absence of considerations other than national interest makes China an appealing partner to states in a region where authoritarianism is rife,” they write.
But Beijing is also finding that the aggressive projection of its economic clout and new-found soft power is not without problems, especially when cultural insensitivities provoke a local backlash.
A recent incident in which Chinese supervisors opened fire on Zambian workers protesting against labor rights abuses provides one example – and a case in which the money-for-influence nexus seems pretty blatant.
“The Chinese finance the ruling party, so the government is their captive,” said Lee Habasonda, the director of SACCORD, a pro-democracy NGO.
China played a pivotal role in determining the results of Zambia’s 2006 election, according to Joshua Kurlantzick, author of Charm Offensive: How China’s Soft Power Is Transforming the World.
“By suggesting to authoritarian rulers that China has perfected a model for rapid economic growth without concurrent political liberalization, Beijing offers hope for autocrats to remain in power,” he contends.
While China is currently ascendant, its developmental authoritarianism isn’t the only game in town, even in its own region, according to a new analysis. The Indian Ocean will be the world’s principal nexus of power and conflict, according to Robert D. Kaplan’s Monsoon: The Indian Ocean and the Future of American Power.
It is in this region – “volatile, nuclearized, and plagued by weak infrastructure and young populations tempted by extremism – that the fight for democracy, energy independence, and religious freedom will be lost or won,” he writes.
Kaplan “finds varying mixtures of economic dynamism, cultural diversity, ethnic tension, ecological strain and political turmoil,” notes Princeton University’s Aaron L. Friedberg, but:
He is most optimistic about those places (like India and Indonesia) that combine democratic institutions with decentralized administrative structures and cultures of tolerance. Those (like Pakistan and Myanmar) where authoritarian regimes seek to impose order on diverse populations will remain dangerously prone to radicalization, instability, violence and the possibility of internal collapse, external meddling or both. Some (like Bangladesh and Sri Lanka) could go either way.