China – the next superpower

By Seymour Topping

As we look to the future, to our security in a turbulent world, there is no greater imperative than determining how the United States will relate to the People’s Republic of China as it rises to economic, political and military superpower status. Will it be a mutually beneficial partnership, as President Barack Obama has proposed, or a rivalry harmful to peace and global economic stability? As of now, there is no certainty. There are paradoxes and misconceptions that cloud the future relationship. Americans in general have diverse views on China – admiration for its economic development (some 600 million of its 1.4 billion people have been lifted out of poverty), concern about impairment of human rights by its authoritarian government and trepidation about its large-scale military buildup in the Western Pacific.

The economy

To fully appreciate what has been accomplished, one must look back at the living conditions common under the Chiang Kai-shek regime. I witnessed those conditions as a correspondent from 1946 to 1949 when I covered the Civil War between Chiang’s Nationalist forces and the Communists led by Mao Zedong. I recall vividly the depressing scenes of 1946 on the cobblestone streets of Beijing. Numerous beggar families roamed the city or camped beside the walled houses of the more affluent, hoping for scraps of food to be thrown to them. The traffic, apart from cars of foreign officials, was made of ramshackle old European vehicles, animal carts, rickshaws, bicycles and occasional caravans of camels and donkeys in from the Gobi Desert. Conditions in the outlying villages bossed by warlords and corrupt local officials were abominable.

In contrast, in Beijing today, as in other major cities, there are no longer beggars on the city streets and people generally are well-clothed and look vigorous. In the shops, you see evidence of a growing, vibrant consumer-oriented middle class. The heavy street traffic reflects the country’s position as the largest car market in the world. Modern office buildings and high-rise housing frame attractive tree-lined avenues.

China’s economy now ranks second in size only to that of the United States. There are analysts who predict that China will overtake the United States in the next few years. This seems to me unlikely, given the severe internal problems confronting the country, which will tend to hamper growth unless major restructuring reforms are undertaken.

The new skyscrapers, smart shops and shopping malls obscure the reality that a huge income gap persists between the wealthy and the majority of the population. Some 128 million peasants were recently listed as poor. The One Child Policy has left China with an aging population. Growth will also be limited by basic internal endemic problems, such a lack of natural resources, notably fossil fuels for energy, and a critical shortage of usable water, particularly in the northern part of the country.

Wen Jiabao, a former prime minister, has said that the shortage of water threatens the “very survival of the Chinese nation.” A monumental water project is now under way to divert water from the Yangtze River to the Yellow River in the north. It will not solve the overall problem, which continues to be aggravated by pollution of the river systems. Choking pollution generally has become even more severe since 1971 when Premier Zhou Enlai characterized it as the country’s most serious problem. During 2011, China spewed an estimated 27 percent of the global carbon dioxide emission and is expected before long to double that of the United States.

Economic growth is now faltering from its extraordinary rate of recent years, having spurted dramatically with the introduction of free urban consumer market reforms in the 1970s by Deng Xioping. However, this market has continued to operate within the framework of state ownership of banks and major industries. It is a stifling form of state capitalism, depressing private initiative and innovation, which has also given rise to corruption among managers that the government and Communist Party are openly struggling with.

Paradoxically, despite its internal problems, China is the largest holder abroad of U.S. Treasuries, worth about $1.28 trillion. The accumulation stems largely from a highly favorable balance of trade, as evidenced by the broad range of Chinese goods found in American shops. The Treasury holdings – together with large investments in the United States, everything from apartments in New York City to software companies – has given China a large stake in the continuing health of the American economy. That’s why there were expressions of alarm recently in Beijing when the debt ceiling political deadlock in Washington, D.C. raised the specter of default.

The politics

In 1946, I visited the caves of Yenan, Mao’s headquarters during the Civil War, and interviewed Communist Party leaders about their plans for future development. They emphasized the need for adherence to the Leninist thesis, that given the physical burdens of supporting China’s enormous population, the Communist Party must exercise absolute sovereignty – total control of the society to ensure the stability needed to attain the required development goals. Political opposition was not to be tolerated. This has translated for the Chinese people politically and ideologically into one-party rule, a judiciary subordinate to party officials, strict censorship of the media and curbs on free speech. In recent years, hundreds of citizen protests, mainly by peasants demonstrating against seizure of their land without adequate compensation by local officials, have been put down harshly by security forces to maintain so-called stability.

In mid-November, under the leadership of President and party boss Xi Jinping, a Third Plenum meeting of the top leadership of the Communist Party concluded with promises of major economic and social reforms, although without relaxation of the absolute political controls of the party or of its censorship policies. Indeed, to implement the restructuring reforms meant to bolster the sagging economy, the absolute power of Xi Jinping is to be further strengthened and centralized. Still, the Plenum proposals call for wider free market participation by private interests in areas now dominated by state-owned enterprises. Farmers will be freer to sell or mortgage their land and curbs will be imposed on the arbitrary controls of agricultural land exercised by local officials.

Alarmed by the prospect of an eventual shortage of young labor, the One Child Policy will be eased to allow two children for couples where one parent was born an only child. The current aging of the population in the absence of the traditional family customs will not provide an adequate standard of living for elders. The notorious “Re-education Through Labor” camps – which have been used to incarcerate an estimated 200,000 people, including political and religious activists, as well as petty criminals, usually without trial – will be abolished.

The search for reliable resources abroad, such as oil, rather than ideology, has been the dominant motivating factor in Beijing’s foreign policies. The expanding presence of China in Latin America and Africa has been looked upon with suspicion in some capitals. Yet there is little evidence that these policies are designed to gain influence for political purposes. The aims are more efforts to consolidate access to raw materials, notably oil. The motivating factors in the volatile disputes with Japan, Vietnam and the Philippines over possession of the tiny islands in the East and South China seas, which have also heightened tensions with the United States, has more to do with intentions to exploit the potential of resources, such as oil and gas from below off-shore waters, rather than for strategic purposes.

Internally, repression of the Tibetan self-rule movement has more to do with assuring retention of the yet largely unmined mineral wealth of the region than political or cultural differences with the Buddhist population. A seven-year survey that began in 1999 revealed vast deposits of metal ores in Tibet.

The military

The world drew an uneasy breath when China purchased an old Russian aircraft carrier, fearing the beginnings of a navy that would challenge American maritime supremacy in the Western Pacific. In reality, lacking naval strength, China looks to the U.S. Navy to protect the sea routes to its vital Middle Eastern oil sources from piracy or other disruptions. China tankers supply about 58 percent of the country’s huge and fast-growing volume of oil imports.

The focus of China’s military buildup, however, has been on implanting anti-ship missile launching sites along its coasts capable of demolishing U.S. naval vessels should they be deployed to resist any attempt by the mainland to take over Taiwan militarily, or in a wider conflict, blockade the exposed Chinese coastal ports. The expanding China armory also includes anti-satellite weapons and long-range missiles capable of striking American Pacific bases.

According to a Pentagon assessment, these developments add up to the most active land-based ballistic and cruise missile program in the world. China also fields 2.3 million active military personnel, the largest armed forces in the world. No doubt many of these units are intended for internal security and control.

While Washington’s tensions with Beijing persist over continued delivery of American arms to Taiwan, the fact is that danger of armed conflict over Taiwan has lessened. Relations between the mainland and Taiwan have improved dramatically with large investments by Taiwan in the mainland and a vast increase in business and tourist cross-strait traffic. Beijing has adhered to a policy of “peaceful attraction,” first publicly stated by Premier Zhou Enlai in an interview with me in 1971. The possibility of an outbreak of military conflict between China and the United States also seems very remote when consideration is given to Beijing’s blessing the presence of more than 125,000 of its brightest youngsters in American educational institutions. Or consider that China is still the best customer for U.S. Treasuries and the major importance of trade to both countries.

Nevertheless, there is a competition for influence in the Western Pacific where the United States has been the leading power. Taking account of the Chinese military buildup and as a backup to regional allies such as Japan, South Korea and the Philippines, Obama has asked Congress to shift the emphasis of military armaments spending to Asia-Pacific in what has been dubbed the Pivot Policy. Construction has begun on a new base in Australia to be garrisoned by about 2,500 Marines.

The Obama Administration dramatically underlined the American intention to remain a leading power in the region in November when, in a surprise move, China demarcated a section of the East China Sea as a new air-defense zone. Its so-called zone extended over the tiny Senkaku islands to which both China and Japan lay territorial claim. Beijing promulgated regulations, requiring pilots of all foreign aircraft to identify their planes and flight plans upon entering the zone. Washington responded quickly to this usurping of international waters by sending two B-52 bombers into the area ignoring the regulations, which call for reporting of their presence to China monitors. Japan and South Korea followed the American lead. China scrambled fighter planes, which spotted the planes but took no hostile action. The episode did, however, raise the specter of a possible miscalculation that could lead to armed conflict.

The future

There is no absolute formula for ensuring that there will develop a lasting partnership, as Obama proposes, even as China continues to ascend to global superpower status. Competition and differences to some degree between the world’s two great poles of economic and military power may be inevitable. Yet peace and mutual well-being can be assured through frequent and comprehensive dialogue between Beijing and Washington and free economic and cultural exchanges between the two countries. Basic cooperation between the two great powers is a prerequisite for the safeguarding of the planet in this age of sectarian conflict, nuclear proliferation and global warming. Progress is, in fact, being made on these priorities.

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