Provocative analysis inspires fresh look at Sino-US power strife

The writer underplays China's aggressiveness in South and East China Seas and across Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China

The title of Kishore Mahbubani’s book poses a provocative question: Has China won? As a national of Singapore and a member of their diplomatic service he brings a uniquely empathetic perspective on China and its power contest with the US. Writing in 2020 he assumed that the world would proceed on a linear path. But that did not happen. Covid-19 upended the economic growth assumptions. Then the Ukraine War left China tied to the Russian leg just as its relations with the West were beginning to be closely examined. What also could not be foreseen was the electoral rout of Donald Trump and the emergence of a stabilising Joe Biden.

Mahbubani’s reasoning is nevertheless worth a read as he tries to decipher the roots of Sino-US friction. He notes, too, the points of convergence between the two, which logically should make them partners. But the basic assumption of China’s inevitable rise and the US edge wearing off is no longer accepted by many analysts globally. The absence of Chinese President Xi Jinping from the G20 New Delhi summit indicated a China coping with domestic economic challenges and heightened international resistance to its trade practices as well as unilateral territorial claims — maritime and continental.

The writer underplays China’s aggressiveness in South and East China Seas and across Line of Actual Control (LAC) between India and China. He relies on Chinese history to argue that, even when Chinese power was at a peak pre-1840, it did not try to expand territorially beyond its Chinese civilisational footprint. The counter to that argument is that China of that period did not have global rivals like the US, whose influence it needed to restrict or replace in order to be treated as a predominant power. It was then inward-looking and as a result suffered when it did little to counter the rise of the colonial powers. It does not want to repeat that mistake. Its current phase of global power acquisition is in a contested environment.

Mahbubani’s assessment of the US is correct on many counts, especially when he illustrates the dissipation of the great American dream with the middle class regressing economically. But his pessimism about the US regaining its edge vis-a-vis China is premature. The writer’s thesis is already being contradicted by the US steadily re-strengthening its existing alliances like Nato as well as crafting new mini-alliances like AUKUS, linking it to Australia and the UK. Joe Biden has also invested heavily in India playing a big role in balancing China’s muscle-flexing. Quad combines India and Japan to Australia and the US. Thus the key theory about China’s inevitable and peaceful rise is already questionable.

The areas of Sino-US convergence chosen by the writer are interesting. He is correct that cooperation between the two major powers is critical to managing climate change. He is also correct that China does not pose an ideological challenge to the Western nations, as the USSR did. However, he underestimated the ability of the US and its allies to de-risk trade and technology links with China. Europe has been slower than the US to tighten Chinese investment and technology transfers, but has gradually and mostly aligned with the US approach. Even Mahbubani concedes that by its strong-arm tactics against foreign investors China has upset the very entities that had a vested interest in better relations between China and their countries.

A lot depends on the path US politics takes hereafter. If Donald Trump is re-elected all bets are off on the nature of global power rebalancing. President Joe Biden has had to balance the US's handling of China’s assertive rise and Russia’s breach of its commitment to the UN charter in Ukraine. Regarding China, he has fine-tuned the crude tactics of his predecessor, though following its basic direction.

Mr Mahbubani has largely ignored the role of India in the Asia of the mid-21st century. The jury is out on whether the Chinese economy can regain its higher growth path. The technology denial regimes of the West will hamper China’s self-reliance and centrality to global supply-chains. India can benefit exactly as China did post its entry into WTO in 2001 by attracting investment and trade.

The obvious lesson from reading the book is that divining the future is an imperfect science, especially regarding global developments. However, Mahbubani’s book provokes the reader to look at China afresh and beyond the stereotypical assessment. The debate over socio-economic development in a democracy versus in an autocratic state is interesting. China’s meritocracy is also presented as a civilisational outcome that enables better governance than in many democratic nations. Late Chinese Prime Minister Zhou Enlai remarked about the success of the French Revolution that it was too early to tell. The same can be said about the state of play between India, China and the US.

Has China Won? The Chinese Challenge to American Primacy
By Kishore Mahbubani
Public Affairs
pp. 285; Rs 699

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