Is China a Paper Tiger?
China is an evolving super power with world-wide ambitions of becoming a counterweight to the United States. Throughout the developing world, China is using its ‘non-aligned’ status to buy poor countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America in order to develop its own domestic economic power. The China of ten years ago is no longer the China of today under Xi’s leadership, for which he recently obtained an unprecedented third term. With change comes new responsibilities and difficulties. Xi’s China has morphed into what Mao rightly called ‘a paper tiger’. Quantitative increases in military might do not necessarily make for instant regional leverage in the South China sea and elsewhere on the planet.
China as a ‘peace-maker’ has filled part of the gap left by feckless Canadian governments as the latter exit the complicated multilateral world of diplomacy. China is back. The latest Chinese move to intervene in the conflict in Yemen is a good example. If China succeeds in bringing old enemies like Iran and Saudi Arabia to the table, then they will have developed a new epistemological revolution in modern diplomacy. Despite this, Beijing’s religious blinders do not foretell of such an enduring legacy. Experts on the Middle East observe national policy can easily transform into quicksand and Chinese strategic knowledge of the region may not be as efficient and all-encompassing as Beijing political planners would like to imagine.
What are the signposts of this new future for China? There are numerous positive signs for the super power of China – the Eurasian Silk road initiative, more multilateral diplomatic support from their new colonial settlements abroad, enhanced military power and no fear to use it to support diplomatic, political and economic vectors of growth.
However, there are some negative signs that should also be recognized. Taiwan is still independent of mainland China despite America’s two China policy, the war in Ukraine is severely testing China’s resilience and economic dependency upon Europe and the West, the Hong Kong legacy may become just a faint memory but it still sticks in the minds of free nations, and the Muslims, especially the Uyghurs, who still resist forced political collectivization.
Absent from Xi’s toolbox is the applied wisdom of the great Chinese warrior-philosopher Sun Tse (544-496 BC) and his teachings in the ‘Art of War’. As the Americans continue to bait Beijing with high level visits to Taiwan, Xi’s response is that of a paper tiger. Instead of heeding the wisdom and cleverness of Sun Tse, at each turn in the road, Xi has gone repeatedly to his military for an appropriate response. The American bait is Taiwan (see my article of 28 February ‘The Ukrainian Mousetrap’ in the Eurasia Review) and they have found an Achilles heel in Beijing’s Asian policy. If anyone thinks that Putin is able to convince India to change its conflictual policy with China, they are sadly mistaken. For China, peace with India to satisfy Russia makes little economic sense. India’s importation of Russian energy is insufficient to wean China off its Taiwan obsession. In this, the Americans have clearly understood even if they have to sacrifice the logic of their so-called two China policy. They have succeeded in infuriating Beijing and Xi’s military response reflects CCP diplomatic impotence. Once again, the paper tiger metaphor rears its ugly head.
Failure to resolve the Taiwan problem cannot be solved by flexing China’s military muscle. It reflects poorly on Xi’s leadership while distracting Beijing’s focus from other super power business. There are multiple border disputes, one of which involves China’s neighbour, India. Military power should be masked, not paraded in front of one’s foes. Such is the teaching of Sun Tse.
The fact that China is being governed by a single political party does not help to enlarge the radar and focus on solving issues. Unlike America and its allies, whose democracy is far from perfect, Beijing’s actions smack of super power unilateralism and are devoid of the influence of different loci of power within the Chinese political system. In America, for example, the political system is one of checks and balances with different partisan political objectives represented by different institutions. The apparent contradiction between the Republican Congress and the Democratic Senate and Presidency sends out contradictory signals which Beijing remains has difficulty interpreting. Unlike Sun Tze, Xi is unable to grasp the duplicity and strategic origin of America’s two-China policy. All he sees is America violating its own China policy by allowing unauthorized visits and measures to support Taiwan against his own ‘legitimate’ government.
The war in Ukraine is another example of Beijing’s cultural and political blindness. It is unable to capture the true nature of diplomatic messaging since it does not and can not engage in similar deception and subterfuge. The totalitarian system does not foster ‘other thinking’ in order to decipher the true nature of policies or messages. In order to punish the United States and its European allies, Xi has endangered Chinese economic markets in Europe while backing what appears more and more to be a losing gamble in Ukraine. Recent EU visits to Beijing like the one of French President Macron on April 6-8 illustrates the new stresses on the Chinese super power. The inability to effectively juggle the different priorities and desires of the warring parties in the Ukraine will ultimately be perceived as a failure. Change brings new peace-making responsibilities for which the CCP is barely able to cope, let alone recognize and facilitate.
China has not always been under the boot of the CCP. What is new is the ‘esprit de sérieux’ with which Beijing pursues its global strategy. General Sun Tze (544-496BC) in the ‘Art of War’, a book about battlefield strategies and the use of spies, describes the necessity for rulers of China to understand their own limitations and strengths while ensuring that those of their foes are also fully grasped. Xi’s international security choices and their consequences can now be perceived. In his quest to make China a superpower and rival the USA, Xi has robbed China of its only main advantage – deception. Instead of deception and stealth, Xi has launched China on a collision course with its main competitor(s). His cultural myopia has endangered China’s policy of retaking Taiwan. Even if he manages to successfully invade Taiwan, America is determined to give the Beijing government a firm lesson in diplomatic and military strategy. Taiwan may not be the Ukraine but its ability to resist is intact and Beijing will be able to say that it has been in a fight. And what will the world conclude about the new bellicose super power, one that, like Putin’s Russia, ends by making the world a far more dangerous place? So much for Xi’s peace-making role.
America will have won the hearts and minds battle not because of superior military power but due to the nature of their multifaceted democratic institutions. They permit the freedom of thought (dissent sometimes) required to conduct cogent foreign policy, which can mirror partisan contradictions and apparent inconsistencies. Sun Tzu could not have thought of it in more vivid terms. The message is not meant to be read like a military order or dispatch. Such is the nature of real diplomatic activity.
This is in contrast to ‘Lifting a rock only to drop it on one’s own feet’ according to a Chinese folk saying. In lifting the rock of tyranny and imperialism, has China gone astray and become reactionary as Mao predicts of all potential paper tigers? Has the CCP and its totalitarian ideology raised the specter of its own tyranny in the world?