Apart from the protracted trade war between US and China representing divergences in material pursuits, irreconcilability between the two powers has also surfaced in the realm of values. American intervention in support of values such as liberal democracy and human rights conflicts with norms that China seeks to defend such as sovereignty and non-interference.
China recently suspended visits by US Navy ships and aircraft to Hong Kong after Washington passed legislation backing pro-democracy protesters, and slapped sanctions on a number of US human-rights groups. Chinese scholars and leaders alike view human rights and liberal democracy as Western rather than universal values and consider America’s promotion of these values primarily as a way to sustain its hegemony and weaken contending powers. Conflict over values indicates divergences in perceptions and apprehensions of each other’s power, interests and role in regional and global order rather than any irreconcilability between two sets of eternal values.
The global reach of American power versus China’s is ascertained by a disproportional arsenal of nuclear weapons, an unmatched air force, and oversized defense budgets, as well as allies with substantial military capabilities in China’s neighborhood to hobble Beijing’s power ambitions, whereas China clearly lacks the strategic presence and capabilities to check the American power position across the globe.
However, a shift in the global balance of power was observed in the domain of economy and threat perceptions when China’s state-directed economy withstood the global financial crisis of 2008-09 while Western economies tumbled. Gradually, the rise of China was accompanied by the establishment of alternative financial institutions that gathered momentum without US support or presence. For instance, the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has 97 members compared with the Japan-led and Manila-based Asian Development Bank’s 68 members. The Beijing-headquartered AIIB is the first multilateral investment bank where the two economic powerhouses Japan and the US are not represented.
China also began relying more on BRICS, the Group of Twenty, G77, the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, and regional trade arrangements, which undermined the predominance of institutionalized American power embedded within the World Bank and the International Monetary Fund.
While the US under President Donald Trump withdrew from multilateral arrangements such as the Iran nuclear deal, the UN Human Rights Council, the Paris climate agreement and the UN Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO), China sought to invigorate its role in multilateral forums. For instance, China turned out to be the largest contributor of peacekeepers among the five permanent United Nations Security Council members and the UN’s second-largest funder. China is also an active participant in the dispute-settlement mechanism of the World Trade Organization.
China also began to step up its influence in the turbulent West Asia region where the US power position appeared to be flagging. For instance, President Xi Jinping pledged US$20 billion in loans for economic development to Arab states in July 2018. Beijing, in its bid to strengthen its diplomatic foothold in the region and galvanize support for its one-China policy, criticized US actions in the Middle East such as the Iraq war, and affirmed China’s support for an independent Palestinian state, blaming Washington for disrupting the peace process by recognizing disputed Jerusalem as Israel’s capital. Besides, going by official sources and statements made by the former head of US Africa Command, it can be argued that Chinese influence in Africa is considered a significant threat to US security interests, specifically considering the fact that 39 of 54 African states are currently stakeholders of the Belt and Road Initiative.
The spillover of China’s economic influence has permeated its diplomatic network abroad. Current statistics suggest that Beijing has surpassed Washington in terms of diplomatic posts abroad. In contrast to China’s 276 diplomatic posts – including embassies, consulates, and permanent missions to international organizations – the US has 273. The fact that of China’s 96 consulates, 41 are in Asia and 28 in Europe points to the link between its enhanced economic clout and concomitant strengthening of diplomatic network.
Further, the proclaimed Chinese objective of insulating its cyberspace through erecting a robust cyber-defense system and ensuring its security from US data encroachments has led to spiraling of speculations as to Beijing’s intentions. While concerns have been expressed as to the Chinese strategy of walling off and denying accessibility to Western observers, its domestic policies and human-rights records are under continued US scrutiny, and American threat perceptions are also noticeable over the Chinese investment in advanced technology and research and development that could turn it into a global power in the near future.
Statistics reveal that China’s investment in research and development has grown by an average of 20% a year since 1999 and currently accounts for 20% of total world R&D spending. It is believed that advancements in the field of technology will enable China to turn its growing economic and diplomatic engagements into strategic gains by allowing domination over information, discourse and norms while denying space for the US to influence. The American suspicions are aggravated by the Chinese plan to include Digital Silk Road as an integral part of the larger Belt and Road Initiative, through which Chinese tech companies could export internet infrastructure as well as surveillance technology to countries throughout Asia, in the Gulf, and across Africa.
Nonetheless, China’s rising economic power has enabled it to pour money into media outlets such as the China Global Television Network, Xinhua and other state-run platforms to spread the norms of sovereignty, non-interference and President Xi’s oft-stated call for a “community of common destiny for mankind.” It has been observed how China rolled out a strategy to change the narrative on Hong Kong’s ongoing protests by dominating the discourse in European media. An expert has noted how the Chinese embassies in Central and Eastern Europe approached local media with an offer to publish an ambassador’s op-ed or an interview with the head of the embassy promoting the official “real account” on the protests.
While currently China poses a challenge in the Indo-Pacific region with ground-based ballistic missiles, aircraft, and ships that could damage US air bases and aircraft carriers, it is far from challenging America’s global influence. However, China’s ability to establish alternative financial institutions free from US influence, enhanced participation in the UN and other multilateral initiatives, growing diplomatic network and ability to shape norms and discourse in wider regions accompanied by a relative decline of American power have engendered more speculation about the global reach and potential of China.