China's political mindset about international politics is at a turning point, one that could mark the beginning of a new role for China in global affairs.
On December 27, 2014, the Chinese press reported a speech by Vice Premier Wang Yang, entitled, "The United States is the guide of the world; China is willing to join this system." In the text, Wang Yang reportedly said, "China and United States are global economic partners, but America is the guide of the world. America already has the leading system and its rules; China is willing to join the system and respect those rules and hopes to play a constructive role."
These statements mark a stark contrast from the times when China seemed extremely suspicious of America's hegemonic role in the world. Implicitly, China now appears to admit that America has the leading role in the world and to be willing to work with it. It is a change, it may have many implications; at least for now it is in a positive direction.
The speech does not give any explanation for the dramatic change of heart by the Chinese leadership; it is not clear, in fact, what brought it about. However, it is clear that, after the recent successful meeting between presidents Barack Obama and Xi Jinping at the APEC summit in Beijing, this is the next step. At the APEC meeting, the two sides agreed on a number of issues that had been pretty irksome in previous years. In many ways, after many years of strong distrust, the meeting between might have succeeded in turning a new leaf in bilateral relations.
U.S. President Barack Obama and Chinese President Xi Jinping pose together at the APEC meeting in Beijing, November 10, 2014. (Image source: RT YouTube video screenshot)
This change goes beyond the idea floated some years ago of a "G2" (a US-China special relationship). The G2 idea was based on faulty thinking: of U.S.-Chinese ties as isolated from the rest of the world. This time, the concept is more comprehensive, and in many ways reassuring, because it accepts US leadership for both the U.S. and for the many countries that feared being left out of the new strong bond between Washington and Beijing.
As for the reasons the change occurred, we can only infer them. There are possibly a number of historical and political reasons that brought about the Chinese change of heart. There could, possibly, have been a new historical analysis — the way the Chinese love to think about problems: that there is a sense of history which changes according to civilizations; the Chinese have their own, Indians have their own, and so on — that helped form this new mindset.
The United States inherited a leading role in the world from the British Empire, which took it on from the French, and before them the Dutch in the late 17th century, who took it on from the Spanish, who first started the globalization process with the discovery of America in the late 15th century.
America, in other words, inherited a world shaped by values and rules conceived of by Western countries for over 500 years. Before the discovery of America, the world worked in different major areas: Europe, India, China, for instance, but with only loose connections between one another. The discovery of America for the first time made an effort in connecting all sides. These values and rules are largely alien to China's historical tradition, yet they are widely accepted not only by Western countries, but also by the world at large. China seems to have realized the extreme difficulty of simply barging into a world already shaped by centuries of traditions alien to it. Moreover, since the fall of the Qing Empire about a century ago, these Western traditions had already partially entered Chinese political discourse. Since then, the foundation of the People's Republic has been organized according to Western Marxist values.
With a mindset shaped by economic calculations, the Chinese may have realized that challenging this present system, toppling it, and replacing it with something more "Chinese" could be an extremely risky and costly proposition. China may have concluded that, in the process, it might well be defeated or suffer great losses; that it would be much more effective and economical just to join the system and play a constructive role while slowly and steadily introducing Chinese tenets For thousands of years they have thrived without many ties with the West, why should they now accept all the Western values into their system?
Political concerns also possibly helped shape the new thinking. The Chinese, along with everyone else, saw the U.S. completely defeat the USSR in the Cold War, even though the USSR was much stronger scientifically and politically than China is now. The USSR had been at the center of a vast web of allied states; it had an appealing ideology that made inroads among many intellectuals and working people of the Western world, and it had "converted" many of them to "Soviet beliefs." China has no allies, no system of values or any ideology making inroads in the West; it is pretty isolated. So, politically, if it were to engage in a head-on confrontation with the Western world, the outcome could be even worse than that with the USSR.
As further proof, one could look at the extreme difficulties of Russia now as it tries to confront America. Despite the fact that Washington is coming out of 14 years of setbacks and poor political management in the Middle East and Central Asia, it still has quite easily managed to put Moscow on the defensive over Ukraine. Russia's invasion may not be over, but Putin has been put on the defensive. This is already a result visible to China, and may well have been enough to lead it to a new way of thinking.
The final element is the massive rebound in 2014 of the American economy, officially recording growth of about 5% at the end of 2014. The Chinese are still wondering what made America grow so much in one year. What is clear is that the development of new technologies and the ability to innovate and blaze new trails in economic growth is playing a huge role. The new technologies for extracting oil and gas through fracking, to store and save energy -- such as batteries for Tesla cars, which look as if they could revolutionize the auto industry -- have impressed a whole new dynamic into America's economic system and geopolitics. The Middle East, which, thanks to its oil reserves, was so crucial to the global economy until a couple of years ago, has largely been sidelined. In addition, the present plunge in oil prices seems to beckon a new season of cheap energy, which could spur unforetold developments in many areas.
This expansion, plus possible investments in rebuilding America's poor infrastructure, could boost growth in the future. Those potential improvements are all signs that America's decline might not be inevitable, as many pundits worldwide recently predicted, and may well have led China to underscore the necessity of treading carefully and not underestimating Washington's capabilities.
On the political side, this change of heart underscores, internally, President Xi's new clout in politics. He managed to shelve critics with different views on foreign policy. These differing views, and the difficulty in finding a unified voice, have been plaguing Chinese foreign policy for virtually two decades.
The new position of Wang Yang can, in fact, be seen as a result of internal party cleansing. According to a report by Xinhua News Agency on December 29, the Politburo of the Communist Party announced that, "within the party there will be absolutely no tolerance for factionalism and gangs; no way to use the party to pursue individual benefits or to form gangs and cliques."
Furthermore, Xi's new stance -- admitting the influence and role of the U.S. in the world -- in a way could be a late response to Obama's policies toward China in 2009. Immediately after his election, Obama seemed to offer China a sweeping opportunity for cooperation. This offer was received in a lukewarm fashion by Beijing, then plagued by deep rifts on crucial political choices. Now, of course, times and conditions are different, but Xi, in more than one way, seems to be trying to set the clock back -- and forward.
It is still too early to see how these statements will play out. The U.S. now may be less ready to welcome a Chinese opening, and the world largely seems far more confused than just six years ago. Moreover, no one is yet clear, possibly not even the Chinese, what the meaning to the existing world order of the "constructive contributions," mentioned by Wang Yang, will be.