Will 21st century China some day dominate Asia? Will it succeed in building its neighbourhood that which the United States, guided by the Monroe doctrine, built in the Americas in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries?
My betting is – No. There are ideological, geopolitical and economic factors that will prevent China from subjugating its Asian neighbours.
Ideologically, China presents a model, freshly clarified by Xi Jinping, based on two pillars: (i) the pre-eminence of a single party, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), in the organization of society and economic life; and (ii) its Maoist inheritance – the return of the cult of personality around the party leader – its head of state and of the armed forces.
Does this model have any chance of appealing to Asian audiences? After all, the CCP, a highly hierarchical mass organization of some 90 million members, can boast that it has become a mature party, responsible for more than 40 years of uninterrupted economic growth after, in 1976, it rid rid itself of its left wing as represented by the Gang of Four.
The reality is that this Chinese model – no political freedom but broad entrepreneurial freedom in a party-owned competitive system – has many more followers in Africa than it does in Asia.
Asians have had the opportunity to observe the errors of the Maoist system closely. It is a totalitarian regime where no entity can dismiss the “Great Helmsman” even when he commits the worst strategic errors. Initially, Mao Tse Tung was able to rely on the peasantry, save the core of the CCP through the Long March (1935), let his rivals Kuomintang exhaust themselves in their war against the Japanese, recover weapons abandoned by the Japanese army and, from 1949, benefit from Soviet aid without subjugation to Stalin.
But then he made the calamitous mistake of the forced agrarian collectivisations of the Great Leap Forward (1958-1960), which starved tens of millions of Chinese. Because his star had started to fade, and to purge the party of its potential detractors, in 1966, he launched the Cultural Revolution – a barbarism of the young “Red Guards” that threw the country into chaos.
To avoid repeating the same mistakes emanating from excessive personal power, Mao’s successors decided to limit presidential power to two five-year terms. But Xi Jinping has just walked past this limitation.
The Asian elites were not trained at the Montesquieu school. Nevertheless, they believe that the government of a country always needs a minimum of counter-powers – something that no longer exists in Beijing.
Politically, Xi Jinping’s China is perceived as a threat by his neighbours. They never accepted the forcible capture of the reefs and waters of the South China Sea (which is as large as the Mediterranean).
On 19 May, there were two important electoral results in Asia: the victories of the Hindu nationalist Narendra Modi in India and Scott Morrison’s Conservatives in Australia. Both prime ministers were re-elected on a programme of absolute firmness in relation to China. Facing China, the two countries have considerably modernised their navies and their armies.
May 22 will see the end of the naval maneouvres between India and Singapore (which controls the strategic Straits of Malacca, through which passes a third of world traffic and 90 per cent of Chinese traffic). Although populated by Chinese, Singaporean democracy has chosen which camp to join: that of the alliance of the four great democracies of the Asia-Pacific region (India, Japan, Australia, United States).
The US Navy missile destroyer Preble has just skirted the shores of Scarborough Reef, to show the Chinese that America does not accept their expansionism in the South China Sea.
By asserting his power too brutally and too soon, Xi Jinping has been counter-productive: he has rallied the strategic ties between America and all the Asian powers fear China.
Economically, we are heading towards a technological partition of the world to the detriment of China (as I have previously written). Emblematic is Google’s decision on May 20 to cease doing business with the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, in compliance with the Trump administration’s decree (though they have now been granted a three-month window to explore alternative arrangements).
In the race for 5G, South Korea’s Samsung is ready to take up the challenge in Asia – part of the Western camp.
There is a principle of modernity that Xi Jinping’s China has not understood: there is no lasting influence in the world without at least a minimum degree of soft power.
This article was first published in Le Figaro.