Jockeying for Position
In August of last year, the Assad regime in Syria used chemical weapons (in the form of the nerve agent Sarin) against rebels opposed to his regime. This move symbolized the crossing of what was supposed to be America’s red line, but the response that followed was instead a cacophony of diplomatic rhetoric from a war-weary nation not keen on opening up another front in the Middle East. The inability of the US to respond militarily to Assad's blatant violation of international law highlighted, in the most illustrious terms, the need for China to step up its role as the leader in world politics.
China has been a world power for much of the twentieth century, having held a permanent Security Council seat since the Council's inception in 1945; yet it needs to realize that with its increased wealth and global role, it is now more than a world power, it is a superpower. Indeed, the position in which China now stands in relation to the world is much like that of the United States at the end of the First World War. With Continental Europe and Great Britain emerging from the destructive war battered and bruised, the US moved to fill in the resulting power vacuum, attaining status as the premier World power and establishing a new world order that lasted throughout the twentieth century. In a similar way to that of the 1920s, the US is today’s Continental Europe and Great Britain. It has emerged from the failed and inconclusive Iraqi and Afghan wars battered and bruised financially and ideologically, and this distress has only been compounded by the 2008 financial crisis (whose effects were minimal on China) which exacerbated the American federal debt and has been followed by only a lethargic and fragile growth.
As the US seeks to recover, it has exposed a growing global politico-military power vacuum. This vacuum had been blamed particularly on the Obama administration’s inept and indecisive leadership, but there is no doubt in the minds of most analysts that the upcoming century will be the “Asian century,” and will be led, of course, by China. As such, China needs to stand up and take the lead on world initiatives like the current Ebola response, or the Syria response, without being “asked.” It needs to set the tone with its vast financial, logistical, and industrial capabilities and impose on the rest of the World, including the US, a path to follow.
There is ample evidence that the US is weary of being the “World’s policeman,” but it is also clear that its decline in power status will not be without resistance. A case in point is the chaotic South China Sea, where China has been pushing the US around through, amongst other things, brazen naval and aerial acts. In response, the US, through its commitments to Japan, has pledged to remain entrenched in China's nautical backyard. China has also been increasing its military spending greatly in the past years. However, military force alone will not be enough for the Chinese, since the US maintains the world's premier financial might. China should thus seek to leverage the fact that it is the United States' largest creditor and, much like the US-imposed debt repayment system in Europe after World War I, it should push for repayments on debts, in yuan. Although this may increase the value of the yuan and make Chinese exports more expensive, it will in the long run reduce the role of the US in terms of the place of the American dollar on the global stage.
In all of this, the role to which the US will gradually be confined has never been clearer. Much like the Russia after the fall of the USSR, its military and logistical might will still be relevant to world affairs but only within the Security Council and NATO. It is also clear that the organizational cohesion of the Western nations is faltering, as evidenced by increased financial tensions in the EU and NATO's chastizing Turkey over routine exercises such as coordination of the ISIS response. Indeed, all recent events point to China’s ascendency more than anything else, but only if China it is to embrace this.
It is worth noting that China has been stepping into its new role remarkably well over the past years. It has made it a point to oppose the US in almost all matters of policy. It has also been at the forefront of providing alternate funding and trading avenues for Western-sanctioned countries like Iran, Zimbabwe, and Russia. It must now rise above the shadow/opposition mentality and seek to define its own policies around the world in these changing times.
Russia has also helped China’s rise this with its myopic and obsessive concern with Eastern Europe, showing just how far it has fallen from geopolitical relevance. It’s chucking out of the Group of 8 and its inactivity in world initiatives, such as its complete lack of contribution to the global Ebola fund, has also cemented this fall. This has been worsened by its relatively weak economic position in relation to China, which, as the world’s factory, can stand toe to toe with even the United States.
The US has done much for the world and remains quite involved in it. A few miscalculations may not mean an overall capitulation of its superpower status. History has it that centers of geopolitical power shift inevitably with time, but it still remains to be seen whether the CCP will step up and embrace the opportunity that has arisen to lead a changing global political structure.