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China’s grand strategy in a new era

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Sculptures of the late Chinese Chairman Mao Zedong are placed in front of a souvenir plate featuring a portrait of Chinese President Xi Jinping at a shop next to Tiananmen Square in Beijing, China, 1 March 2018 (Photo: Reuters/Jason Lee).

In Brief

In the 19th Chinese Communist Party (CCP) Congress Report, President Xi Jinping claimed that China was entering a ‘new era’. China has transformed its newfound riches into strength, and in the next 30 years, China will inexorably become a leading global power. The big question for the world is this: what will be the implications of China’s new power?


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The success story of China’s past four decades is a predictor of the future. Xi’s vision for China is a ‘two-stage development plan’. In the first stage, from 2020 to 2035, the primary goal is to build on the foundations of China’s modern economy. In the second stage, from 2035 to 2050, China will seek to become a state with substantial global influence.

It is not the first time the CCP has laid out a grand plan. Deng Xiaoping — a central figure among the second generation of Chinese leaders — set out a ‘three-stage development plan’ in 1987.

In Deng’s vision, China’s strategic objective was to become a mid-level developed country by 2050. The first stage was to double GDP and GDP per capita by the late 1980s. The second stage was to double GDP and GDP per capita again by the end of the 20th century. The third stage would only be achieved in another 50 years. Xi’s ‘two-stage’ plan is just the third stage of Deng’s longer-term vision. In this sense, the continuity of China’s grand strategy is clear.

Deng’s vision was quickly written into the 13th CCP Congress Report and became the guiding principle for China’s economic reform and opening-up policy. In line with that vision, China achieved astonishing economic growth. According to the International Monetary Fund’s (IMF’s) World Economic Outlook, China’s annual growth rate averaged 5 per cent in 1960–77 and grew at 10 per cent in 1978–2011.

Such growth figures are remarkable. Even Japan did not grow at 10 per cent a year for more than 30 years. As a result of 30 years’ of rapid growth, China escaped the poverty trap in 1998 and became an upper-middle income country in 2010. According to IMF estimates, China’s GDP grew from US$305 billion in 1980 to US$11 trillion in 2017.

Deng and other Chinese leaders have always emphasised that rapid growth could not be achieved without a stable and peaceful regional and international environment. To realise economic reform and open up, China’s foreign policy experienced a paradigm shift from alliance, revolution and conflict to an independent, peaceful and cooperative one in the early 1980s. China’s grand strategy is seeking a balance between internal and external factors, and is focussed on development rather than power.

This logic is dramatically different from that of the Mao era and also departs from conventional international relations theory. For example, hegemonic stability theory argues that an open world economy needs a single great power. Regional or international order is only created by a great power or great-power struggle. But China was not considered a great power by most international relations theorists by any criterion till the 1990s.

China has practised multilateralism with ASEAN countries since the early 1990s. It has also gradually established new types of partnerships with many other countries, including Russia and the major powers. In January 2017, the Chinese government released its white paper on China’s Policies on Asia-Pacific Security Cooperation, which proclaimed that ‘the development of a regional security framework should be advanced in parallel with the development of regional economic framework’.

In 2017, China’s per capita GDP will come close to US$8600. Although China’s per capita GDP is still lower than the world average and is only 14.4 per cent of that in the United States, China is no longer a poor country. China’s economic turnaround is very important. It is one of the crucial elements that distinguishes Xi’s grand strategy from Deng’s vision. As Xi declared in his 19th CCP Congress Report, China ‘has stood up, grown rich and become strong’, and the major task for the next generation is to ‘embrace the brilliant prospects of rejuvenation … It will be an era that sees China moving closer to centre stage and making great contributions to mankind’.

Achieving Deng’s three-stage development is crucial for China’s rise. Wealth is the prerequisite to safeguard sovereignty, security and development. But it is not easy for China to strike the right balance between wealth and power.

Based on new thinking about the relations between wealth and power, it is natural for China to seek security through development over the next 30 years or so. A prosperous China will not only contribute material welfare but also new ideas around the world.

Outward foreign direct investment, international trade and the movement of large numbers of tourists from China will provide resources and a boost to global markets around the world. As more countries benefit from Chinese-style modernisation, ideas will change about China’s rise.

China is trying to translate its own local development knowledge into international development and is learning to provide public goods around the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. Other countries will derive mutual benefit from China’s ambitious plans, and contribute to China’s new goal of common development.

Zhong Feiteng is a Professor at National Institute of International Strategy, Chinese Academy of Social Sciences.

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