China Is Finally Acting Like A Superpower -- And Nobody Knows What's Going To Happen Next

Yesterday’s carbon emissions deal between the US and China might end up having a far greater impact on global geopolitics than on the environment. As Matt Schiavenza explains at The Atlantic, it signals China’s ascension to superpower status. With its leader reversing years of Chinese intransigence on the issue. And now standing alongside the US in fighting a global problem with some notion of the greater good in mind.

This globally ambitious statesmanship stands in contrast to the probably paltry environmental impact of the deal, which doesn’t even require any binding emissions cuts for the Chinese. But it also comes within the context of China’s outsized economic and geopolitical plans — policies which can follow contradictory paths.

One example is President Xi Jinping’s concept of the Chinese or “Asia-Pacific dream,” which the Washington Post described today as Xi’s “signature goal, a vision that combines economic prosperity with a strident new nationalism.”

The Chinese president “aims to project that vision onto a broader stage” through a landmark policy of regional economic integration, mostly accomplished through the creation of two “Silk Roads,” one maritime and one overland.

The “Roads” will be economic corridors built through $US40-$US50 billion in eventual infrastructure investment and development projects both within China and neighbouring countries. As Samm Sacks, an Asia analyst at the Eurasia Group, explained to Business Insider, the “Dream” will elevate lower-tier cities in western and central China to newfound economic prominence. And it will deepen ties between China and its neighbours, as well as its influence over some of them.

“The idea, broadly, is that China’s government wants to use trade and investment in Central Asia and in the region more broadly as a way to garner more political support from its neighbours,” Sacks says. “The idea is to spread economic prosperity in the region in a way that’s Chinese-led and enhances China’s image as a great power.”

On the face of it, the “Asian-Pacific Dream” is the opposite of an aggressive foreign policy: it’s China assuming its natural position as Asia’s economic leader and following its newfound superpower status to a logical and even constructive conclusion. China is on pace to become the second country in history, after the US, to have a single-year $US10 trillion GDP, something that comes with opportunities and expectations that no responsible leadership can ignore.

But as Sacks explains, Chinese policy is following a divergent path thanks to the country’s expansionist policies along its eastern periphery.

In the South and East China seas, China has provocatively moved an oil rig into Vietnam’s exclusive economic zone (which it later removed), developed a deep-water navy with aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines, and even carrier-capable stealth fighters; and staked territorial claims that overlap with those of the Philippines, Japan, and other countries.

“There’s a lack of recognition on the part of the leadership for how it’s own aggressive military posturing in the region is going to undermine support — regardless of the amount of trade and investment that they throw at their neighbours,” says Sacks.

Chengdu J-20Alexandr Chechin/en.wikipedia.orgThe J-20, China’s fifth-generation fighter jet.

For whatever reason, Chinese strategy is working at potentially alarming cross-purposes, with an aggressive foreign policy possibly undermining attempts at economic integration.

This could be because China, like many autocratic states, operates under a compartmentalized system in which different wings of the state often fail to coordinate policy. Sacks believes Xi Jinping may also be adopting an assertive and nationalist regional stance to assuage Communist party elites smarting under Xi’s anti-corruption drive, or worried that new environmental regulations will hamstring lucrative state-owned industries.

On the other hand, the “Asian-Pacific Dream” could also be totally consistent with China’s pursuit of a more assertive foreign policy. Indeed, successful implementation of the “Dream” arguably requires a military buildup to undergird it.

“When you deal with maritime there’s going to have to be some kind of military component and it’s not a coincidence that China’s trying to build a blue-water navy,” Damien Ma, a fellow at the Paulson Institute, told Business Insider. “That general structural trend is going to bump against a lot of other trends in the Asia-Pacific, including economic integration.”

Either way, China is pushing its influence outward on multiple fronts — at the same time the US is plotting its own “pivot to Asia.” China’s asserting itself, but without it being entirely clear whether it’s more interested in projecting hard power than in furthering its ever-growing economic footprint.

“You can see pretty clearly what China’s capabilities are,” says Ma. “They have yet to convince people what their intentions are.”

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