China is commonly perceived as the “great enigma.” More common is the tendency to work around the puzzle of how to deal with Beijing by lumping it together with more familiar contemporary or historical powers. Whether one takes this tack or that, the problem of understanding China draws more attention with every major development in international relations. If a new president comes to power in the US, his stance on China and vice versa might give us greater insight into the international giant.
The current event that raises the question of understanding China, which seems more and more like a necessary part of understanding any international development, involves one of its neighbours, which has been riveting international attention. On 15 August, Taliban fighters entered Kabul and received the prize they’ve been working for: power over the whole of Afghanistan. The US-supported government collapsed, President Ashraf Ghani fled and American military presence suddenly embarked on a more chaotic exit than anything it could have imagined during its 20 year presence there. It took years for the extremist Islamist group to see its vision of seizing the capital crystallise, but the culmination took a single day.
The Taliban, which had swept the major centres of the Afghan states, encountered no resistance as it entered. By that evening, they were holding televised interviews in the elegant presidential palace that Ghani had abandoned a few hours earlier. Yet China did not seem very concerned. Its first official reaction was to say it was prepared to deal with the Taliban. The Chinese embassy stayed open and its diplomats were ready to talk.
In 2002, almost 20 years before this, I was on my second visit to China. In an interview at the Foreign Ministry, I asked what was then the natural question: how did China feel about the heavy US military presence right across the border in Afghanistan? The answer I received was the exact opposite of what I had read in US sources, according to which Beijing felt disturbed and threatened. My interlocutor, a senior official, told me that this was not the case at all. In fact, Beijing thought it was useful for the Americans to perform the task of defending China from the extremism, terrorism and instability that prevailed under the Taliban.
I recalled having read in many sources during the Vietnam War that China also felt it useful to have the “American flesh” in such close proximity at a time when the military balance between the US and China did not favour the latter, which did not possess the missile power to reach the US mainland. The lesson learned here is that China has its own way of adjusting to different situations so as to see not only benefits but also opportunities.
This may be the first key to understanding Chinese outlooks and behaviour. They don’t conform to our customary notions which, in this case, would lead us to assume that China would be bothered by an enemy’s military proximity. Perhaps this key will also help us understand how China, which is home to a fifth of the population of the world and occupies a territory about the same size as the US, managed to be patient for so long over the separation of Hong Kong, Macao and Taiwan – all parts of “One China” – and subsequently had no problem allowing two systems upon their return to the state: a capitalist one for them and a communist one (albeit with capitalist features) for the rest of the country. At no point did China consider retaking those stolen pieces of its land by force.
Another key is that China is the “Middle Kingdom” that expects the world to come to it on its own terms. But when it goes out to the world, it works with rules that run contrary to what it expects at home. It does not see a necessity for the all-embracing “harmony” that starts with the individual and permeates society and government up to the Forbidden City at the top.
When abroad, China works with very different and sometimes antagonistic parties. It will build a port in Haifa, help build the New Administrative Capital in Egypt and sign a multi-purpose cooperation agreement with Tehran. The main Chinese international relations initiative is the Belt and Road project which aims to build a network of trade, transport and communication routes encircling the globe. China has its own way of doing globalisation, which means it is ready to move smoothly from Afghanistan all the way to the Suez Canal.
The third key has to do with how countries and economic blocs fit into the Chinese globalisation concept which appreciates the fact that the US has a large share of the global market. It is no coincidence that China has the largest reserve of dollars in the world after the US, that it is the US’s largest trading partner, that the US has vast investments in China and vice versa. China has its own way of dealing with the global market and it obviously does not want to find itself alone there. At the same time, it has come to realise that it has taken advantage of a global economic system that treats it like a poor third world country for too long.
China has now lifted itself out of poverty and it has prepared itself with technological advances that took it to outer space. It has also indicated that it is willing to leave entire industries to poor third world countries, such as textiles and children’s toys, which was where Chinese industrialisation started.
All this forms a suitable common ground for a US-Chinese understanding. If there are some hurdles to overcome involving competition, that is fine. There is a big difference between competition and clash or conflict. The confrontational approach dominated two camps of opinion in the US: the right where Trump is situated wants to see advanced industries such as Apple leaving China and coming back to the US; and the left where human rights and pro-democracy activists are situated sees other countries only in terms of the space they make available for liberal ideologies, which officials in China see as a lot of hot air that neither protects countries, creates industries nor stimulates invention.
Naturally, the Chinese story is far deeper and more complex, and it certainly merits further exploration and discovery. China has long since emerged from its seclusion in the Forbidden City. It is among us now and it will be more so in the years to come. We should do our best to understand it.
*The writer is chairman of the board, CEO and director of the Regional Centre for Strategic Studies.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 September, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly