The Chinese Silk Roads project is a global success. Despite all the criticism (corruption of local elites, indebtedness of partner countries, infringement of environmental rights), the countries participating in it are experiencing strong growth.
How can we not be surprised that Western development aid programmes have failed to achieve this since decolonisation?
And above all, how can we not be surprised that, after having praised the merits of international trade for decades, the West denounces this success?
Relations between the West and China in the 21st century are not a succession of qui-pro-quo’s, but of one-way misunderstandings. The US refuses to understand the Chinese way of thinking and keeps projecting its own shortcomings onto Beijing.
Competing with the Silk Roads
President Joe Biden, breaking with the policy of his predecessor Donald Trump, announced that the US would “compete” with China, provoking cries of outrage in Beijing. He convinced the G7 to join the battle to keep the “democracies ahead” of the “totalitarian” Chinese system. This is the “Build Back Better World” project. Obeying his injunction, the European Union is beginning to roll out its Global Gateway counter-project. Tomorrow, President Biden will chair a world summit on democracy with the participation of Taiwan (Chiang Kai-shek’s former dictatorship) to give ideological content to this confrontation.
In our imagination, the Cold War was between the atheistic USSR and the religious West, or between communism and capitalism. In reality, it was a question of preventing a bloc with a united culture from exerting economic influence in the bloc controlled by the Anglo-Saxons with an individualistic culture. This time, it will no longer be a question of claiming to defend the right to exercise religion and free enterprise, but of defending democracy. In the end, it is still a question of caricaturing a power capable of competing economically with the Anglo-Saxons, yesterday the USSR, today China.
The “Thucydides trap”
Anglo-Saxons define this political moment as the Thucydides trap, in reference to the ancient historian who wrote the history of the Peloponnesian Wars. In 2017, a famous American political scientist, Professor Graham Allison, explained that “What made the war inevitable was the growth of Athenian power and the resulting fear in Sparta”. Similarly, China’s development is causing the ’American Empire’ to panic and prepare for war . It does not matter that this reasoning ignores cultural differences and applies a Greek concept to China. Washington is convinced of this. It knows it is threatened by Beijing.
If Professor Alllison had not been one of Caspar Weinberger’s advisers at the Pentagon in the 1980s and if he had been more educated, he would have understood that the Chinese do not reason at all like the Americans. He would have listened to Beijing protesting against any competitive project and advocating “win-win” agreements. He would not have interpreted this formula in the Anglo-Saxon sense, i.e. ensuring the success of one without harming the other, but in the Chinese sense. In the past, when the Emperor took a decision, he could only enforce it in his provinces if he ensured that each province was satisfied. Since some of his decrees had no impact in a particular province, he had to create something to interest the province. The emperor’s power could only be maintained if he did not leave anyone out, including the smallest.
Today, whenever Washington talks about “competition” with Beijing, China replies that there is no question of it, that it does not accept any rivalry or war, but aims at harmony between all through win-win relations.
One might think that Westerners were panicking about China’s sudden economic development. The agreement between Deng Xiaoping and the US multinationals has benefited the lowest wages and led to a vast relocation of Western factories to China. The middle classes are disappearing in the West while they have grown in China, and now in most of Asia. The European Commission, which twenty years ago welcomed this phenomenon, began in 2009 to criticise the organisation of the Chinese economy. In fact, these criticisms existed before, but what changed in 2009 was that they became the competence of Brussels under the Lisbon Treaty. Depending on the case, they relate to patent theft, non-compliance with environmental standards or Chinese economic nationalism.
The acquisition of Western know-how is perfectly acceptable to Beijing. Patents are a relatively new practice in the world. They were invented two centuries ago in Europe. Until then, it was considered that no one was the owner of an invention; that it should benefit everyone. The Chinese still consider this. They have no intention of stealing from anyone, so they sign commercial agreements with technology transfer. Then they keep them and develop them.
In previous years, Westerners relocated their polluting industries to China. Now they are offended that China has lower environmental standards than they do, but have no intention of bringing polluting industries back home. The cultural misunderstanding reached a peak at the recent COP26 in Glasgow. The West demands decarbonisation of the global economy, while the Chinese want to fight pollution. Beijing therefore signed a joint declaration  with Washington to show that it did not want to offend the US. The declaration assures that the two countries are on the same line without clarifying anything and without making any concrete commitments. No Chinese diplomat has ever said no to anyone, and the word does not exist in their language. From a Chinese point of view, this joint declaration is a diplomatic “No”, from a US point of view, it is proof that the whole world believes in the anthropic cause of global warming.
As for the accusations of economic nationalism, the Chinese have never hidden the fact: they are nationalists and have still not digested the colonialism to which they were subjected. While they have converted to capitalism in international trade, they remain nationalistic in their production.
There was never any deception, or even a desire to deceive, on the part of the Chinese; simply the complacency of the US and its partners in believing that everyone else thinks like them, in disregarding Beijing’s discreet warnings to them.
The most important misconception concerns China’s military development. In less than a decade, Beijing began mass-producing highly sophisticated weapons. The people’s army, which in the past was primarily a workforce for the community, is now an elite corps. Military service is compulsory for all, but only the best of the best can hope to do it and enjoy the benefits it confers. A few years ago, from a military point of view, China was only as good as its numbers; today, it has the largest navy in the world and is capable of deafening and blinding NATO’s armies by pulverising its satellites.
But what can it use this debauchery of men and weapons for? China has invested astronomical sums in building silk roads abroad. It must ensure the security of its personnel and investments in distant countries. Moreover, as in ancient times and the Middle Ages, it will have to ensure security on these routes at all times. Its military bases abroad are intended only for these two purposes and not to compete with the United States or to invade the world. For example, its base in Djibouti has allowed it to secure its maritime supplies against Somali pirates. In passing, it is worth noting that Beijing and Moscow quickly succeeded in doing this, while Nato, which had taken on the same mission, failed completely .
Beijing does not want to relive its deprivation by the unequal treaties that led to its occupation and plunder by eight foreign powers (Austria-Hungary, Belgium, France, Germany, Italy, Japan, Russia, the United Kingdom and the United States). It is therefore perfectly legitimate for it to arm itself to match what these powers have become. This does not mean that it intends to act like them, but that it intends to protect itself from them.