Chinese Thought and the Structure of Global Power

Becoming the biggest player in history

If one considers that between 2011-2013 China produced and made use of more cement than the US did throughout the entire twentieth century, while for the year 2015, at a relatively lower growth rate, China’s economy created a Greece every sixteen weeks or an Israel every twenty-five weeks, it is evident that China is on the road to becoming the biggest player in the history of humankind.

Undeniably, in spite of all other indications, the fast-paced rise of China can be detected more vividly in its global strategy of infrastructure development under the title Belt and Road Initiative, which the Chinese government implements since 2013 and continues to be the bedrock of its foreign policy. The BRI aims at building a broad network of railways, fiber optics, energy pipelines, highways and efficient border transit, both westwards, towards the former mountainous democracies of the Soviet Union, and south towards Pakistan, India and the rest of Southeast Asia. This governmental program is twofold, since it concerns both land and sea.

As Robert Gilpin very insightfully points out, a central factor of change in the international field is the wider communication and transportation system that prevails at times. However, how does the BRI relate to the aforementioned system, and what kind of change does its completion entail?

The ambitious attempt of reinstating the Silk Road through the construction of land corridors of communication alongside the Eurasian continent, if completed, results in the commercial and economic integration of Eurasia. The impossible, until recently, economical bridging of various states in the Eurasian continent, as the inaccessible economies of Central Asia for instance, in the presence of China’s initiative seems now to be feasible. The BRI aspires to overcome the geographical, political and economical barriers and strengthen the connectability between eurasian states. The forthcoming reductions of land transport in conjunction with the complicity of over 60 states, or two thirds of the world population, presage tectonic changes in the international system. Changes that have the ability to reshape, at least partly, the structure of world power. In support of this argument, it is considered essential to compare the structure of former superpowers with the yet to be formulated Chinese.

China’s power structure 
According to numerous analysts including Modelski, through vast circles of conflict, global powers have successively been Portugal, Netherlands, Great Britain and the United States. It is evident that the common feature of the aforementioned powers has been their maritime power structure. In other words, the seizure and preservation of a dominant position in the international system became possible because of a substantial prominence in the marine environment. Based on historical experience, sea control is of vital importance for the economic prosperity and the wider welfare of a nation. For example, the arrangement of US naval forces today expresses definitively the supreme objective of functional control of the network, that is mainly the foremost aquatic trade junctions and channels of communication.

All along, the continuum of the sea environment renders the interconnection between states infinitely easier and that is why, prevalence in any conflict or, all in all long term maintenance of a dominant position are interdependent with maritime pre-eminence. Thus, the structure of global power has always been seaborne. Where does China’s power structure diversify?

The duality between land and sea power consists of a permanent structural characteristic of the international system. While observing the geopolitical map, one can discern two big geostrategic regions. On one hand, there is the Eurasian mainland, the protruding force of which is China, and, on the other hand, there is the Euro-Atlantic zone with the US being the dominant force. Notwithstanding the post Cold-War multicentral structure of the international system, it is obvious that, among various actors, the US and China are definitely the most powerful.

The BRI and China’s strategic direction
As mentioned above, the BRI’s land form strives for the functional and efficient networking of the Eurasian mainland. The consummation of the project will offer China’s power structure a qualitative differentiation and improvement. Beginning with the demographic factor, factually Eurasia’s mainland accumulates ¾ of the world population. To put it differently, there is a massive market, which, after an expedient interconnection, will form a sufficient source that could supply the Chinese power structure. Even though, opposite to sea power, land power is subject to space restriction, in the case of China, space restraint is counterbalanced by the ability to avail itself of the demographic strength and the inexhaustible economic dynamic of the eurasian continent.

“There is a massive market, which, after an expedient interconnection, will form a sufficient source that could supply the Chinese power structure”

The American presence in the South China Sea and the generally speaking, well established American primacy on water, along with various non-friendly neighbour states, hinders China’s ”shift to the sea”, a significant condition for the actualisation of its geopolitical ambitions. For the time being and for an unknown period of time, China’s lebensraum is oriented in it’s nearest seas, that is South China, Eastern and the Yellow Seas. As many Chinese strategists predict, in case any confrontation with the US turns into an armed conflict, it would most probably evolve at sea. That is why China’s defence budget attributes considerable importance on naval forces, and more specifically on a forward defence for the control of the first island chain, i.e. Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and the South China Sea.

However, due to the naval preponderance of the US, China’s defence is based upon the Anti Access/Area Denial doctrine (A2/AD). In particular, China is developing a set of weapon systems of denial, primarily long range missile systems with a striking capability that exceeds the first island chain, which weave a grid of resistance and a threatening zone for hostile naval forces, mainly of the US. Thereby, the unfaltering naval supremacy of the US is severely undermined and geographically limited deep in the Pacific Ocean, far from the maritime areas of Chinese interest.

From the writer’s point of view, the efficiency of the denial doctrine in association with the land based networking of Eurasia’s mainland could potentially degrade the role of naval forces in the Chinese power structure. This being due to the gravitational pull of the eurasian space and the excessive cost of equalising, let alone outweighing the US navy. In these circumstances, it is likely that the dipole of Chinese land and American naval power might emerge in the international arena.

Not to be confused with the econometrical notion of Gravitational Pull/ Gravity Model, which is used to express trade relations and less often FDI flows.

Given that China is the ascending global power, the upgrade of the eurasian mainland and the constitution of a more or less land-based power structure emphasising in the A2/AD doctrine should be assessed in depth. For the reason that it conflicts with the, until now, maritime power structure of global powers, a fact which in conjunction with the effectiveness both of land transportation and the anti-access doctrine, could possibly devalue, to an unknown extent, the centrality of naval power for the up and coming world power in the long term. It is a contingency, and therefore requires further analysis since it pertains to the structure of the international system itself. China’s “pivot to Eurasia” consists of a policy which, as we will see below, seems to identify entirely with the Chinese way of thinking.

The Chinese worldview
It is widely admitted that the international system traverses a period of “hegemonic transition“. Although at a premature state, this period is characterised by the succession of hegemonic powers, a procedure which, historically, as Robert Gilpin ascertains, is usually accompanied by war. In this case, the ascending China starts, steadily and gradually, to succeed the existing hegemonic power, the US. It must be mentioned that the possibilities of Chinese hegemony in the international system are not only well-grounded, but very serious.

The consolidation of China as the hegemon of the international system entails automatically the cementation of a new global order, the central rotary axis of which will be China. In other words, as an established world power, China will evolve into a political, ideological, economical and cultural centre of orientation in the international community influencing at an impressive depth the structural features of the international system. As a result, the very likely “chinazation” of the international system renders reasonable the analysis of the two following questions: which are the aspirations of the rising world power, and, more importantly, what are the distinctive characteristics of the Chinese thought, considering that it is expected to glow universally?

As far as the first question is concerned, in other words the objectives of the Chinese foreign policy, is summarized in three basic axes: regional dominance, recognition and respect of China’s natural pre-eminence, and, capitalisation of this dominance to reassure a harmonic coexistence with its neighbouring countries. In essence, China wants to restore the dominance that it disposed before the intrusion of the West, to re-establish its control over the regions of ”greater China”, in other words Xinjiang and Tibet as well as Hong Kong and Taiwan, to regain its historical sphere of influence and to instill in other powers the respect it deserves.  As far as the foreign policy of China is concerned, according to the writer, a significant psychological parameter must be taken into account. The rise of China, coincides with the exit from a traumatic historical period, a “century of humiliation”, as China itself characterises it, full of damaging western and Japanese interventionism, as the Japanese invasion of 1937. This chronological coincidence, is declarative of the Chinese decisiveness as well as the evasion of any kind of submission at any cost.

The general Chinese worldview differs strongly from the contemporary western viewpoint. The intense ethnocentrism, the impression of natural and absolute cultural predominance (as its own name “zhong guo” reveals, i.e. Central Kingdom, not within the meaning of the intermediate position but of the centre of everything), the excessive state centralism, the hierarchical severity, are some of the key components of the contemporary Chinese actuality that have to be taken into consideration, given that they frame up the physiognomy of the country. 

Concepts of Chinese strategic thought
As far as the second question is concerned, the effort of approaching and understanding the diametrically opposite Chinese thought is particularly important. In the light of Francois Jullien’s disquisition on Chinese philosophy, the clarification of fundamental concepts of the Chinese thought, especially in the field of strategy, is able to contribute in two ways: firstly, in the diagnosis of China’s behaviour in general, and, secondly, in the detection of possible tendencies that the Chinese grand strategy could follow in future.

The lecture by Francois Julien

Continuing, it is glaringly apparent that China constitutes a world entirely foreign to the western schemes. Foucault rightly speaks about China’s “heterotopia”. That is why, understanding the Chinese strategic perception requires a total reorientation of thought since the Chinese civilization has a radically different base of communication. 

As Francois Jullien points out, the original Greek western way of thinking is anchored in the model-making thought, on the basis of which one creates an ideal template, an ideal form which one designs and targets in order to achieve a desired outcome. As it is known, in the field of reality, new parameters intervene, circumstances change, conditions are altered, thus a chasm between prototype, i.e. scheme and reality is created. This chasm is highlighted in the famous distinction between absolute and actual war that Clausewitz underlined. In substance then, the voluntarism of the subject takes charge, which under the ever-changing conditions deliberates the situation and interferes in order to achieve directly the intended outcome. 

The Chinese strategic thought counters the fluidity of the circumstances, emphasizing that no occasion can be mathematized and moulded. Chinese thought on the contrary focuses on the situation itself (sing) and more importantly on the inner dynamic of the situation (se). There is no objective, due to the fact that the target could become a burden that would prevent someone from observing with clarity how the situation evolves. Strategy, according to the Chinese, is one’s ability to detect in advance the positive elements, the conducive conditions within a situation, in order to receive the maximum benefit from them. The good strategist senses and exploits a certain arrangement of things, while in parallel he tries to confine the factors that privilege the opponent. Thereby, the beneficial conditions pass on his part and the dynamic of the situation is converted in his favour. Efficacy lies in pushing methodically the enemy towards confusion, unrest, dismantling, namely towards the deprivation of his dynamic. The main rule of Chinese strategy is that the battle must begin once the enemy has already lost. While the situation matures, both impatience and inactivity must be avoided. First one corrodes the dynamic of the opponent and then confronts him.

The Chinese thought cogitated in depth the notion of procedure and maturation, as it remarkably expresses the traditional image of a developing plant. Beginning with the situation itself and not the subject, the ego, Chinese efficacy is indirect and originates from  the conducive factors. It’s not the product of human interventionism, as the western way of thinking dictates, which is unable to conceive the self-growth of the processes, as the developing process of a plant. In support of this argument, it is mentioned that the Chinese civilization is the only big civilization that never knew epic poetry, the epicentre of which is the personality and the individual action.

Moreover, a central position in Chinese philosophy holds the idea of inactivity. The inactivity, through a western point of view, is interpreted inaccurately as sluggishness, indolence, indifference and passivity. Although inactivity is the antonym of action, in Chinese thought it identifies with the progressive, continuous, devoid of interference maturation and transformation of those conditions of the situation that corrosively remove from the opponent his dynamic. The desired result isn’t generated, it is educed. For example, in terms of strategy, against a war of annihilation, China prefers a war of attrition and deconstruction, exactly as it was effectively conducted by Mao in the Chinese civil war. In summary, Chinese thought is defined as follows: instead of moving forwards with urge, something dangerous and corrupting, one should better withdraw and wait for the beneficial conditions of the situation to seek after oneself. Besides, it is well known that the international community never saw the rise of China, it simply discovered it instead.

Of great importance is also the concept of ethical influence. A leading theorist, Mencius, claims that, in terms of efficacy, ethical influence is more efficient than violence. Ethic, a concept that  appertains to soft power, acts in a more fundamental level, in an indistinct way and, consequently, more appropriately than brute force. Ethic penetrates more deeply, moves inwardly, thus a soft power strategy, as the strategy of ethic, although slower, is however thinner and more efficient than a hard power strategy, as the strategy of war.

The Chinese “modus operandi”
Following the analysis of the two previous questions, one can deduce some estimations concerning China’s “modus operandi”. The above italics are not the result of a random selection. On the contrary, they collect the essence of the analysis and constitute the main attributive elements that can potentially shape the Chinese foreign policy. In other words, the italics above are a guideline in the effort to diagnose the Chinese strategy. First of all, the high national morale of China, which does not coincide with the modern neoteric western customs, is a synonym for seriousness, determination, dedication and mobilisation of the nation before the ambitions of China. The self-denial and the tendency of rallying before superior purposes, is complemented by a high degree of centralism that binds the domestic state structure of China. China therefore does not vacillate. It has a clear tramline and a wide popular legitimisation for the fulfilment of its goals.

For China, the gradual conversion to a planetary power, is the product of a long term procedure, which is already in progress. As long as this procedure evolves gradually and steadily, China allows all the favorable conditions to mature, and, in the course of time, erode the dynamic of the US  which constitutes the main power of deterrence. In the midst of a bold American introversion, China is trying to mitigate the American influence by approaching neighbouring states, notably US allies, such as Vietnam, Taiwan and Japan. The promotion, for example of the New Model idea “Asia for the Asians” aims at undermining the diplomatic and ethical footings of the US in the periphery of China.

Do the Chinese shift the economic gears?

The gradual enfeeblement of the US clears the way for the regional hegemony of China, an essential premise for global dominance. However, the American military presence in conjunction with some non-friendly powers to be reckoned with, such as Japan, raise serious problems and increase the cost of ensuring direct regional predominance. The high diplomatic and military assets consist of a form of direct approach. Yet, China is an exponent of indirect approach. Making good use of its almost inexhaustible financial capital, it pivoted westwards, with the BRI, emphasising on the reconfiguration of the international economic regulation, technological standards, and political institutions in line with its image and interest. 

Undoubtedly, the road towards the west doesn’t just match, but it is completely tangent to Chinese strategic thought. It is wholly indirect, given that China doesn’t attempt to produce but educe the desired outcome in the long term. It is a penetrative approach of soft power and systemic character, considering that it affects the features themselves of the international system. Therefore, an approach that emphasises the ethical influence and manifests itself in the fundamental level of the international system. 

More specifically, the infiltration westwards is a strategy that softly denerves the US, as it reshapes and reorders the international commercial and economic network, removing its control from the US. Beyond the obvious geoeconomic implications, China’s pivot has a cultural background as well. In essence, with the BRI as a driver, China projects a new geopolitical narrative, which stands up against the so far westernised structure of the international system. The economic expansion coincides with and intensifies eventually the cultural irradiation of China, since China transforms into a new and powerful attraction pole of the international community collectively.

The identification of the economic prosperity of different states with China’s name, will grow the ethical influence and reinforce its prestige in the long run. Between two options, China, instead of proceeding squarely towards an extensive military procurement and an offensive polymeric diplomacy in order to directly change the power correlations and become regional hegemon, seems to prefer instruments of soft power. It chooses to reshape the functional terms of the international system indirectly, gain gradually the control of the commercial and economic network, consolidating bloodlessly its primacy over time. Just like a growing plant, gazing westwards, China assists and not forces the autophyte procedure of its evolution as hegemon of the international system.

Possibly, the vacuum that the cultural decay of the West creates, could be covered by the smooth increase of China’s power and ethical influence. The prognosis of developments of such magnitude, lacks scientific validity and is limited to the sphere of hypothesis. The above synoptic analysis of the Chinese way of thinking and its geopolitical ramifications, isn’t utterly objective, given that elements of subjectivity, personal assumptions, comments and speculations exist. In so doing, the psychosynthesis and idiosyncrasy of a whole nation can only be investigated approximately and generally. Therefore, the reader cannot be led to safe conclusions concerning the future direction of Chinese foreign policy. He can, however, and must, be inspired and delve further, contributing in the effort of understanding the peculiar Chinese culture.

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