Xi Jinping, the Chinese president, might dream of global conquest, but the sobering reality is that he finds himself running a country whose ability to influence world affairs may now be waning.
It was not that long ago that Xi was telling the Chinese people that their country was entering a “new era”, one where China would take “centre stage in the world”. Addressing the massive Great Hall of the People near Tiananmen Square in 2017, he declared that “socialism with Chinese characteristics” would lead to China becoming “a great power,” and that its “flourishing” economic model offered a “new choice” for developing countries.
While Beijing’s plan to achieve economic dominance has been defined by its ambitious Belt and Road initiative, its aim of replacing the US as the world’s leading superpower has also resulted in a massive military build-up. The country’s defence budget is set to increase by an eye-watering 7.2 per cent this year as Xi attempts to fulfil his ambition of turning the Chinese military into a “great wall of steel”.
Between 2014 and 2018, the Chinese managed to build more warships than the total number of ships in the German, Indian, Spanish, and British navies combined. Xi’s readiness to resort to military force, meanwhile, was reflected in his recent edict to the People’s Liberation Army to be ready to invade Taiwan by 2027.
The only problem with Xi’s plan is that it is taking place at a time when China’s own economic fortunes are facing unprecedented pressures. Having enjoyed 30 years of spectacular economic growth, the country now faces the very real prospect of a prolonged period of deflation.
While Beijing appears to be desperate to conceal the true extent of the damage to the outside world, key indicators, such as the collapse of the housing market – which accounts for around 30 per cent of China’s economy – highlight the scale of the challenge facing Xi. Shares in the Chinese property giant Evergrande have lost more than 80 percent of their value this month.
The failure of the Chinese economy to generate real growth after the pandemic saw youth unemployment reach a record high in the latest figures released, prompting the Chinese authorities to announce that they would no longer be publishing unemployment rates for the young.
Far from being in a position to expand Chinese influence across the globe, therefore, Xi suddenly finds himself confronting a number of dangerous economic headwinds which, in any other country, would result in calls for an immediate change in leadership.
As Mao Zedong, the communist founder of the People’s Republic of China, was fond of saying: “A single spark can start a prairie fire.”
With Xi understandably distracted by domestic concerns, this is a propitious moment for Western leaders to renew their efforts to persuade Beijing to tone down its antagonistic attitude towards the West.
As Xi will have noted following his participation in the recent Brics summit in South Africa, China is in danger of compounding its economic malaise by aligning itself with states like Russia and South Africa, whose own economic fortunes are in terminal decline.
In such circumstances, this week’s visit to China by James Cleverly, the Foreign Secretary, could prove useful in helping to encourage Beijing to adopt a more positive attitude in its dealings with the West.
Cleverly has attracted a fair amount of criticism from both the Left and Right after becoming the first senior British minister to visit Beijing in five years: the Left accuses him of ignoring China’s appalling human rights record, while Right-wing critics insist that Britain should have nothing to do with China’s Communist rulers so long as they continue to suppress democracy in Hong Kong, intimidate Taiwan and maintain their brutal repression of the minority Uyghurs.
Yet, at a time when Xi must be seriously questioning the merits of maintaining Beijing’s support for Vladimir Putin, the Russian president, Cleverly’s visit presents an opportunity to establish a more constructive dialogue with Beijing.
While China’s Communist leaders are not suddenly going to become cheerleaders for the West’s liberal values, they will also be acutely aware that many of the economic difficulties they face have been compounded by the West’s growing reluctance to do business with a country that has been actively hostile to its interests.
If Xi is to stand any chance of reviving China’s economic fortunes, he will only do so by rebuilding trust with the West, not by indulging his fantasy of creating an alternative international rules-based system through organisations like Brics.
It is certainly in China’s interests, as Cleverly explained during his visit, for Beijing to work with Western leaders “where it is in our mutual interest to do so” if it is to avoid economic collapse.
For even Xi, now that his vision for world domination lies in ruins, must realise the truth. China needs the West far more than the West needs China.
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