Dr Rainer Stinner spoke at ERA’s recent Annual Conference

China’s rise as a super-power

Dr Rainer Stinner, former member of the German Parliament, and during the time of his mandate, foreign policy spokesman of the Liberal Party, is an expert on China who captivates an audience with his knowledgeable analyses of the politics of this gigantic empire. This was the case at ERA’s recent Annual Conference in Hamburg, where he spoke on China’s rise as a political and economic super-power:

Pointing out China’s increasing tensions and rivalry with the USA, which sees its position threatened as the dominant world power, Dr Stinner quoted the “Thucydides Trap”, a phrase invented by the American political scientist Graham T. Allison in his book “Destined for War” to characterise a tendency towards war when an emerging power challenges the incumbent power. The historical example for this theory is the war between the rising Athens and the dominant Sparta in ancient times, described by the Athenian historian Thucydides in his famous work “History of the Peloponnesian War”.

That China has not only emerged as an economic powerhouse but also as a systemic rival of the Western World was not foreseen, said Dr Stinner. It was an error of the West to imagine that, after the fall of communism, democracy and a market economy would automatically be taken over by all countries in the world, as asserted by Francis Fukuyama in his book “The End of History” in 1992.

Instead of introducing the western model of democracy and rule of law, and integrating into the western dominated world order, China is sticking to its traditional authoritarian society model ruled by a dynasty. Since the proclamation of the People’s Republic of China by Mao in 1949, the current ruling dynasty is the Communist Party, whose “Mandate of Heaven” will last as long as they keep China together and guarantee the well-being of the people. Both have been achieved so far by the Communist Party, emphasised Dr Stinner, since they ended the 20-year civil war with the Kuomintang, and sparked an amazing economic upswing by unleashing China’s enormous potential after the Cultural Revolution, although the current trade war with the USA could endanger the well-being of the Chinese people.

China’s more collective society model is based on Confucian thinking, with harmony as its main goal, whereas the western democratic model emphasises individual rights. The Chinese, who regard themselves as the oldest civilisation, see their model as superior to the relatively young western democratic model. The western ideas of civil society and universal values such as human rights are denied, as well as the Western understanding of the freedom of the press and journalism: the latter should be subject to party discipline. China’s experience with democracy at the beginning of the republic in the early 20th century is poor, as it divided the country and eventually led to the civil war, remarked Dr Stinner.

But their disdain for the Western model also has to do with the “Time of Humiliation” after the “Opium War” in the first half of the 19th century, when China was forced by the British Empire in the treaty of Nanking to accept concessions, as a result of which they were supressed and plundered by the Western Powers. Dr Stinner added: “It is common sense in China that this should never happen again, and moreover that China has the full right to demand their due dominant role in the world which they once played as the mighty ‘Central Empire ’”.

Under the current President and Party Leader Xi Jinping, China’s policy has shed its former restraint and makes its claims much more aggressively. Internally they suppress the non-Han minorities such as the Tibetans or the Uyghurs in Xinjiang. And in international policy they have occupied uninhabited islands in the South China Sea to set up a chain of military bases to increase their influence towards the neighbouring countries, and they put pressure on Taiwan, which they consider a breakaway province. However, according to Dr Stinner, it seems very unlikely that China would enforce its claims by military means, as since Sun Tzu’s thoughts on “The Art of War”, laid down in the fifth century BCE, the Chinese prefer to achieve their goals without war by means of diplomacy, negotiations or even bribery.

Another dispute with China is Hong Kong, where Beijing wants to enforce Chinese legislation. This would affect the special status of the former British crown colony (“one state, two systems”) as agreed with the British before the hand-over to China in 1997. Regardless of this, Hong Kong is, according to international law, an integral part of China, which has never agreed to guarantee Hong Kong special rights forever, noted Dr Stinner. It was rather another mistake of the West to believe that in the end, China would become closer to Hong Kong’s special status or even take this model over for itself.

Economically, China’s goals are to become the world market leader in ten industrial key technologies by 2025, and the leading industrial and technological power in the world by 2049, the year of the 100th anniversary of the assumption of power by the Communist Party. To keep their economic and technological leadership the USA tries to contain China’s expansionism by imposing taxes on Chinese products and banning the use of certain Chinese technologies e.g. Huawei. As a matter of fact, China uses the opportunities of globalisation and open markets for their benefit, but on the other hand protects its own market and excludes foreign companies from China, whereas Chinese companies are enjoying freedom in Europe. Dr Stinner: “It would have been a good chance for the Europeans to demand reciprocity from China by siding with the USA in their trade dispute.”

An important part of China’s expansionist strategy is the ‘Road and Belt’ initiative. This project foresees investment in infrastructure all over the world, including Europe, to promote Chinese exports. One transshipment point of this new ‘Silk Road’ in Europe is the harbour of Piraeus, which is meanwhile owned by a Chinese company.  And another project of strategic importance is the 17 + 1 Initiative of a strategic co-operation between 17 Central and Eastern European Countries and China. Among the participating European countries are several EU Countries. Unfortunately, the EU has never found a co-ordinated answer on these initiatives which are affecting European policy and interests. In order to defend Europe’s position and to better represent European interests, Dr Stinner strongly advocates a common strategy of the EU towards China.