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In the new era that Xi Jinping declared at the just-completed 19th CPC Congress, China’s power will be more visibly on display in its international relationships. That is likely to give the nation’s ill-wishers much fodder with which to demonize it further. All the more important, therefore, for well-informed onlookers to understand the context of Chinese power projection in the 21st century.
Since the dark days of the late Qing Dynasty, Chinese reformers and leaders of all political persuasion have regarded “fuqiang” (rich and strong) as the ultimate goal of China’s self-improvement efforts. First, of course, the catastrophic consequences of dynastic collapse had to be dealt with. Mao Zedong did that by leading an epic revolution that reunited the nation and restored its sovereign authority.
“Fu” (wealth) then became the historical mission of the Deng Xiaoping era. China accomplished it in spades, becoming an economic superpower and setting many world records in the process. To focus on that monumental task, Beijing’s foreign policy was low-key, risk-adverse and highly accommodating. It was perfectly encapsulated in Deng’s dictum, “Lie low and build strength.”
Now that “fu” is initially accomplished, China under Xi is finally turning to “qiang.” What does exercising strength mean, to the Chinese? Certainly not what the Western powers have demonstrated the past two centuries: hegemonic subjugation of other nations and peoples, looting their resources, and institutionalizing that exploitation via global systems rigged in their favor.
China’s way of exercising power is already apparent the past few years. At the core is an effort to build international ties of a mutually beneficial and largely economic nature. Its quintessence is the Belt & Road Initiative, a vision to turn the entire EurAsian landmass into a vibrant, interconnected hub of human productivity and welfare. Millennia of history show that China is not at heart a predatory power.
But given contemporary realities, the BRI megaproject is more than likely to come under full-spectrum assault from the predatory, militaristic US-led imperium, whose longstanding global dominion it threatens. This is where Chinese strength will come in (together with that of BRI partners). Given EurAsia’s vastness, China will need powerful, state-of-the-art military capabilities simply to protect BRI’s footprint. And that, as President Xi has made clear, is what China is committed to building.
Beijing’s growing power will also be used to defend the nation’s core interests. Those who would challenge it on sovereignty issues can expect significantly stronger pushback. That includes Taiwan, the South China Sea, Diaoyu Islands, Tibet, Xinjiang and even Hong Kong, where local anti-Communists have joined forces with the imperium’s agents to stymie progress for two decades.
A time-honored Chinese maxim on the use of force goes: “If you don’t mess with me, I won’t mess with you. But if you mess with me, I will assuredly mess with you.” Mao and his successors actually stated that, from time to time. Another saying: “A weak country has no foreign policy.” In the 21st century, those adages will likely become the animus for China’s exercise of power.