Is China an “Imperial Power” in the Image of the West?

Photograph Source: Kremlin.ru – CC BY 4.0

Owing to geography and geopolitics, my country the Philippines finds itself in the middle of an escalating conflict between the United States and China.

Like the trench lines that stretched from the North Sea through France to Switzerland during the First World War, the front lines of this conflict stretch across both land and sea for over 4,200 kilometers — from Korea and Japan to Taiwan and the East China Sea, and on to the Philippines and the South China Sea.

Like most other people in Southeast Asia, Filipinos know much about one actor in this conflict: the United States, an imperial superpower whose troops we host in nominally Philippine bases. Though they are much closer geographically to the other actor, China, they know much less about it.

What Is China? And What Is It Up To?

What is clear, though, is that Filipinos don’t like the People’s Republic of China. They know it mainly as a powerful country with a Communist government that claims 90 percent of a body of water traditionally called the South China Sea — and, lately, the West Philippine Sea — and says “fuck you” to the claims of the Philippines and four other countries which border it.

In particular, Filipinos feel — justifiably — that China is a bully that has seized two maritime formations that belong to us, Mischief Reef and Scarborough Shoal, that lie much closer to the Philippines than they do to China, and that it has done so in violation of international law.

But while Filipinos don’t have much affection for the People’s Republic of China — and much of the rest of the world doesn’t either — there are questions for which they must find credible answers so they can arrive at the appropriate strategy for dealing with it.

The big why for Filipinos, Vietnamese, Malaysians, and Indonesians is: Why is China behaving in this crude, big power fashion in the South China Sea? This brings up a related question: Is China an imperial power like the United States and other western powers that preceded it as powers on the world stage?

There follow other related queries, such as: What kind of economy does China have? Is it really priming itself to be next global hegemon? Is it really as powerful as it is cracked up to be? What is China’s record in its relation to other countries in the global South?

In this article and others, I’ll seek to provide some clarification on a number of these questions — and to provide a guide with which China’s neighbors can formulate a strategy to deal with this big, threatening, and yet in many ways still mysterious neighbor.

China’s Road to Capitalism

Perhaps the most urgent question is what kind of society is China at present, for the way a society is organized is a key driver of its relations towards the external world. If we take the social relations of production — the way people organize their economic life — as central in shaping a society, then China is a capitalist society.

China embarked on state-led capitalism after its leaders felt that building socialism (or what Marxist economists called “socialist accumulation”) was too costly in terms of lives, and failed to deliver rapid economic growth that would banish poverty. Millions were said to have died in the famine and dislocations following Mao Zedong’s Great Leap Forward in the 1950s.

But while Mao’s economic policies failed, the strong state that his revolution had created provided a powerful political framework for a significant measure of independent development in the global capitalist economy from the 1980s on. This was an asset that was missing in developing countries that had not undergone revolutionary transformation.

Market relations were introduced first in the countryside, leading to peasant prosperity in the 1980s. Then, in the 1990s, the cutting edge of the economy became export-oriented industrialization centered in the cities.

Key to this strategy was the marriage of low cost labor provided by migrant workers from the countryside and foreign investment, the latter coming first from overseas Chinese and Taiwanese capital, then from big U.S. transnational firms attracted by what was seen as the so-called “China price” that other developing economies such as Brazil, Mexico, and China’s Southeast Asian neighbors could not match.

How China Capitalized Differently

In contrast to Europe and the United States’ eras of early capitalist transformation, China’s “primitive accumulation of capital” over the last 40 years has been relatively peaceful.

This does not mean that there was no state violence or direct coercion at all, of course. There was the relocation of thousands of peasant families to clear the way for the massive Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, as well as legally sanctioned takeovers of peasant properties by revenue-short local authorities for urban development, a practice that continues until today.

Still, the overall approach in the first decade of the reform was to promote peasant prosperity. And while the countryside took a back seat to urban-oriented development beginning in the 1990’s, peasants today benefit from reforms such as free compulsory education for the first nine years, provision of basic health insurance, and a minimum income guarantee. There was none of the massive violence employed across the board against peasants and workers during Europe’s period of capitalist transformation.

There was, of course, the Tiananmen Square massacre of 1989. But while the dynamics of capital accumulation did contribute to popular discontent, it was largely the demand for greater political democracy that triggered the protests that met a violent, inexcusable state response that brought about the death of thousands.

Global Expansion: The Western Record and China’s

The contrast with Europe and the United States is even clearer when it comes to China’s expansion globally from the 1990s on. There has been none of the violence of colonization or military intervention that European states and the American state visited on other societies during their periods of global expansion.

China’s going out to the world in search of raw materials and markets took place in the era of corporate-driven globalization, when the U.S. and Europe were pushing down trade barriers via the World Trade Organization, which China joined in 2001. Insofar as coercion, formal or informal, was used to liberalize global trade via the WTO, it was the United States and the European Union that deployed it. China simply sat back, as it were, to enjoy the benefits of trade liberalization while other countries 00 including, paradoxically, the main advocate of free trade, United States — were stuck with its costs as cheap Chinese goods poured in and dislocated their industries and communities.

Why is it important to point this contrast in the use of force? Because for many analysts, both Marxist or orthodox, the use of force to secure formal or informal colonies or dependencies is one of the essential trademarks of imperialism. In China’s going out to the world, one simply cannot find equivalents of the violent scramble for colonies that the western powers pursued in the late 19th century in Africa, nor instances of the gunboat diplomacy that both Britain and the U.S. resorted to in Latin America in the 19th and 20th centuries and even today.

There have been cases of abuse of labor, environmental destruction, and preference for Chinese over local workers, which shall be looked at more closely later in the series, but there is nothing in China’s record that matches the Central Intelligence Agency’s covert actions to overthrow Jacobo Arbenz in Guatemala, Mohammad Mossadegh in Iran, and Salvador Allende in Chile in the second half of the 20th century.

China’s neighbors have little fear of China mobilizing for intervention in the event of an investment dispute — not only because China does not have the military capabilities to do so, but because intervention is simply not part of China’s economic diplomatic repertoire.

For instance, China’s army lay just across the border, but the Thein Sein government in Myanmar did not even take the prospect of military intervention into consideration when it abruptly cancelled the construction of the Chinese-funded Myitsone Dam in 2012. Indeed, when Yangon opened up to the world in 2011, Beijing acknowledged that it lost much of the economic influence it had built up during Myanmar’s period of isolation, but there was never any consideration on its part to restore its preeminent position by force or intimidation.

Nor was the deployment of force entertained when two nearby countries, Pakistan and Nepal, cancelled multibillion dam projects that the two governments had entered into with Chinese state enterprises — in the first case because of objectionable conditionalities, and in the second because of the lack of competitive bidding.

In contrast, Latin American countries, such as Venezuela, have always factored in the possibility of U.S. intervention — not only by direct gunboat diplomacy, but by covert action and support for opposition forces when they nationalize U.S. firms or adopt progressive economic policies not sanctioned by the U.S.

This does not mean that China has never used force in its foreign relations. It has, though as will be shown later, its deployment of arms has been largely triggered by border-related issues.

China’s use of force to secure economic advantage and resources from its neighbors has been rare. And this is precisely why its recent behavior in the South China Sea, where its employment of force appears to be motivated not only by border-related security considerations but also economic and resource acquisition, departs so strikingly from the norm that it begs for an explanation.

Does this mean that China is becoming an imperial power in the image of the West, where force either preceded or was quick on the heels of economic expansion? This is a question that will be explored later in this series.

This series is based on the recently published study by Focus on the Global South titled China: An Imperial Power in the Image of the West? on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China this year. 

This article first appeared on FPIF.

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Walden Bello, a columnist for Foreign Policy in Focus,  is the author or co-author of 19 books, the latest of which are Capitalism’s Last Stand? (London: Zed, 2013) and State of Fragmentation: the Philippines in Transition (Quezon City: Focus on the Global South and FES, 2014).

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