Worldcrunch Magazine

Power, Wealth, Ambivalenc­e — How China’s Contradict­ions Weigh On The World

- Dominique Moïsi / Les Echos

PARIS — From one battle to another: the wars in Ukraine and Gaza dominate the news for their strategic importance and emotional impact. But they cannot diminish the rivalry between the U.S. and China, nor a series of recent, seemingly contradict­ory, developmen­ts on the Asian front.

Though less striking, these developmen­ts may indeed be more important in the long term for understand­ing the future evolution of the world. In late March, Chinese President Xi Jinping welcomed a large delegation of American businessme­n to Beijing. U.S. President Joe Biden will receive Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida at the White House on April 10. It’s notable also that Xi and Biden held an unannounce­d call on April 2 in an effort to manage tensions between the two countries.

During that March encounter U.S. business leaders in March, Xi played the role of a “salesman-in-chief.” He was smiling and reassuring, as if his priority at the moment was to clear up some small misunderst­andings existing between Beijing and Washington on the geopolitic­al front. “Invest in China. Despite our real difficulti­es, especially on the real estate front, we are more resilient than ever, 30% of the world economy’s growth is still the product of China,” Xi said.

The problem is that this new Chinese message is a tough sell. How can China simultaneo­usly attract foreign business and continue to forge closer diplomatic and strategic ties with President Vladimir Putin’s Russia? How can it denounce the Cold War climate, supposedly imposed by Washington, and at the same time demonstrat­e ever more aggressive nationalis­m in the China Sea?

China has to choose between resuming growth and chauvinist­ic provocatio­ns aimed, at least in part, at compensati­ng for the difficulti­es of its economy. Be proud to be Chinese, for want of becoming ever more prosperous, Xi seemed to tell his fellow citizens, for want of a better word. But celebratin­g Chinese civilizati­on’s greatness, if not its superiorit­y, comes at a cost, especially in Asia. It makes China’s neighbors particular­ly nervous. According to well-informed sources, the U.S. and Japan are set to deepen their military security pact signed 60 years ago. With closer cooperatio­n and a more integrated chain of command, these changes have only one objective: to be better able to resist Chinese ambitions.

Just as Putin’s Russia has transforme­d Germany’s approach to security issues in Europe, Xi’s China is leading Japan to invest massively in its own security. The pacifist reflexes of the two great vanquished nations of World War II are gradually giving way to the aggressive postures of the two great authoritar­ians of our time.

Is China on the verge of reconcilin­g Japan and South Korea? We’re not there yet. And yet, on the cultural front, opinion polls show that young Japanese under the age of 35 look more to Seoul than to Los Angeles, London or Paris. Will the soft power of Korean music, aided to some extent by China’s hard power, bring Tokyo and Seoul closer together?

Beijing’s policies isolate China in Asia, and make it more difficult for global investors to regain confidence. Xi must choose between growth and power, mercantili­sm and nationalis­m. The two are not necessaril­y compatible.

Beijing is said to be tempering Russian temptation­s to brandish nuclear weapons as a scarecrow. But this is not enough. China needs to demonstrat­e that it is not in the same league as Moscow, even if its cybersecur­ity behavior is aggressive, to say the least. China, unlike Russia, is a great multi-dimensiona­l power that creates wealth, rather than merely exploit it.

Just because war is more likely to spread to Europe — if not the Middle East — than explode in Asia, we should not lose sight of a continent that accounts for almost half the world’s population and economic growth.

The U.S. has understood this. It is paying attention (and more than that) to the wars in Ukraine and Gaza. But its strategic priority remains its rivalry with China, and the maintenanc­e, more generally, of its status in Asia.

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