China's subtle strategy and the US' dilemma

Even though China has not officially challenged the American hegemonia, with its population, economic capacity and increasing military power is the most serious rival it has ever seen.

In my last column on September 9, I discussed what the US' problem was with China, that many of its expectations concerning China were not met; also that China was following an economic development line within the global process but outside the US impact, thus ruining US plans. In this column I will focus on the same subject, commenting on how China both in military and in those other fields regarded as "soft power" would become a problem for the US. While Turkey's agenda is whirling around domestic politics and while foreign policy has focused on Syria, I think it is important to follow the transformation in global politics.

China's global strategy

In none of Chinese official statements, in no report and documents it says China wants to replace US; also, Chinese experts and academics avoid even implications of anything that would mean this. Instead, they opt for expressions such as "multipolar world, protection of free trade" as the Chinese official discourse.

China both in speech and action, instead of directly challenging the US hegemonia, is preferring to weaken it from its margins, fill in every spot that the US has somehow left unattended. China prefers to set up its alliances accordingly. As well as military modernization and initiatives such as the "One Belt One Road" project, China is trying to upgrade its profile within international organizations and actively continue such activities as educational, cultural and economic aid. The Chinese administration has defined the 2000s as "strategic opportunity period," and declared that they have passed on to creating the "Comprehensive National Power" phase.

Rapid Armament

The development that concerned the US the most is of course the increase in China's defense spending in the past 20 years and especially its prioritization of the strengthening of its naval forces. China has set up a National Security Commission in 2013 and two years later issued its first strategy document. It has increased armament especially in critical fields.

Beside the old and limited capacity Varyag bought from Russia, it also built its own aircraft carrier, totaling the number to two. Even thought this seems very little compared to almost 20 aircraft carriers of the US, China has started building another one. In its air force, on one hand, the number of planes they have developed that are not caught by radars is increasing; on the other hand, it is empowering its air force by buying SU-35 planes from Russia. China has announced it aims to upgrade its army to the "global" level and for this, similar to the US program in the 1990s it has swiftly acted on the route to adopting digital technology in military affairs.

China's influence policy

One of the topics not adequately discussed is the US claim that China is highly engaged in "penetration war." China set up the United Front Department by merging several institutions engaged in conducting all Chinese affairs of cultural influence and building power. This policy of China is also called "sharp power."

The Overseas Chinese Affairs Office is trying to mobilize all Chinese people living outside China, both in southeast Asia and all Chinese people in the world especially in the US as the extension of Pekin's political aims. President Xi Jinping has called on all Chinese people in the world to contribute to the "Chinese Dream," the national target of China. He regards them as they were not citizens of another country but "comrades" who lived abroad.

There are also complaints that China is trying to penetrate into societies and even politics through think tanks, associations or other formations in Southeast Asia, Australia and even countries such as Canada and the US. Because the US is highly experienced in these kinds of activities due to years of conducting similar ones, it should be very quick in deciphering the intentions of the Chinese who are imitating the same methods.

In the educational front, China has sent 350,000 students to universities and 80,000 to high schools in the US, providing a good income to universities in financial trouble (12 billion dollars annually). It also continues to open research centers and campuses in countries such as Malaysia, Laos and Thailand. According to some allegations, it is trying to break the American influence over Asian universities. Also, as a part of its opening to Africa strategy, it started drawing students from that continent. The number of African student was 2,000 in 2000; whereas this figure has reached 60,000 today, overpassing the number of African students in the US and UK.

Rising profile in international organizations

While the Trump administration underrated international organizations and withdrew from certain activities, decreasing its contributions, China took the opportunity to fill in the void. It increased its visibility in international organizations . For instance, China formed the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank in 2016.

Also, it is increasing its influence and bureaucratic positions within the United Nations. Today, there are Chinese administrators at the head of Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) and International Civil Aviation Organization-ICAO. Moreover, out of the 15 speciality agencies of the UN, four of them are led by Chinese nationals. China is putting on special effort to increase the number of Chinese staff within the UN.

China cares about human rights issue within the UN from an opposite direction and is trying to undermine all efforts there. China's stance toward human rights in a very important issue and deserves a separate column.

US reaction: Is there any confusion?

China is continuing to narrow the field the US has formed in the global order in areas such as politics, economy, defense, education and culture. Since the US sees the growth of the Chinese economy as the trigger of this development, it has started targeting this country's economy with trade war, as well as strategic and military measures. Both the Republicans and the Democrats agree on taking measures against China at this stage. For instance, even Soros has supported Trump in doing somethings against China.

But the problem is that the US is in a dilemma in this topic. A harsh policy would trouble China, and would in turn trouble the very few liberals in the country and force China to become more withdrawn, possibly steering toward close alliances with other countries, starting from Russia. However, the situation right now is regarded as unsustainable in general. For Trump to introduce economic tools is seen as an interim solution slowing down China's growth.

Two letters

As an interesting development, liberals in the US, published a letter in the Washington Post at the beginning of July calling the Trump administration not to marginalize and see China as enemy. This group claimed that measures should be taken against China but this country did not constitute an "existential threat" for the US and was not an economic enemy. Those measures that would hit the Chinese economy will at the end create negative consequences for the US and world economy, they claimed. These liberals said China does not have an intention to replace the US, even if they are building up weaponry, they have a lot of domestic issues. They suggested that more inclusion of China into the global system would be more beneficial.

In a second letter in response to this one, mostly retired army members supported Trump administration's current policy. They wrote that China was expantionalist, was damaging American interests everywhere, possessing a vital threat, threatening its neighbors.

China is a different country than US' historic and current rivals. Even though it has not officially challenged the American hegemonia, with its population, economic capacity and increasing military power is the most serious rival it has ever seen.

It seems that the Trump administration's main mission is slowing China's rise, try to stop its global gains. Under current conditions, China does not have the capacity and military, intelligence and financial power to replace the US hegemonia. More importantly, various components of global capitalism do not demand or wish that China takes over the hegemonic position.

But the course of events is carrying the US hegemonia to weakening in every region and every topic of the global system. At the same time, the US has to deal with this increasing effect of China in Sri Lanka, Australia, the African continent, the Middle East and even its backyard of Latin and Central America. At this stage, the US is busy trying to find ways to block China's policy of increasing this effect.

Who is İlhan Uzgel?

Since 1988, he worked at Ankara University, Political Sciences Faculty, International Relations Department. When he was head of department, he was discharged in February 2017. He did his post graduate studies in Ankara and Cambridge Universities; he received his Ph.D. from Ankara University. He did his doctoral and postdoctoral studies at LSE and Georgetown Universities; he lectured in Oklahoma City University. He received scholarships such as British Council, Jean Monnet and Fulbright. He focuses on US foreign policy, Turkish foreign policy and the Balkans. He is the author of several books.