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China is no paper tiger in the Sino-American conflict

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Follow Me on Twitter     Message Mark Lansvin

China's year of the tiger is poignant in that it reflects much of what the communist country is doing both at home and abroad as it aggressively defends its territory and is working to mark new territory for itself. Today, the US is in a hegemonic struggle with China and the question is which side will back down first? If at all.

According to Ulrich Menzel, a professor of international relations who wrote an article on the subject for the Liechtenstein-based Geopolitical Intelligence Services AG, "China's economy is much more robust than the Soviet Union's and its military is much stronger than Japan's of the 1980s. Unlike both, it looks back on a long history during which it considered itself the center of the world. By 2035 at the latest, it will have overtaken the U.S. as the world's biggest economy, and by 2049, on the centennial of the People's Republic, it wants to be the leading international power again."

The central strategy through which China aims to achieve this is through its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013. As Menzel notes, the BRI is "an ambitious program that aims to dominate world markets and economies through connectivity." The main BRI route, "leads from the Chinese coast through the territorial waters of the South China Sea, the Malacca Strait, across the Indian Ocean to the Red Sea, through the Suez Canal to Piraeus and Venice. From there, the journey continues by rail through the Balkans and the Gotthard Tunnel to Western Europe."

One glance at the map and this all becomes clear. China is working to take over the world economically and influence it in other ways, one country at a time.

China's geopolitical activities are concentrated along the BRI route. "The construction of a carrier fleet is underway, airports on artificial islands in the South China Sea are in operation, a naval base in Djibouti has been leased, ports in Hambantota (Sri Lanka), Kyaukpyu (Myanmar), Gwadar (Pakistan) and the airport in Male (Maldives) have been built with Chinese help, and the ports of Piraeus and Venice have been bought in whole or in part," writes Menzel.

Menzel also spells out what China is doing to dominate the world economically. "The old Silk Road's overland route would be the shortest connection, and China has therefore made reviving it the highest priority. It runs from Xinjiang province in western China, through Kazakhstan, Tajikistan, Uzbekistan, Iran and Turkey to southeastern Europe. China is opening up completely new routes with the construction of trunk roads, railway lines, pipelines, power lines and communication lines."

Much of China's ambitions is known by business leaders and politicians, but simultaneously unknown by much of the public. Regardless, although US citizens are avid consumers of products made in China, their view of the country is dismal.

According to the Pew Research Center, "negative views of China have increased substantially since 2018. Today, 67% of Americans have 'cold' feelings toward China" rating the country less than 50 on a 0 to 100 scale. This is up from just 46% who said the same in 2018. The intensity of these negative feelings has also increased: The share who say they have 'very cold' feelings toward China (0-24 on the same scale) has roughly doubled from 23% to 47%."

American cold feelings toward China are about to get colder though.

Rush Doshi, former director of the Brookings China Strategy Initiative, writes, "We are now in the early years of what comes next--a China that not only seeks regional influence as so many great powers do, but as [journalist and author] Evan Osnos has argued, 'that is preparing to shape the twenty-first century, much as the U.S. shaped the twentieth.' That competition for influence will be a global one, and Beijing believes with good reason that the next decade will likely determine the outcome."

Doshi's book, "The Long Game: China's Grand Strategy to Displace American Order", illustrates what a Chinese order might look like if the communist regime is able to achieve its goal of "national rejuvenation" by the centennial of the founding of the People's Republic of China in 2049.

At the regional level, China already dominates and is slowly pushing the region out of balance and toward a Chinese sphere of influence. Doshi notes that "A fully realized Chinese order might eventually involve the withdrawal of US forces from Japan and Korea, the end of American regional alliances, the effective removal of the US Navy from the Western Pacific, deference from China's regional neighbors, unification with Taiwan, and the resolution of territorial disputes in the East and South China Seas."

At the global level, according to Doshi, "Chinese order would involve seizing the opportunities of the 'great changes unseen in a century'" and displacing the US as the world's leading country.

In other words, Chinese order would be anchored in its BRI and its influence would spread forth from it like tentacles. Thus, China is now pursuing two paths to hegemony - a regional one and a global one. A few minutes of listening to China's President Xi Xinping's speeches should lift any doubt in people's minds that China aims to achieve this global order.

The global order of today, a unipolar one with America as the strongest and most powerful country in the world, does not sit well with dictators like Xi or Russian President Vladimir Putin.

Gideon Rachman wrote an article for Financial Times in February, and he noted that "two features of the current world order that the Russians and the Chinese frequently object to are 'unipolarity' and 'universality.' Put more simply, they believe that the current arrangements give America too much power - and they are determined to change that."

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Mr. Lansvin is a strategic advisor on a range of issues for various NGOs and governments around the globe.

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