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  • For decades, the West, led by US strategic thinking, bet that full-on engagement with Beijing would alter the opaque nature of Chinese politics, making it more liberal and open.
  • The free and open liberal world order has run into the great political wall of China with deleterious consequences.
  • Many liberal democracies have also adopted Chinese-style industrial planning policies.
  • The irony of today’s geopolitical moment is that Western taxpayers underwrote China’s bid for global influence.

China Building its Appetite

  • The subsequent outsourcing of manufacturing and industrial capabilities from the West to China allowed Beijing to ‘bide its time’ as it strategically built its influence through control over global supply chains.
  • The hyper-globalisation processes that were steadily building up China’s industrial might were simultaneously causing enormous social and political churn among the Western working and middle classes.

Two large projects define China’s recent emergence:

  1. The first, reminiscent of Pax Britannia and Pax Americana, is the much-discussed BRI. China’s outward expansion through the construction of new supply chains and trade routes has been designed to serve its economic interests by capturing the flow of raw materials from Asia and Africa and, thereafter, supplying finished products to the world.
  2. The second aspect of its expansion relates to technology, and its concerted effort to control and leverage the global data economy for itself. By globalising its technological prowess — from building next-generation communications infrastructure and digital platforms to offering surveillance tools to authoritarian governments — Beijing is well-positioned to script future administrations and regimes around development, finance, and even war and conflict. And it does this even as it isolates its own people from external flows of information and technology.

There is, however, no equivalence between the two. US society was largely open —individuals, communities and nations from around the world could engage, convince or petition its institutions; write in its media; and, often, participate in its politics. Its hegemony was constrained by a democratic society and conditioned by its electoral cycles.

Current Scenario

  • It is worth recalling that at the peak of its might, the US withdrew from Vietnam because intense media scrutiny dramatically undermined public support for the war at home.
  • The question is if the images of damage to the livelihood and ecology along the Mekong convince the Communist Party of China (CPC) to abandon its damming projects upstream.
  • To balance China’s global ambitions, nations may opt to trade with geographies and nations where political trust exists, thereby fragmenting supply chains
  • Governments will ‘gate-keep’ flows of goods, services, finance and labour when national strategic interests are at stake.
  • Indeed, we should be ready for a new phase of ‘gated globalisation’. Even as the recovery and progress of the post-Covid-19 world will be worse for it.
December 2023