BERLIN – There can be little reasonable doubt today that the People’s Republic of China will dominate the world of the twenty-first century. The country’s rapid economic growth, strategic potential, huge internal market, and enormous investment in infrastructure, education, and research and development, as well as its massive military buildup, will see to that. This means that, in political and economic terms, we are entering an East and Southeast Asian century.
Lest we forget, the outcome for the world would have been far worse if China’s ascent had failed. But what will this world look like? We can foresee the power that will shape its geopolitics, but what values will underlie the exercise of that power?
The official policy of “Four Modernizations” (industrial, agricultural, military, and scientific-technological) that has underpinned China’s rise since the late 1970’s has failed to provide an answer to that question, because the “fifth modernization” – the emergence of democracy and the rule of law – is still missing. Indeed, political modernization faces massive opposition from the Chinese Communist Party, which has no interest in surrendering its monopoly of power. Moreover, the transition to a pluralist system that channels, rather than suppresses, political conflict would indeed be risky, though the risk will grow the longer one-party rule (and the endemic corruption that accompanies it) persists.
Ideologically, Chinese leadership’s rejection of human rights, democracy, and the rule of law is based on the contention that these supposedly universal values are a mere stalking horse for Western interests, and that repudiating them should thus be viewed as a matter of self-respect. China will never again submit to the West militarily, so it should not submit to the West normatively either.
And here we return to the concept of “Asian values,” originally developed in Singapore and Malaysia. But until this day, three decades later, its meaning remains unclear. Essentially, the concept has served to justify collectivist-authoritarian rule by aligning it with local tradition and culture, with autonomy defined in terms of otherness – that is, differentiation from the West and its values. Thus, “Asian values” are not universal norms, but rather a self-preservation strategy harnessed to identity politics.
Given the history of Western colonialism in Asia, the desire to maintain a distinct identity is both legitimate and understandable, as is the belief in many Asian countries – first and foremost China – that the time has come to settle old scores. But the effort to preserve one’s power, the need for a distinct “Asian” identity, and the desire to settle historical scores will not solve the normative question raised by China’s emergence as the century’s dominant power.
How that question is answered is crucially important, because it will determine the character of a global power, and thus how it deals with other, weaker countries. A state becomes a world power when its strategic significance and potential give it global reach. And, as a rule, such states then try to safeguard their interests by imposing their predominance (hegemony), which is a recipe for dangerous conflict if based on coercion rather than cooperation.
The world’s acclimation to a global hegemonic structure – in which world powers guarantee an international order – survived the Cold War. The Soviet Union wasn’t ideologically anti-Western, because Communism and Socialism were Western inventions, but it was anti-Western in political terms. And it failed not only for economic reasons, but also because its internal and external behavior was based on compulsion, not consent.
By contrast, the United States’ economic and political model, and that of the West, with its individual rights and open society, proved to be its sharpest weapon in the Cold War. The US prevailed not because of its military superiority, but because of its soft power, and because its hegemony was based not on coercion (though there was some of that, too), but largely on consent.
Which path will China choose? While China will not change its ancient and admirable civilization, it owes its re-emergence to its embrace of the contemporary Western model of modernization – the huge achievement of Deng Xiaoping, who put the country on its current path more than three decades ago. But the decisive question of political modernization remains unanswered.
Clearly, national interests, and sometimes pure power, play a part in how the US and other Western countries apply values like human rights, the rule of law, democracy, and pluralism. But these values are not mere ideological window dressing for Western interests; in fact, they are not that to any significant extent. They are indeed universal, and all the more so in an era of comprehensive globalization.
The contribution of Asia – and of China, in particular – to the development of this universal set of values is not yet foreseeable, but it will surely come if the “fifth modernization” leads to China’s political transformation. China’s course as a world power will be determined to a significant extent by the way it confronts this question.