China’s Rising Power
Beijing is on the move. China is looking to assume a global Mandate of Heaven in lieu of the faltering U.S.-led international order. Throughout Chinese history, the Mandate of Heaven has bestowed a just ruler of China with governing legitimacy. Chinese political philosophy has been built around this idea since the Zhou Dynasty 3,000 years ago. When dynasties rose from uncivilized disorder, it was because the Mandate of Heaven had been claimed by a just and able ruler. During the collapse of dynasties, ensuing chaos and destruction was due to the loss of the Mandate. Chinese civilizational history argues that Zhongguo, the Chinese name for China literally meaning the Middle Kingdom, is the center of all—the focal point of humanity. Chinese leaders have not easily assumed the Mandate of Heaven over the past 150 years because of the Century of Humiliation. The Century of Humiliation began with the Opium Wars in the mid-19th century and continued until the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) took control in 1949. Party leadership continues to blame the Century of Humiliation for modern struggles. Assumption of the Mandate is predicated on quasi-hegemony, which China has not seen for centuries. The world is changing, however, and the Middle Kingdom’s power is growing quickly. To once again assume the full Mandate, CCP leadership must prove China is stronger than the United States, its greatest geopolitical rival.
The Belt Road Initiative (BRI) is the primary example of China’s growing power. This soft power campaign of international infrastructure investment is at least ten times larger than the Marshall Plan, the post-war U.S.-led reconstruction of Western Europe. If the Marshall Plan was responsible for the European wave of friendly U.S. influence after the end of World War II, imagine how much soft power Beijing can buy with more than one trillion dollars of investment around Asia, Europe, and Africa over the next several years. Especially as the United States retreats from its active global role.
The BRI is a smart use of the considerable sums of foreign capital China has built up over its rapid economic rise. But Beijing is not free from peripheral neighbors’ negative assumptions about China’s actions. The BRI was originally known as the “One Belt, One Road Initiative.” With the use of the word “one,” partners did not see this soft power play as altruistic and generous. They understood “one” to focus solely on China, at the cost of all others. Recipient nations have reason to doubt Chinese intentions—89 percent of contractors participating in the BRI are Chinese companies. If the BRI is supposed to help all nations and not merely double down on Chinese financial investment returns, then the foreign ministry of China may be sending the wrong messages.
If one trillion dollars in soft power does not buy favor, China is not beyond modern gunboat diplomacy—nuclear coercion. With the discovery of the H-20 stealth bomber development last year, China is nearing completion of the third leg of the nuclear triad. This bomber will be able to strike Hawaii from mainland China. Coupling the H-20 with the DF-41 intercontinental ballistic missile and Jin and Shang-class nuclear submarines gives China a very potent nuclear force. The DF-41 is equipped with the multiple independently targetable reentry vehicle (MIRV), which makes it very difficult for anti-missile defenses to shoot down. More so, the DF-41 can strike any target within the continental United States. The Jin-class submarines are comparable to U.S. submersible capabilities and give Beijing the ability to place nuclear weapons in any blue water around the world. China owns an estimated 260 nuclear weapons currently, but there are concerns that Beijing is preparing for a nuclear breakout. The People’s Liberation Army (PLA) may be looking to achieve nuclear parity with the United States, which would jeopardize U.S. conventional superiority.
This nuclear modernization program across branches of the PLA is not without its faults. China’s growing military power is pushing many Asian states into orbit of the United States (although, as the previous article of this series notes, the United States is not taking advantage of the opportunity well). China’s nuclear submarines, the most important leg of the nuclear triad, are not as capable as previously assumed. On January 12, a Shang-class submarine was found and tracked for two days by a Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force ship. The key strength of a nuclear submarine is its ability to hide, and acoustically, the PLA navy’s submersibles are too loud. The H-20 is an impressive scientific achievement for the PLA, but it cannot reliably threaten the continental United States from basing locations in China, whereas U.S. Air Force capabilities are forward-based in East Asia.
Chinese President Xi Jinping implied interest in assuming the Mandate of Heaven at his 2017 World Economic Forum (WEF) speech in Davos. He criticized then President-elect’s threats of trade war and protectionism. Xi announced that Beijing would protect global stability and interests as the United States fades from duty. Indeed, as WEF founder and chairman Klaus Schwab proclaimed as he introduced Xi to speak, “In a world marked by great uncertainty and volatility the world is looking to China.” Music to Xi’s ears.
This article is the second in a series exploring the shifting power structure between the current U.S. dominated global order and China’s Rise.