“Hide your brightness, bide your time.” That famous piece of advice from Deng Xiaoping has served China well over the past 40 years. Deng, the leader whose economic policies transformed China, understood that if his country was to become richer and stronger, it must avoid confrontation with the west.
But Xi Jinping, who has led China since 2012, has decided that the “bide your time” era is over. He talks of a China that “dares to fight”. Even if Xi does not literally mean that his country should go to war, he has signalled — by word and deed — that Beijing is ready to confront its international rivals.
Xi argues that his policies are a response to American aggression. In the speech in which he called upon the Chinese people to “dare to fight”, he accused the US of following a policy of “containment and suppression” of China.
But Xi’s diagnosis of China’s situation is wrong in three crucial respects. It misreads American intentions. It overstates the threat that US policies pose to China’s economy. And it underestimates the risks of confrontation with America.
Chinese officials and scholars often argue in private that the US is trying to thwart their country’s rise by luring China into a war over Taiwan. But even if such a trap was being laid in Washington (it isn’t), there would be an easy way to avoid it. Xi simply has to refrain from attacking or blockading Taiwan.
Like the Japanese before the second world war, the Chinese complain that the US is trying to strangle their economy. America denies any such intention, arguing that its restrictions on tech exports are narrowly aimed at China’s war-fighting capability. But even if the US had a broader plan to thwart Chinese economic growth, any such efforts would probably be unsuccessful.
Like most countries, China has its share of problems. But the country’s economic rise remains impressive. This year China is projected to become the world’s largest exporter of cars, displacing Japan.
China is doing particularly well with the electronic vehicles that will dominate the future. Bill Gates argues that American tech-export bans are likely to be counter-productive, encouraging China to develop its own capabilities much more rapidly. The Microsoft founder told me recently: “I don’t think the US will ever be successful at preventing China from having great chips.”
The CEOs of some of the west’s most powerful companies, such as Tim Cook of Apple, have made it very clear that they have no intention of walking away from China.
As a self-proclaimed Marxist, Xi should understand that global political power flows from economic power. China does not need to win a shooting war to expand its international power and influence. Trade, aid and investment will do the job without any of the attendant risk and bloodshed.
There are more than 120 countries around the world whose largest trading partner is China — far more than America. That gives China considerable influence.
The US is frustrated that so many nations in the “global south” have sat on the fence over the Ukraine war. But countries that look increasingly to China for trade and investment, such as Brazil or Indonesia, are going to listen at least as closely to Beijing as to Washington on big international issues. That is even more true for countries that are heavily indebted to China, such as Sri Lanka, Pakistan, Angola or Zambia.
China’s prowess in building new infrastructure also builds influence. One US official sighs that America cannot compete with the kind of money that Beijing can throw about in south-east Asia. And China’s influence stretches much further afield than its near abroad. Chinese companies are currently constructing metro systems in the capitals of Egypt and Colombia.
So what could possibly go wrong? The answer is obvious — a war. China is visibly preparing to invade Taiwan. Xi’s nationalistic rhetoric is creating a dangerous mixture of hubris and paranoia in Beijing. Tong Zhao, an academic, worries that China’s leader is “boxing himself in” over Taiwan.
But if Xi were to pull the trigger on Taiwan — and America entered the conflict, as President Joe Biden has promised — the Chinese leader would have started a third world war, with incalculable consequences for his own country and the wider world.
Even if Taiwan rapidly capitulated, or the US stood aside, China’s global image would be transformed forever. Every western company or country that is currently sitting on the fence over China would have to join in a rigorous sanctions regime. The globalised economy would split into pieces — with huge costs for all concerned.
Despite the risks involved, Xi may believe that a successful conquest of Taiwan would secure his place in the history books as the leader who completed the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese people”.
But leaders with an eye on the history books can often find that events spin out of their control. Vladimir Putin is the latest strongman leader to see his hopes for a short, glorious war go horribly wrong. Putin was leading a country that could no longer aspire to great power status based on economic might. Xi still has that economic path to national greatness open. He should take it.