China wants to return to its glory days as a world leader. Global powers need to integrate that ambition wherever possible, Philipp Bilsky writes.
The message was quite obvious: "Go away!" Last week, the Chinese navy prompted a US spy plane to retreat on eight separate occasions. The military aircraft had entered airspace over the South China Sea, which China claims for itself.
The People's Republic of China has been trying to lay claim on this region by building artificial islands - over 1,000 kilometers (600 miles) away from the mainland. This has attracted a great deal of criticism from neighboring countries, as well as the US.
China has started to pursue its interests in the region much more aggressively than it did just some years ago. According to the Mercator Institute for China Studies, a leading think tank based in Berlin, these developments would signal the end of China's policy of reform and opening.
The institute reports that the cornerstones of the policies first championed by Deng Xiaoping three and a half decades ago were being eroded one by one under Xi Jinping. This change would extend all the way into China's restraint to date in foreign policy issues.
A fundamental change in Chinese foreign policy?
There is a lot to be said for this particular perspective. The recent aggression in the South China Sea is just one of many examples of China's change of tune. The country is also trying to penetrate the deepest ends of Asia by creating a network of new infrastructure under its Silk Route project, with Chinese interests placed at the very heart of this endeavor.
Beijing is also trying to be a leader in the creation of numerous international institutions, thus giving China more clout and influence. As part of this approach, China has also been fundamentally restructuring its economy. It hopes to advance to a level of becoming an industrial superpower by 2049, instead of being regarded as the world's biggest sweatshop.
Chinese officials want the country to again become a world leader and center of innovation and efficiency.
It remains questionable whether the country will succeed in this undertaking as there is an endless list of challenges that China would have to overcome. Chief among these, the Chinese government would have to manage the near-impossible feat of keeping its promise of improving the economic standing of the general population - the one pledge that continued to give the Communist Party its legitimacy for decades while gradually improving the lives of everyday people.
Maintaining this improvement seems almost impossible upon closer inspection, particularly when taking the requirement of a complete reinvention of the Chinese economic model into consideration.
China will continue to broaden its sphere of influence
These issues will only be dealt with in decades to come. For the time being, China will continue to expand its influence at all costs. But what does this mean for Europe and the United States? It would perhaps be in our own best interest if we chose to work together with China and include the People's Republic whenever possible. Last week, the US proved beyond the shadow a doubt that taking the reverse approach of trying to limit China's authority simply won't work.
When Beijing decided to establish the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) in 2014, the US tried once more to persuade its allies to eschew this new institution, which resulted in a PR disaster as nation after nation decided to join the Chinese initiative. This was perhaps a calculated move: If you can't fight them, join them.
Then again, it is becoming more evident that any kind of cooperation can categorically be ruled out whenever international interests and Chinese ambition clash. Once again, the South China Sea comes to mind: It is clear that nothing will hinder China from expanding its influence in this region. The South China Sea is of the highest strategic interest for the country's economic development plans, while the US, beginning to feel threatened by China, is not willing to concede its military control of the region. China's neighbors may also have their reasons to be worried about Beijing's ever-increasing power. With China poised to become the dominant country in the region, there will be no clear-cut solutions for unavoidable future conflicts.
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