China’s biggest challenge is not one of solely domestic challenges or international scope, but one that combines both levels: China’s janus-faced character.
China is made up of contrasts, among them its identity as a developing country versus great power aspirations; keeping a low profile in international relations despite its size, impact and assertiveness; its ‘peaceful rise’ versus status as Middle Kingdom; as well as between its self-description and outside perceptions. With China’s economic growth and progressing integration into the global order, the evolving discrepancies have increased and are now threatening China’s internal stability as well as its international credibility and aspirations. The challenge for the next five years is to bridge the gaps and solve the problems they entail. Two complementary arguments – i) a domestic perspective and ii) international perceptions – support this hypothesis.
On the one hand, numerous domestic challenges – social, demographic, environmental, economic or political – result to a large extent from China’s tremendous growth in the recent past. Despite this growth however, per-capita income and other wealth and status indicators remain low. The current economic downturn, the necessary transition from an export-led growth model to one based on domestic consumption; the rise of a middle-class craving for more than just jobs and calling attention to environmental disasters and repressive policies threaten China’s domestic stability. On the other hand, a number of factors not only facilitate China’s rise in the international world order but give it weight in international relations that can neither be denied by the Chinese nor any other actor in the international sphere. Among these are China’s immense population, its vast territory, its resource consumption, as well as its status as permanent UN Security Council member and nuclear power. However, the geo-political environment is rapidly departing from the previous unipolar order dominated by the influence of the `West’ and accelerated by China’s growing international role, i.e. as the biggest contributor of loans to developing countries and the establishment of new international institutions. As these developments will increase to enfold in the next five years, the described challenge will be crucial for China’s domestic and international role in the near future.
While a challenge of such dimensions will not be completely resolved within five years, certain measures can be taken to support a feasible solution.
First, China has reciprocal relationships with many other (state and non-state) actors in today’s interconnected and interdependent world. Hence, the persistence and reinforcement of existing misperceptions held by China’s counterparts in academia, media and popular opinion are harmful. Therefore, the Chinese government should be as clear and specific on its goals and actions as the respective policy field allows. Second, China’s argument of indigenous thinking can only be valid to a certain extent. Instead of dismissing non-Chinese from the outset as not being able to understand indigenous ideas and mentality, the Chinese government has to increase dialogue to clarify its concepts and ways of thinking and acting. Third, to the extent that China is integrating into the world order, China should clarify its contributions to global public goods and acceptable conduct, thereby providing grounds for constructive negotiations. Finally, these suggestions will only bear fruit, if they are reciprocated and accepted by China’s counterparts. In allowing for greater transparency not only can China be better understood by other actors but it would allow China to focus on its domestic challenges while maintaining its position as ‘great power’ in the global world order.