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Taylor Jackson: China’s continued ascendance is not guaranteed—and this makes the coming decade more dangerous

Commentary

China’s rise as a global power has been rapid and awe-inspiring. Since 1980, China has seen an 80-fold expansion in the size of its economy, and in the past decade, as its military might has strengthened, it has taken an increasingly assertive role in the Asia-Pacific region.

Together, China’s rise and the relative decline of the United States have led to a resurgence of what some have termed “great power competition,” where the world’s most powerful states increasingly compete to shape global security dynamics, international trade and investment flows, and the very norms and orders that govern state behaviour.

This new period may mark the end of American unipolarity and the coming of a more bipolar, or perhaps even a multipolar world. In this era, revisionist states like China, and to a lesser degree, a revanchist Russia, will increasingly challenge the U.S.-led liberal international order.

However, often laden within such views is an implicit assumption that China will continue to rise. But what if China’s ascendance doesn’t continue, and what if China’s rise begins to dramatically slow or stall altogether?

This potential reality is not given enough attention in current strategic thinking. Yet, the results could be just as dangerous as a world where the expansion of Chinese power continues, further contesting U.S. dominance.

Consider six internal and external factors that might abate China’s ascendance in the coming years:

  1. China’s economic growth in the last 30 years has no doubt been impressive. But the tendency to focus on the topline GDP numbers can mask how far behind China is compared to the United States in other important economic measures. While the overall size of China’s economy is now larger than the United States by some estimates, when comparing living standards (GDP per capita), the two countries are not even close. In 2020, the United States had a per capita GDP of over $60,000 (in 2017 international dollars). On the other hand, China’s was a little over $16,000 in the same year, which is less than that of Mexico. At the same time, Chinese economic growth is, in fact, slowing, dropping from over 10 percent in 2010 to less than 6 percent in 2019. These growth rates may still be higher than in the United States, but the downward trajectory should raise serious questions about just how much China’s economic heft will continue to expand in the near future.
  1. This leads to the second factor working against China’s continued ascendence. That is, China’s turn towards an even heavier hand of government in directing the economy. The story of China’s economic miracle is one of unleashing the power of markets and expanding global trade. Yet, under President Xi Jinping, China is heading in the opposite direction. In recent years, the Chinese state has brought in several new regulations on private firms and entrepreneurs, increasingly restrained the ability of Chinese firms to attract capital, and expanded the role of state-owned enterprises, all to assert further political control over the economy. This will not bode well for China’s future economic growth potential.
  1. A third internal force working against China is the continued and, in many cases, worsening state repression of the Chinese people—be that against the Uyghurs in Xinjiang, the people of Hong Kong, or countless others. The Chinese state appears to be maintaining control for now. But it is unclear how much the Chinese people will tolerate such repression in the future and what effect this may have on China’s internal stability.
  1. Switching to the external environment, another factor working against China’s rise is the fact that the U.S. still maintains a preponderance of military power over China. The United States continues to spend more on defence than the next 11 countries combined, and it remains unmatched in its ability to project power at sea, in the air, or in its ability to “command the commons.”
  1. Before China can become a genuinely dominant global power, it will first seek to become dominant in the Indo-Pacific region. This will be no easy task. China is surrounded on three sides by other great powers, namely India, Japan, and Russia. Each of these countries has its own strategic interests in the region, which will increasingly clash with China’s expansion. Japan, for example, has actively indicated that Taiwan’s stability is in its own security interests, and just this past week, Japan and Australia signed a new defence pact. India and China have also recently clashed over disputed territory along their Himalayan border, resulting in casualties on both sides. Since then, China and India have increasingly militarized the region, and the dispute remains unsettled. China will have its hands full managing great power politics within its own region before expanding its power too far abroad.
  1. Finally, as China seeks to compete with the United States, it will be hard to do so unilaterally. The U.S. has a robust alliance network that President Biden is working to repair after the damage caused by the Trump presidency. Yet as analysts Ali Wyne and Ryan Hass make clear in a recent article, “China’s diplomacy is limiting its own ambitions.” Indeed, Xi Jinping’s “Wolf Warrior Diplomacy” and its tone of more assertive Chinese nationalism is not engendering China with allies. Canadians know this well, having experienced China’s “hostage diplomacy” in the case of the two Michaels.

If the above forces stunt China’s ascendance, we would be remiss in thinking that such a world is immediately safer than one where China continues to contest American dominance, although one would hope.

Internally, suppose the reality of Chinese power doesn’t match its expected role of regional or global dominance. In that case, this could prompt China to become more aggressive economically and militarily, recognizing that its time to be dominant may be running out.

Externally, there is a risk that the United States overestimates the threat from China by responding more aggressively to its rise than is necessary to secure its interests. Overly aggressive action by the United States that China perceives as threatening its security and survival could, in turn, provoke a military confrontation.

This recognition of the threat from overestimation should not be taken as a suggestion that China’s rise poses no threat to the security, economic standing, and liberal values of the United States, Canada, and their allies. The threat is real and well documented, and it’s one that the Canadian government appears to have not yet come to terms with.

But policymakers should be skeptical of the most hawkish hawks and the most dovish doves when thinking through how to respond to China’s rise and increasing assertiveness. In international politics, overreaction to threats can be just as deadly as underreaction.

At the very least, policymakers need to be increasingly cognizant that China’s continued ascendence is not guaranteed. When paired with the ongoing dynamics of great power competition, this reality means that the coming decade will likely be turbulent, and unlike anything seen in a very long time.

Caroline Elliott: We don’t have to go full woke to fight racism in Canada

Commentary

Last week, former CBC producer Tara Henley released a cutting critique of the broadcasting corporation’s embrace of the woke agenda. To work at the CBC, she writes, “is to consent to the idea that a growing list of subjects are off the table, that dialogue itself can be harmful. That the big issues of our time are all already settled. It is to capitulate to certainty, to shut down critical thinking, to stamp out curiosity. To keep one’s mouth shut, to not ask questions, to not rock the boat.”

The phenomenon she observes goes far beyond the CBC.

I’ve had similar experiences, learning the hard way that advocating for a broad definition of free speech is considered racist by the more woke among us. Having argued that the expression of dissent is essential to social, political, and technological progress, I was heatedly informed that I’d become a liability for one of the organizations I was consulting with. (Let’s just say I no longer work with those folks, and that’s probably a good thing).

But the influence of the woke mindset increasingly extends throughout all levels of Canadian government and into the political process itself. 

The Government of BC’s anti-racism initiative states as fact that British Columbians live in a province “steeped in colonialism and systemic racism.” The public is scoldingly reminded that not one of us can claim we don’t harbor prejudice, with the rather circular rationale that simply not knowing of one’s own privilege is a sign of being, well, privileged.

In Ontario, the previous head of the public service likewise reminded citizens that “the society we live in—its history, its cultures and its institutions—has been shaped by colonialism, slavery, racism and xenophobia.” Agencies of the federal government have made similar claims, suggesting that certain commonly-held Western principles like individualism and objectivity are “characteristics of white supremacy” and that only white people can be racist.

When it comes to the political sphere, one need only consider NDP leader Jagmeet Singh’s comments in relation to a horrific and aberrant attack on a Muslim family last summer. According to Singh, “our Canada is a place of racism, of violence, of genocide of Indigenous people” and that it is “a place where you can’t walk down the streets if you wear a hijab because you will be killed.” In Singh’s view, this exceedingly hateful attack is Canada. His speech drew whistles and applause in the House of Commons and received accolades from numerous media outlets.

The reality, though, is that the woke worldview is also taking root in parties of the centre-right. Here in British Columbia, the BC Liberal Party (a coalition of federal Liberals and Conservatives) is nearing the end of a lengthy leadership race that will come to a vote in early February. Aaron Gunn, a somewhat controversial conservative commentator, threw his name into the ring only to be rejected by a small, unelected committee overseeing the leadership election before party members could have their say.

While Gunn lacks widespread support and would likely have lost the race anyway, some party members do look approvingly upon his proposals to “bring back common sense” to B.C. politics. These include supporting law and order against disruptive protests, opposing the removal of John A. Macdonald’s statue, and rejecting the suggestion that Canada is an inherently racist, genocidal country.  

Rather than letting party members decide which candidate best reflects their values, the leadership committee made the call themselves. Gunn’s candidacy, they decreed, would be inconsistent with the party’s commitment to “reconciliation, diversity and acceptance of all people in B.C.”

This isn’t to say that I agree with Gunn, but rather that the situation makes it clear that certain topics, even in the realm of the centre-right, are, as Henley put it, “settled.” Off the table. Beyond discussion. And certainly not something for the democratic process to decide. 

Media outlets, governments, and political parties are steadily falling into line with a single, unquestionable portrayal of our identity as Canadians, a portrayal that doesn’t even closely match the version that regular Canadians see in the mirror or amongst their friends, families, and neighbours.

Instead, it is a portrayal of ordinary citizens innately culpable in the subjugation and oppression of their fellow citizens, a portrayal made possible by the censuring of any who would suggest otherwise.

There’s no question that Canada has a racist past; I wrote about it in a recent column. And without a doubt, Canada has racists in it. Find a country anywhere in the world where neither of these things is true.

We need to do what we can to address racism in meaningful ways, but that does not mean we need to accept the woke idea that Canada is a country defined by race, comprised of racists. Nor does it mean we need to accept the simplistic and deeply flawed characterizations of our country and ourselves as defined by the loudest mobs on Twitter.

As I look at my one-year-old little boy, I refuse to accept that at some to-be-determined age, he will cross an invisible line from an innocent babe to the embodiment of white male privilege complicit in keeping others down.

I, for one, will do everything in my limited power to ensure that he and other Canadians not only ask, but are allowed to ask: is there truly not one single thing at all worth celebrating about Canada? Is our nation actually steeped in racism? Is the violent and tragic murder of an innocent family by a single, hate-filled, possibly insane individual really us? Is the practice of constantly delineating our population along racial lines truly going to lead to a better society?

Henley hit the nail on the head when she said that her experience at the CBC raises larger questions about the direction in which North America is headed. But the more I think about it, we’re beyond the journey. We’ve arrived, and that’s the reality with which we must contend.