Responsibility is a tricky word. Depending on the results, we are either eager to take it or deny any connotation with the matter. From our personal relations to state-level politics, thought-provoking and controversial in nature, dilemmas at whose hearts lie the question of responsibility have long attracted attention. The one Janan Ganesh faces is a perfect example.
Responding to Janan Ganesh
Chief US Political Commentator at the Financial Times
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In his latest piece for the Financial Times foreign affairs opinion column, Chief US Political Commentator begins with an allusion to our desire for control. Just as a disease affecting our loved ones would trigger donations to shield others from the same misery, so too does uncertainty in international relations call for the agency to insulate the good old status quo. And do we have a definition of this status quo already? What comes first to my mind is stability under the liberal democratic order. The US is a global power and can intervene if any potential rival begins to misbehave. Its internal stability becomes a standard to follow and gives legitimacy to guide disoriented aspirants. It is the scenario I tend to believe in. And is this world order possible? Perhaps. Is it the right one? I begin to wonder.
Short-sighted is the word you are looking for. Having grown with the Western narrative of world order history, my good old status quo is maintained by the state born just 250 years ago. Indeed, the American dominance now appears to be more of a historical episode, soon to be ended by the resumed leadership of China, a nation that we, unaware of the richness of its cultural and economic legacy, decided to define as emerging. And even if historically inaccurate, the term encompasses what is crucial for Ganesh’s argument - agency. While ‘established’ actors decided to take some time off after the tiring post-war run, China took over the stage to keep the audience entertained. At least since 2015, the US has been captivated by its own misbehaving leader more than the disobedient competitor across the ocean. While the (hitherto, I guess) hegemon made headlines with Trump’s Twitter posts, and later ban on his account, the rest of the Western world voiced hopes that the US, the main protagonist, will finally come out of the backstage. Meanwhile, China did not wait until the show ended to be given attention. “People are somewhat oblivious to just how much progress China is making” - says Elon Musk, FT’s Person of 2021. My reference is not accidental. Echoing those who wrote off Tesla’s ambition to lead the electric car innovation, the US disdained the importance of economic growth that fails to meet the Hollywood criteria. “The work ethic, just the sheer number of hard-working, smart people in China is a wonder to behold - both amazing, and slightly scary. And they’re going to get things done”.
And they are getting them done, indeed. The prognosis that China will surpass the US economy within ten, maybe fifteen (if delayed by Covid) years is something we have all heard of. But, what I want to emphasise is that it is also something that we all participated in. Firstly, we outsourced production for cost minimisation. Then, we started buying cheaper alternatives for our favourite brands from Chinese suppliers, accommodating their entry into the global market. Thus, as much as I agree with Ganesh that the US, along with the rest of the Western world, is not responsible for China’s rise, we cannot wash our hands of its comeback in the new role. Having embraced the consumerist lifestyle of more for less, all we can do now is stand by and watch the consequences of enthusiasm that allowed China to make the most of its opportunity. Target industries were identified, a vast share of the supply chain - captured, control over the market - taken over. This fateful access was granted because of the common belief that, along with economic development, China’s operation under market rules will expand rather than reverse. The reality, however, is different.
Crucially, the West facilitated China’s entry into its culture. Staying behind the scenes is not, in the end, the peak of anyone’s aspirations. With the role of global supplier fulfilled, it is now time for China to bring its experience to the domestic stage, to deliver something fresh and new: something to accelerate the speed of its comeback. If we, at least for a while, adopted a script that admits China’s talent instead of just applauding its diligence, we would see that entertaining a global audience is not the only role it auditioned for. Over the last 15 years, Chinese exports, on average, accounted for 22% of GDP, paralleling the global figure of 30%. To bring some perspective, Germany noted the value of 40% for the same period. The size of Chinese foreign direct investments and imports is lower than average, too. My point is not to ignore the Western contribution. It would not be fair. Becoming aware of the historical context of today’s developments, I want to bring a more nuanced vision for how China continues to define its position in the global order.
Now, the concern is not only about an economic opponent. The US decision to blacklist SenseTime, a Chinese firm accused of enabling human rights abuses against Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, proved that security concerns became the center of US foreign policy. SenseTime joined the 60 defence and surveillance technology Chinese firms that have made it onto the list so far. As the lack of trust between the potentates of global leadership intensifies, the number of Chinese companies and their worth in the US plummets. When the state authorities adopt ‘the mission to create a better AI-powered future through innovation’ as the motto potentially underpinning their military operations, private companies are absorbed into the societal machine, placing them under suspicion of foreign investors. Rather than continuing the open-door growth, China forms a fortress around its borders. And in the aspect of governance, it will not just be inspired by Western values. Here, it has prepared its plot twist. And the longer we wait, the more forced to the back of our seats we will be.
One of the comments under the article says: “Ganesh - Sounds like we’re all doomed.” So disappointed with the adoption of the credulous nightwatchman position, the author paints the future in black. “What do you suggest we should do?”
As bold as it sounds, there is a way to move forward. With our tendency to reminisce about the past, we should not be afraid to play the role we once did. As we established, staying backstage is in nobody’s interest. And it seems that our hitherto leader is actively rehearsing. The evacuation of US forces from Afghanistan this year, regardless of the costs, gave hope for a resounding comeback. If it is indeed the US that we nominate for our protagonist, let’s make sure that it knows all the lines. Promising spurts, when interlaced with events such as the latest Summit for Democracy, still leave us uncertain about the future. US actions should make China rethink its strategy, rather than continue rehearsals for military intervention in Taiwan while the online discussion about the principles of democracy is on. Only in this way can the West retain the control it inherently desires.
Written by Natalia Tronina
The Financial Times: The US is not responsible for China’s rise.
The Financial Times: Elon Musk: Interview with FT’s Person of the Year.
The World Bank: Exports of goods and services (% of GDP) - China.
The World Bank: Exports of goods and services (% of GDP).
The World Bank: Exports of goods and services (% of GDP) - Germany.
The World Bank: Foreign direct investment, net inflows (% of GDP) - China.
The Financial Times: Beijing turns inwards as US decoupling gathers pace.
Sense Time: About Us.
The Financial Times: America is still a dangerous nation.
The Financial Times: America needs to lead by example on democracy.
Bloomberg: When will China rule the world? Maybe never.
Hong Kong Free Press: China can claim global leadership mantle but fails to win friends or admirers.