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Lessons for the West from China’s Rise: The Challenges of Climate Change and Mass Unemployment

The rise of China has laid bare the West’s neoliberal way of life, based on short-termism, consumerism, and quick gains as opposed to long-term thinking. Since the end of the Cold War, economic decision-making has overtaken security considerations and has manifested itself as unrestrained globalisation. This has created a vulnerability in Western countries as they refused to live strategically when dealing with emerging, systemic challenges – China, the environment, the jobless society, pandemics. The imbalance between economic and strategic interests in the domestic and foreign policies of many Western countries has made for a less resilient and autonomous society. China’s rise, and the pandemic, however, have led many to re-think the relationship between economic and strategic interests. While there is still fear of the Chinese model of state-capitalism, we have tacitly acknowledged that it has its benefits and are now attempting to imitate it. This is being done through ‘whole-of-government’ and ‘whole-of-society’ approaches to policymaking which have become fashionable when it comes to facing contemporary threats. This makes the need for strategic thinking, long-term thinking, and political and geopolitical cultures, even more necessary in both the private market and public institutions. Indeed, this piece advocates for valuing political scientists and students of strategy more highly. They are an asset to society, not professional figures whose work produces an intangible, slow profit.

For a long time, Western society has valued professional figures such as informatic engineers, chemists, and managers. Refusing to recognize the importance of political scientists and strategists has led to a massive neglect to the rise of China and other challenges. Until recently, there was widespread ignorance about China altogether. This was not due to ignorance, but was more about the fact that while we are a society that has access to so much information and travelling experience, we know very little about China. The Mountbatten society argued that the British military is ‘China-blind’. Similarly, students often say that they want to study China to close a ‘knowledge gap’. Diplomatic services of different countries are investing on how they train civil servants and diplomats from studying Mandarin to learning about Chinese culture – others are still very behind. While I am not a sinologist myself, I am asked basic questions about China, and perhaps I even ask basic questions myself which I would not ask about other countries. There is no handbook containing answers about why this is the case, but I have had the feeling for a while now that there has been an unofficial ‘iron curtain’ between the West and China for some time, even while China was growing fast. The West was not particularly interested in unpacking China, while China was not particularly interested at opening to the West.

To find answers, one must go back to how the post-Cold War era started. The ‘unipolar moment’ was informed by the idea of a ‘strategic’ pose. Experts of all kinds believed that it was time to create a financial ‘peace dividend’, to invest in geo-economic globalization, and to find the opportunities of neoliberalism and of the end of communism. The West’s were defeated. Mainstream academia and policy-making lost interest for concepts like ‘geostrategy’ and ‘geopolitics’. This was a facet of the ‘hangover’, which led many to talk about the ‘end of the state’, ‘end of geography’, the ‘end of history’, and the ‘end of territory’. Meanwhile, both conservative and progressive – from Reagan to Thatcher, from Clinton to Blair, from Schroeder to Chirac – embraced globalism. American grand strategy after the Cold War was informed by these ideas. Anthony Lake, Bill Clinton’s National Security Advisor (NSA) announced that ‘[t]he successor to a doctrine of containment must be a strategy of enlargement’. Continuing the effort started by Nixon and Kissinger, it became a core objective of the Clinton Administration to bring Beijing into the World Trade Organization, hoping to open the Chinese market and make China the locomotive of the world economy.

George W. Bush and Condoleeza Rice understood the risks of Clinton’s globalism and advocated for nationally informed internationalism, that is, global liberalism but with US characteristics. However, 9/11 interfered with Bush’s plans to take on China. It was only during the second mandate of Bush that US elites started to sincerely doubt whether China was changing internally and privatizing its economy, as explained by Robert Zoellick’s speech on the ‘responsible stakeholder’. But the US struggled to act decisively because, as David Harvey explained, China puts Washington D.C. in front of a dilemma, between the desire to maintain ‘the world open enough’ for American and global business to thrive while ‘prevent[ing] the rise of any grand challenge’ to American power. Facing this dilemma, the US and the UK continued to favour economic over strategic interests. As the geographer Neil Smith argued, geopolitical interests were ‘significantly marginalised in favour of the economic calculus’ . While in the short-term this gave tremendous benefits – who was not excited about buying Chinese goods spare change? – there was a cost in the long-term.

The unipolar moment came to an end in the Summer of 2008 when China showcased its economic and cultural power at the Olympic Games in Beijing while in the US Lehman Brothers crashed on 9/15. As China’s economy tripled in size throughout the following decade, its state-led capitalism came under the spotlight. It was criticized and feared but also admired. The post-2008, post-American order was marked by two important shifts. On the one hand, the reality check involved the Obama Administration which began to think more seriously about China with the ‘pivot to Asia’. This was a way of containing China. On the other hand, the reality check was about the return of discourses on ‘national resilience’ in ‘national security agendas’. China – and later COVID-19 – was the principal factor, in my view, for this growing need for national resilience. Concerns for resilience led policymakers to reflect on the importance of adopting a ‘whole-of-government’ style in policymaking, often mentioned by the US and Britain in close relation to China – a master in cross-governmental cooperation with its strategic synergy between different institutions, industries and universities. This was central to Donald Trump’s angry reaction to China – think about the Entity List and the growing scrutinization of Chinese companies in the US – but it was also advocated by the British Parliament’s report titled China and the Rules-Based International System, and it was confirmed recently in the Integrated Review of HM Government. The Integrated Review argued that the security of the Union depends on ‘a whole-of-society approach to resilience’. Furthermore, the Integrated Review encouraged ‘harness[ing] the diverse perspectives’ in society and clearly dealing with China requires that kind of compromise. COVID-19 and the problem of over-reliance on China aggravated the consequences of the ‘loss of industrial commons’ in the West and confirmed the need for greater state-led coordination between the economy and security. Because of the Uneven & Combined Development of capitalism (U&CD), China has unwillingly exerted influence on how we see our society and in particular on the relationship between economic and political power. This is perhaps China’s greatest impact to the Liberal International Order. Such impact was amplified by COVID-19 where again China demonstrated its economic, political, and cultural resilience to deal with such a crisis while in the West and especially in the UK people even struggled to cooperate with government by wearing a face covering. Indeed, COVID-19 exerted additional pressures on Western governments’ need to reflect on the importance of cross-departmental coordination in policy-making and foreign policy. In Britain, for instance, this led to Project Defend, a plan that seeks to diversify the supply of certain goods to make Britain less dependent on China. Ultimately, policymakers acted in favour of a more state-led coordination of strategic sectors – although it remains to be seen whether this a tactical or strategic shift, and whether governments in the West are truly ready to rebalance economic and strategic interests. Admitting that the pandemic – although I argue the same of China – unveiled the failure of markets in distributing public goods, and even the liberal magazine The Economist commented that ‘change would involve upending well-established political and economic theories’ (2020).

These changes and the sudden – at times legitimate and at times irrational – frenzy about China, are an implicit admission of failure to think strategically and to foresee and act in a timely manner about China’s rise. But the thirty year delay is not just about China, it is also about the environmental crisis, and about a society where every year technology throws more people out of job. This is not a surprise to me. I grew up watching political debates and TV shows where economists rather than strategists and political scientists were the protagonists. For too many years, we have lived based on what made sense economically, for our wallets, rather than what makes sense for our future or security. Now, we need to move past short-termism, and to embrace a strategic, long-term-thinking-based way of life. After having taught military students for four years at the Defence Academy of the UK and after having worked with the Italian Ministry of Defence writing a document on future trends from 2020 to 2040, I have come to two optimistic conclusions. On the one hand, there can be a very productive interaction between policy and political scientists since the two work on two different levels, one more operational and the other more grand strategic or abstract. The two can complement each other. On the other hand, and most importantly, political strategists and scientist need to be put in the condition to give back to society, by sharing the benefit of our lateral thinking skills, of our long-term thinking, of our strategic judgement on events. This is what was overlooked for too many years in policies about China, and this is the lesson for the 21st century West from China’s rise. While degrees in political science do not tend to offer as many opportunities as other degrees do, academic institutions should be at the forefront of changing this poor record in the spirit of the recent interest for whole-of-society in policymaking. This has become almost an existential issue, like the environmental crisis and the jobless society.


Written by Dr. Zeno Leoni


Dr. Zeno Leoni is a Teaching Fellow in ‘Challenges to the International Order' at the Defence Studies Department of King’s College London, based within the Joint Services and Staff College (JSCSC) of the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. He is also an affiliate to the Lau China Institute of King's College London, where he is co-convenor of the same institute’s policy brief series named China in the World.