This week’s debate focuses on the relative power of China and the United States--we’re leaving the measurements and details up to you. In the meantime, here’s a brief refresher on the trajectory of China’s economy, as well as some of the geopolitical initiatives the country has taken. Since China’s position within the global COVID-19 crisis is relevant to this discussion, we’ll also briefly summarize their response to the pandemic and the international reactions that it has elicited.
China’s Economic Growth
Before the COVID-induced global economic slowdown, China saw four decades of rapid economic expansion. Since 1979, China’s average GDP growth was 9.8%, described by the World Bank as the “fastest sustained expansion by a major economy in history.” Slowdowns in growth since the mid-2000s haven’t threatened China’s position as the world’s second largest economy and largest global exporter. The Chinese government generates a large amount of economic activity through mandatory planning--much of China’s construction and essential resource industries are state-run, and some manufacturing is overseen by local government agencies. China’s economic growth on the world stage is partially due to its manufacturing strength; the Made in China 2025 industrial plan seeks to pour trillions of government dollars into the modernization and mobilization of high-technology industries. The initiative aims to cement China’s transition from a low-value added, raw material economy to one entirely self-sufficient in semiconductors, artificial intelligence, and information technology.
The Spratly Islands
The Spratly Islands are a disputed archipelago of small, uninhabited islands in the South China Sea. Vietnam, Brunei, the Philippines, and Malaysia all claim some portion of the island chain, while China holds that its historical sovereignty over the islands ought to extend to the present day. China has claimed all maritime territory within its “nine dash line” proposal. The islands lie in the middle of extremely important strategic shipping lanes--nearly half of all the world’s maritime traffic passes through this region, and more than half of all supertanker oil traffic passes nearby. This makes the islands particularly valuable. The UN Convention on the Law of the Seas III concluded that territorial waters extend 12 nautical miles from a state’s shoreline, and China stands to benefit significantly from having maritime regulatory control and oversight over the region. To this end, China has been dredging islands in the waters surrounding the Spratly islands--2015 satellite photos displayed military bases constructed on man-made landforms within the archipelago. Although an international tribunal ruled in 2016 that China had no valid claim to the Spratly Islands, China remains militarily powerful enough to stay active in the region.
Belt and Road Initiative
Perhaps China’s most ambitious geopolitical project is the One Belt, One Road initiative, which involves the economic connection of China with dozens of Asian, African, and Eastern European countries through overland and maritime trade routes. China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank has funded projects worth hundreds of billions of dollars to construct railways, ports, and trade facilities in China’s partner countries. Most deals involve loans to other countries for infrastructure construction, and projections estimate China’s investment to peak anywhere between $1 trillion and $8 trillion. China’s vision involves the creation of extensive energy pipeline networks and Special Economic Zones, which would economically unify the region and create more robust financial dependence on China. China’s geopolitical aspirations are primarily intended as a counterbalance to the United States’ “pivot to Asia” economic policy, indicating that China plans to transform its growing regional economic might into the establishment of new international norms and institutions, as Council on Foreign Relations fellow Elizabeth Economy writes for Foreign Affairs.
China Emerging from COVID-19
After beginning its recovery from the coronavirus, China began to extend its manufacturing efficiency abroad. In early March, China eased export restrictions and announced enormous shipments of masks and other medical equipment to countries struggling to marshal an effective response to COVID-19. China reported that it has provided over two million surgical masks, 200,000 N-95 masks, and 50,000 testing kits to Europe alone--Serbian President Aleksandar Vucic announced to the press in a televised address in mid-March that “European solidarity does not exist. That was a fairy tale on paper. I believe in my brother and friend Xi Jingping, and I believe in Chinese help.” Over a hundred countries have accepted some aid from China in the weeks since WHO declared coronavirus a pandemic. China has sought to recast its global image following mounting foreign criticism of its own response to the coronavirus, which included the disappearance of scientists and government critics and the coverup of the virus’s early spread in late 2019. Now, funding hospitals and providing medical supplies to emerging countries can accomplish the same goals as much of the Belt and Road Initiative, only at a fraction of the cost.
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