Lost amid the deluge of western media coverage of the upcoming US presidential election on November 6 has been an equally if not more important event, beginning on November 8, when the 18th National Congress of the Communist Party of China convenes in Beijing to elect a new Central Committee and replace seven of the nine members of the current Politburo, who are due to retire and/or stand down. These include the current President of People’s Republic – Hu Jintao.
His successor is likely to be the current vice president, Xi Jinping, who is seen as close to the military and is likely to adopt a more robust stance when it comes to dealing with the West than the moderate one taken by Jintao. This will likely manifest most over the issue of US support for Taiwan, when it comes to heightening tension with Japan over the territorial rights to a group of islands in the East China Sea (Senkaku Islands in Japan and Diaoyu Islands in China) but also when it comes to US policy towards the Middle East, from which China derives around 40 percent of its oil.
The key difference in global terms between the significance of the US presidential election and the imminent leadership reorganisation in China is the difference between the political and economic crisis engulfing a declining power, the United States, and the growing political and economic strength of its emergent rival to the East, China.
China’s economic growth over the past three decades has been simply staggering, averaging around 10 percent year on year. Though its growth has dipped and is predicted to end 2012 at around 7.7%, the success of the People’s Republic in weathering the global recession to the extent it has continues to confound economists in the West.
A key factor in China’s continued economic growth even as global markets for its exports, in particular the US, have contracted sharply, is the boost to domestic demand as a consequence of the rapid urbanisation that has seen millions migrate from the countryside into the city. Meeting the concomitant increased need for jobs has presented the current leadership with one of the biggest challenges any Chinese government has faced since it opened up its economy in the late 1970s. It has gone some way to meeting this challenge, as well as stimulating its economy, with a raft of major infrastructure projects, taking advantage of its unique position within the global economy of being deposit rich as a consequence of an economic model that has hitherto placed a priority on saving over consumption.
Strict controls over the convertibility of the renminbi has lent further stability to China’s economy, acting as a firewall against the sudden and often sharp fluctuations suffered by convertible currencies.
For the US – a declining economic power relative to China, though still some way ahead in terms of overall GDP – China’s sharp increase in military spending in recent years, needed to protect its accumulating global interests and economic alliances, is undoubtedly a major source of concern. This strategic threat to US hegemony is reflected in a staggering US defence budget of over $1 trillion in 2012. Compare this to China’s 2012 defence budget of $106.4 billion (which constitutes an 11.2 percent increase from 2011). To put this disparity in even greater context, the US defence budget constitutes 46.5 percent of the entire world’s military budget, whilst China’s constitutes around 7 percent. Regardless, Romney’s pledge to increase US defence spending by 2 trillion dollars over the next ten years if elected president is located in the mounting worry within a section of the US political and security establishment over China’s increased military spending.
China’s role as the world’s major creditor to the US, to the tune of $1.2 trillion (2011), in effect funding US domestic consumption, is one half of the reason why the relationship between both countries will remain a mutually dependent at least in the short term, despite being adversaries. For China, its main priority lies in continuing to ensure the viability of US domestic consumption in order to maintain the US as its largest export market, though in recent years it has placed more emphasis on regional markets.
It is predicted that China’s GDP will have caught up with the US by 2018, though US GDP per capita will still remain considerably higher. However, based on current projections, China’s GDP per capita is predicted to outstrip that of the US by 2030.
Western critics of China have long pointed to the lack of democratic and political rights enjoyed by its citizens. But this reflects the paucity of understanding in the West when it comes to the distinct development of Chinese culture and its fractured history. The relationship between the state and society in China is much different to its western counterpart. In China the state is seen as sacrosanct, with a premium placed on unity over the ability to change course through the election of a new government every few years and thus risk instability.
The ‘century of humiliation’ by which China’s subjugation at the hands of the western and Japanese colonialism is known, beginning with the Opium Wars of the mid-nineteenth century and ending with the Chinese Revolution in 1949, remains indelibly imprinted on Chinese mass consciousness, with the aforementioned national sovereignty exalted above any other factor in the life of the nation as a result.
Whatever the outcome of the US presidential election on November 6 is, events in Beijing on November 8 will undoubtedly prove of equal if not more significance for a southern hemisphere that has long suffered as a consequence of the unipolarity enjoyed by Washington.