Can China Become a Global Leader? By Abdul Sattar

For more than seventy years, the Western global order dominated the world, effectively battling the tide of communism and the conventional military might of the Soviet Union.
Its financial institutions created a modicum of economic stability besides rebuilding the devastated Western Europe and other pro-capitalist states like Japan and South Korea. All American presidents and major heads of governments and states of the free world were determined to make this order a success. Their unity dealt a severe blow to the socialist bloc that came crumbling towards the end of the 1980s and early 1990s.
The Western capitalist world maintained this unity even after the demise of the USSR, though in many cases for negative purposes. For instance, they collectively played havoc with the lives of millions in Yugoslavia, reducing one of the most developed countries of the defunct socialist bloc to ashes.
The advanced capitalist world started spreading its tentacles after 1992, bringing a number of ex-socialist states into the fold of Nato despite solemn verbal promises to the last head of state of the Soviet Union. The so-called free world then decided to invade Iraq in a bid to force Baghdad to end its occupation of Kuwait but in the process destroyed a large part of the Arab country, slapping inhuman sanctions that led to the deaths of around half a million children.
The champions of democracy then launched a vigorous campaign to export democracy, invading Iraq, sowing the seeds of chaos in Libya and pampering jihadists in Syria. Their project was aimed at dislodging Arab dictators but they chose to make attempts to topple the elected government of Venezuela and Ukraine as well. Clandestine moves were also made to sow chaos in the backyard of Russia. This all went well until the erratic politician of America was inaugurated in the White House as the president a few years ago.
The ascendance of Trump triggered an era of protectionism, leading to shifting political alliances. He not only hurt enemies but stunned close allies as well, forcing Nato states to increase their defence budget besides obliging Canada and Mexico to revisit the trade agreements that they had made previously with Washington.
The fickle incumbent of the Oval Office was also hard on his European allies, lecturing Germany on trade and defence issues besides encouraging populist forces that are hell bent on damaging European unity which blindly served American interests during the cold war. It is claimed that the US is losing its status as a global leader. Trump seems to be concerned more with domestic politics than anything else. His policies have also forced other Western powers to look after their own interests first rather than thinking about any bloc or US interests.
This seems to have created a leadership vacuum at the global level and many wonder if China can fill this. Beijing is not as big a power as the US. Militarily it is no match to the American war machine which is equipped with more than 6000 nuclear arms and a brigade of fleets. The US contributed to more than 40 percent of the world’s GDP in 1945, possessing close to half of the global wealth. Today its share in the world’s GDP is just 25 percent – though a number of billionaires are still Americans and a large number of top 500 companies are also from the soil of sole superpower.
Despite all that, many feel that the rising dragon of Asia could overtake the US, providing leadership to the world and emerging as a global leader. Its $960 billion Belt and Road Initiative is already being described as a move to dominate the world. Beijing is projecting the move as benign, benefitting over 156 countries and more than two billion people. The initiative seems to have dented even the Western alliance prompting Italy, the UK, Germany and a few states of the Central and Eastern Europe to side with the communist country over this project. More than 1000 projects that are likely to be accomplished under the BRI have created a ripple of excitement among many circles of the world, creating an impression that Beijing is capable of emerging as the global leader.
But critics think that if China really wants to lead the world then the communist state will have to prove that it is different from the Western colonial powers that ruled the world as global policemen. The actions of China in Sri Lanka have already created fears among many developing states. The establishment of a Chinese military post in Djibouti has also provided an opportunity to Western propagandists who are using it to prove that Beijing has expansionist designs. China will have to allay the fears of developing countries. One of the ways to dispel the impression that Beijing is another colonial master lies in making everything open and transparent. Many states are curious about the real terms and conditions that prompt Chinese companies to invest in other states.
It is important that China make all documents related to the BRI and other projects public. It should encourage the host states to debate such projects before the final nod. Beijing’s detractors claim that a strange secrecy shrouds the projects of the BRI.
Beijing projects this trade or infrastructure development scheme as altruistic or at least claims it is a win-win situation for the investors and the host countries. But it will have to prove that this is really the case. For instance, the availability of cheap energy is a key to industrialization but despite having a number of Chinese energy projects, Pakistani industry, businesses and common consumers are still paying a huge amount for the utility. The cost of doing business has not gone down but in fact has increased.
So if China really wants to create an impression that it is different from the colonial Western powers, which first ruled the world through their military might and later international monetary institutions, it must come up with a plan to industrialise less developed states so that they can also lift millions of their own out of poverty. It must ensure that developing states do not become a dumping ground for cheap Chinese goods.
Beijing would also have to set the same standards for itself and others, especially in matters of health arising out of its investment. What is hazardous for the health of the Chinese should also be considered lethal for the poor of the developing countries. For instance, if coal power plants pose serious health challenges to the Chinese people, they will also affect the health of Pakistanis or any other nation.
Beijing should not be seen as transferring decadent technology to developing countries. The establishment of coal power plants in Pakistan reflects such indifference.
China should come up with a huge social welfare project with its investment. For instance, only $50 billion is needed to ensure primary healthcare, basic education and sanitation facilities for the people of the developing world and around 50 billion euro is required to repair the damage caused to the ozone layers. Would it not have been good if China had allocated some money out of the colossal BRI for works like this that not only help the developing states but the whole world and China as well? Such gestures would prompt people across the world to see China as a global leader.
The writer is a freelance journalist.

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