China has long charted its own course towards a defined destiny, while the West drifts from the path of unity towards a destination unknown.
One of China’s greatest strengths in the coming decades is that it knows where it is going. China, unlike the West, has a tangible, common future which it moves towards with fierce conviction. As a result of seeds planted long ago, China is now reaping the fruits of unwavering commitment to its direction at a time when the West faces trouble establishing unity.
The Western world has a comprehensive grasp on why we move forward, whether it be promotion of democracy, protection of rights or prevention of disaster. Despite this, there is little to no concurrence on where we want these core tenants of modern society to tangibly take us. To an extent, the inherent characteristics of freedom and liberty are incompatible with a known destination—it would suggest an inability to revise effort or purpose. Similarly, the nature of Western democracy is structured to ensure that society is free to redirect the ship of government as needed. Recent changes to both the US and Australian political systems have highlighted the agility with which politicians can steer nations toward or away from ideals such as globalisation, climate action or militarisation.
However, with that agility also comes the cost of continuity and unified purpose. Whether it be the US’s vagueness on Indo-Pacific Strategy, or Australia’s flip-flopping record on climate policy and military acquisitions, these costs stack up over the long term. Each redirection and revision of policy erodes the compounding effect of time. Alternatively, the Chinese political system is rigid and glacial in its policy development, with little to no room for flexibility. As a result, initiatives like the Belt and Road or military modernisation are not up for debate. They are carefully constructed plans that, by design, march on with no care for election cycles, parliamentary reapproval or political backflipping.
In China, the answer to the where has been inextricably linked to the why since inception. Most recently, the CCP achieved its goal to be ‘moderately prosperous’ just in time for the 2021 centenary of the CCP’s founding. Furthermore, China will become a ‘fully developed, rich, and powerful’ nation by 2050. Both goals come with a plethora of sub-goals, unsurprisingly many of them economic, designed to propel action—not restate rhetoric. The authoritarian, single-party structure of the PRC has seen it establish specific goals for China’s future prosperity. These goals are enforced by a party structure intently focused on stability, unity of policy and purpose. As a result, these objectives become enshrined within party policy—and more recently within the Chinese Constitution itself. Such surety of direction justifies the philosophical basis of China’s political operation; namely the necessity of ‘socialism with Chinese characteristics’, party centrality, unity of its people and authoritarian rule.
In other words, China uses its ends to justify the means; continued economic prosperity and internal stability are goals which validate the use of undemocratic and authoritarian policies. For example, the party uses the Uyghurs’ supposed threats to internal stability and peace to substantiate perpetual internment camps and widespread human rights abuses. The opposite is true for the Western relationship where the means are used to justify an end—the spread of democracy and promotion of globalism are policies which validate any end states arising from them. For example, the US government of George W. Bush evoked the ideals of freedom and threat to democracy in 2001 to justify invasion of Afghanistan—despite the end states failing to achieve desired goals.
Such a difference in approach helps to understand why China has been able to undergo one of the most impressive transformations in history and why the United States is seen as the leader of the free world. Since 1949, both countries have followed the very path which saw them ascend to prominence. For Mao’s Zedung’s CCP this involved a state-planned economy, centralised political control and a focus on military strength. After all, it was these goals that saw them successfully fight, and win, a civil war. For US President Dwight D. Eisenhower, this involved the construction of liberal-focused international institutes, promotion of democracy and continued moral leadership. After all, it was these means that saw them emerge from World War II as leaders of the Western world.
The compounding effects of the CCP’s uninterrupted 73-year rule are being felt in the international community. A narrative of immense scale and scope has become entrenched within Chinese society regarding their place in the world; both past, present and future. Where China was previously a small child attempting to navigate through a bustling town square, it is now a towering figure which steps surefootedly through the throngs, making space for others in their wake.
For the West, now more than ever, consensus on the question of where is critical. If there is going to be a coherent response to China’s rise, it will have to be a unified one—there is simply no single country up to this task in isolation. Our inherent strength lies in the moral high ground relating to why we progress—but this too is under threat from movements which continue to threaten Western belief in democracy and human dignity. The growing consensus on issues such as climate change, international security and globalised trade will be critical elements to the question of where we are going—but they must be enduring.
Obviously, the West should not seek to emulate the Chinese mindset in its entirety. We are still ahead and will likely remain in pole position for the foreseeable future. However, it would be remiss to ignore the relationship between China’s long-term philosophical vision and their remarkable practical gains over the 73-year history of the PRC. We should therefore seek, to the extent it is compatible with the democracy and freedom which underpin our nations, to commit goals with palpable outcomes both domestically and internationally.
Ensuing years will see China gain even more mass and momentum as the 100-year anniversary of the founding of the PRC begins to loom. Increasingly, the West will watch as General Secretary of the Chinese Communist Party, Xi Jinping, achieves various key objectives, many of which have been on the Chinese agenda since his childhood. In pursuit of whatever treasures the future holds, China follows a map whose path has been meticulously planned and where X marks not a spot, but the spot—China’s return as the Middle Kingdom. Comparatively, team West finds itself the beneficiary of immense collective experience and diversity but following a map where the route is up for debate and whose destination is unknown.
Jack Ryan is a junior officer in the Royal Australian Air Force. He is a distinguished graduate of the Australian Defence Force Academy where he studied politics and history. He is currently undertaking a Master of Political Philosophy. You can follow him @jjackrryann.