Given the heightened rhetoric of the moment, it is worth reminding oneself of what China is not. It is no longer the Mao-era promoter of third-world revolution. It isn’t an oil-rich, religiously sanctioned absolutist monarchy like Saudi Arabia, spawning terrorism and bankrolling repression. It isn’t a nuclear peer state that sends “little green men” to occupy the territory of its neighbour. Nor is it a military hyper-power that dispatches drones to kill its enemies around in the world, engages in wars of choice and destabilises fragile states in pursuit of “responsibility to protect” operations.
China is clearly engaged in international espionage. It exercises soft power through its Confucius Institutes and grants. It polices Chinese subjects living abroad. In Tibet, Xinjiang and Hong Kong it rules with an iron fist. China makes expansive claims to territorial waters. It bullies foreign fishing fleets and spars with India over their frontier in the Himalayas. It wants Taiwan brought back under Beijing’s rule. It behaves, in short, like a large, assertive nation state. But no other nation state is, or ever has been, of China’s scale. No other state has ever had its power increase as rapidly as China’s has. There is no regime in the world today led by a party with the CCP’s sense of mission to restore what it believes is its natural dominion over “everything under the heaven”.
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