In the post-Mao period, China’s trajectory has been relatively smooth. Deng Xiao-ping set the course for the country for economic growth under total control of the Communist Party. And the political succession, by and large, was smooth and for limitedterms ,which as we shall see later, was extended to an indefinite period for Xi Jinping, the country’s present leader.
China’s economy started to grow quite well, which enabled the government to set aside increasing proportion of the budget for the military. China was becoming a strong military power with a credible nuclear deterrence, though the US still ruled the waves. China had strong sovereignty claims, including Taiwan, which it regarded as its ‘renegade’ province.
When communist China was recognized internationally as the sovereign country, Taiwan’s status became a bit ambiguous. It wanted to continue its separate status, and it was understood that any unification with China would be through peaceful means. But Beijing was determined not to allow any move towards an independent Taiwan, as promoted by the government there. It had let it be known that any move in that direction would be prevented, even if it meant the use of force.
Around mid-nineties, when Taiwan held its presidential elections, China interpreted it as a separatist move and mobilized its military machine in the Taiwan Straits. But the US moved its armada in that direction and China backed off. In other words, the US still was the pre-eminent global power. But China continued its economic growth as well as military power.
However, the US was feeling a sense of over-whelming achievement and success with the collapse of the Soviet Union, reflected in Francis Fukuyama’s book, The End of History and the Last Man. His basic argument was that with the collapse of the communist ideology, as with the Soviet Union, the liberal democracy may constitute “the end point of mankind’s ideological evolution” and the “final form of human government,” and as such constituted the “end of history.” Mankind now didn’t need to search for a perfect ideology and system as liberal democracy had prevailed.
As we know this hasn’t happened and Fukuyama himself later acknowledged so. But the sense of jubilation was overwhelming with the US emerging as the pre-eminent power. This was the unipolar moment when the US was the only superpower after the collapse of the Soviet Union and China was still making its way upward.
But the US still had things to sort out, like dealing with Saddam Hussein’s Iraq after he had invaded Kuwait to annex the oil rich country to solve his country’s debt problem, arising out of his war against the new clerical regime in Iran.The US had encouraged Saddam on this course after the Shah of Iran, their long time ally, was overthrown by the 1979 Iranian revolution.
Saddam’s forces were defeated but the then US administration of George Bush (senior) allowed Saddam to continue, putting his country under one of the worst sanctions regime. The US was the only superpower, exercising economic, political and military sway. But when the 9/11 al Qaeda terrorist attacks happened, it was a moment of reckoning for the US that was not after all invulnerable. Which led the US to attack and punish Afghanistan’s Taliban regime that had sheltered al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden and his entourage.Afghanistan’s Taliban-led government was easily defeated. Thus started President Bush’s so-called war on terror, which consumed the US since almost the advent of this century.
George Bush administration decided somehow use the 9/11 al Qaeda-inspired attack to do some unfinished business against Saddam’s Iraq, which Bush senior had not completed by letting Saddam continue in power. It was said that the Saddam regime was somehow involved in the 9/11 al-Qaeda plot, which seemed far-fetched.
At a more sinister level, his regime was said to be developing weapons of mass destruction. And it was considered necessary to attack Iraq to get rid of the Saddam regime, which was not difficult considering US’s preponderance military power. But the “Mission Accomplished” banner on the US naval ship with President Bush as commander-in-chief was, as we know now, the beginning of the US’ seemingly endless involvement in the Middle East which, one way or the other, has continued, though Trump in his own way has tried to shift the emphasis to Iran and promote Israeli regional primacy.
The upshot of it is that during all this period from the so-called war on terror, as the US was militarily and geopolitically over-stretched, China was, by and large, pursuing its own goals of building its economic, and military power in the midst of relative political stability. And it was asserting its control over South China Sea islands. It was only in 2011 that President Obama announced the US pivot to Asia Pacific, but it never really happened and the US remained too involved in the Middle Eastern geopolitics.
In the meantime, Xi Jinping, who had become China’s President (supreme leader) for life, has a much ambitious and grand vision for his country. And when Donald Trump became President of the US, the US and China got into deeper confrontationwith the US trying to push back against China’s perceived global dominance. Next time, I might explore the tensions that have arisen under Trump and Xi Jinping.