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Why China misses the unipolar moment



30 September 2013

Since its establishment in 1949, the People's Republic of China has livedcomfortably in the shadow of powers that thought and acted as though they were the most powerful and important entities on earth. For its first four decades of existence, these were the U.S. and the USSR. Since the end of the Cold War, it has been the U.S. alone that has occupied the unipole position.

During the era of two superpowers, China was able to skillfully play the U.S. against the USSR through an elegant game of triangulation, shifting its allegiance from one to the other while they were largely preoccupied with trying to undermine each other and finding ways for China to assist them. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 was as much a shock to China's balancing act as it was to the sustainability of Communism. Yet China was subsequently able to continue harmoniously and humbly living in the shadow of the U.S., while remaining careful not to replace the USSR as America's number one opponent.

Beijing would have been more than happy to continue on this path until its economy and internal issues were all largely sorted out and it was able to join the league of stable, sustainable and developed countries. At that point, it would be able to stick up for itself, and be so important that no one would dare cross its path. It would have achieved this without conflict or unrest.

This path has become harder to follow in recent years. TheU.S. has taken on enormous debt, such that Washington can no longer easily back up its forceful diplomacy with the deployment of the world's most formidable fighting machine. Whatever one thought about the political and moral issues surrounding the Iraq and Afghanistan interventions, there is little doubt that they were immensely costly. Such losses made domestic conditions inside the likes of the U.S. and U.K. (the main interventionist countries) hostile to any future involvement in foreign conflicts that look like they could go on indefinitely.

Syria is one such conflict that looks, sounds and feels like it will resist any easy solutions. Nothing about what is happening in this brutal civil war looks good, and, for the U.S., the lack of any easy alternative, even if the current government goes, makes the risks of intervention there even higher.

However, the possible use of chemical weapons by the Assad regime has meant that the costs of outsiders doing nothing have grown steeper. China, Russia and other major international players have all signed agreements outlawing the use of chemical weapons. If they stand by now and allow this to happen the message to other dictators is unmistakable: if you are in a bind, then the world will sit by while you gas your own people. This is an outcome that even China, deeply wedded to non-intervention though it is, is reluctant to accept.

The recent impotence of the U.S. and its allies, therefore, is an oddly ambiguous moment for China. On the one hand, it means that everyone is going back to the diplomatic routes which China has been pushing all along. But they are doing so in a much more urgent context. Suddenly, the lack of ideas elsewhere has pushed Russia and China into a position where everyone is listening to what they propose to do about the current crisis. They cannot easily sit by such a visible and tragic conflict and say that everyone should do nothing. But they have turned their back on military options for the moment. Now, for the first time, and very genuinely, an anxious U.K., U.S. and others are waiting for answers from Beijing and Moscow.

In Beijing at least, there must be a few who look back with nostalgia to the days when an America heedless to the opinions of others could go ahead and act as it liked, and allow China to easily condemn and express disagreement with it. Now the onus is on China to come up with a solution and start to get a taste for what it feels like to be a global superpower.