Yet China is the world’s largest economy in gross domestic product and the second-biggest exporter after Germany. It also has the world’s fastest-growing portfolio of foreign investments with interests in 118 nations. At least 10 million Chinese work abroad, most on projects sponsored by Beijing, transforming large chunks of Africa, South America and Asia.
China has launched projects that recall the golden days of European imperial expansion in the 19th century. The $1 trillion New Silk Road will link the Central Asian heartland to the Indian Ocean via Pakistan, affecting the economies of Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, Afghanistan, Turkmenistan, Russia, India, Pakistan and Iran. A direct rail link, already tested between Beijing and London, will be extended to other European capitals. China is also studying a Central American railway as an alternative to the Panama Canal.
In Africa, China has not only established itself as the biggest trading partner but is also emerging as the” wise old aunt” who could bash heads together and persuade local rivals not to upset the apple cart.
In sub-Saharan Africa, China has replaced the United States, not to mention the old colonial powers such as France and Britain, as the principal influence-wielding big power.
On a broader scale, the spectacle of President Trump and his Secretary of State Rex Tillerson begging China to “do something” about North Korea’s provocative behavior is a good indicator of Beijing’s growing influence.
It is not hard to see that China is everywhere. Or is it?
The question is pertinent because the People’s Republic has not been able, or has been unwilling, to forge a correspondence between its economic power and its global political role. Despite its economic high profile, it has a low profile politically, earning the sobriquet “Economic Giant, Political Dwarf.”
Part of this is a matter of choice. Chinese leaders know that they govern a country still ridden by deep-rooted poverty and infrastructural backwardness. In terms of per capita income, China is still poorer than Iran, and even the Maldives. In terms of life-expectancy it is world number 102 of 198.
Chinese leaders have therefore preferred to remain essentially focused on domestic issues, giving priority to rapid economic growth. To them, getting involved in international politics seems a risky distraction.
However, the Chinese low profile has another reason: lack of experience in international affairs and the skilled manpower needed to punch their weight in the diplomatic arena. It is interesting that not a single high-profile international post is filled by a Chinese diplomat when diplomats from even Burma and Ghana have held the position of UN Secretary-General.
Rather than imitating the British or French styles of empire-building in the 19th century, China has opted for the Dutch model of going for trade and leaving politics to others. But is such a strategy sustainable? You might not want to go after politics, but what if politics comes after you?
This is one of the questions likely to be raised at the five-day 19th National Congress of the Communist Party of China, which begins on Tuesday.
Though China has historically poor relations with neighbors, except Pakistan, it has a neutral profile elsewhere, notably in the Middle East, Africa, Europe and South America, if only because it does not bear the burden of a colonial and/or hegemonic past.
China is a world economic powerhouse, but with a low global political profile. This week’s Communist Party congress will signal whether that is about to change.
Because the Party’s congresses are prepared in secret it is hard to know whether a major review of foreign policy is included in deliberations. Next week’s congress will have two priorities.
The first is to consolidate Xi Jinping’s position as “supreme leader,” something more than mere Secretary-General.
This could be done by bestowing on him a lofty title, as was the case with Mao Zedong and Deng Xiaoping. President Xi, who will be unanimously re-elected for a further five-year term, could also strengthen his position by propelling his protégés into key positions in the Central Committee, the Politburo, the Politburo Standing Committee, the Committee for Discipline and Inspection, and the Military Committee, the party’s five key decision-making organs.
The second priority is a change of generations at the top of the hierarchy, with new figures born in the 1960s or later moving up the ladder. A majority of the 2,300 delegates belong to the “new generation.”
The new putative leadership consists of individuals with some experience of the outside world, often through studying in the United States and Western Europe. That could provide a greater understanding of world politics and a keener taste for getting involved.
One thing is certain — the international scene is in turmoil and Russia and the United States, still burdened by memories of the Cold War, might not always be able to provide the answers needed.
For its part the European Union, its economic power notwithstanding, cannot mobilize public opinion for a greater political role internationally. India, another rising power, is bogged down by its surreal quarrel with Pakistan, while hopes of Brazil emerging as a big player have faded; maybe for decades.
In other words, there is room for China to become a key player in global politics.
Will it want that?
We shall know the answer in Beijing next week.
• Amir Taheri was executive editor in chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at, or written for, innumerable publications and published 11 books. Twitter: @AmirTaheri4