Just this month the European Union ambassador to China, Nicolas Chapuis, urged China to revisit Deng Xiaoping’s legacy. Since he was talking about its “wolf warrior” approach to diplomatic relations, one must assume he was referring to Deng’s “Hide your capacities and bide your time” strategy. 

If we assume he was speaking for a large segment of European and other western officials, this shows a remarkable lack of awareness – or level of ignorance – about China’s intentions. It also shows just how hopelessly ill-equipped we are in dealing with China today. 

Xi Jinping. File photo: China Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

For well over a decade now, Chinese friends have told me they find it hilarious how blind the West is about China. These are people who have materially benefited from China’s strong growth and stability, and are not likely to desire its downfall. They simply find it amusing that western politicians can’t (or won’t) see the writing on the wall.

It appears that Mr Chapuis, and the greater diplomatic corps has mistaken Deng’s strategy for its goal. Under Xi, the goal remains the same – Beijing ultimately wants to become the economic, political and military leader of the world – but the strategy has changed. China no longer keeps its cards hidden, they’re on display for all the world to see. 

For this, we should be grateful to Xi, himself, because through his belligerence, his paranoia, his incompetence and apparent lack of confidence in his own security and the security of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), he is allowing us to see what China wants, crucially before it has the power to achieve it. Had China instead spent the next 20 to 30 years following Deng’s “bide your time” strategy, it would almost have guaranteed success. The West would have been none the wiser until it was faced with a fait accompli. 

Former Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping and then-UK prime minister Margaret Thatcher talked in Beijing over Hong Kong’s future. File Photo: Internet.

Cai Xia, a former CCP party school professor in charge of indoctrinating cadres, described her disillusionment with the party in an article The Party That Failed in Foreign Affairs. From conversations she mentions at the party school, Xi is seemingly not only incompetent but lacking in judgement. 

In handling China’s foreign relations especially, Xi has been nothing but incompetent. Domestically too, he has virtually shunned all reform, other than bolstering his grip and that of the CCP. This points to a leader who has no idea how to move the country forward.

It’s not that China’s power is not growing under Xi’s leadership, but rather that its power is growing significantly more slowly because of his leadership failures. That slowdown has in effect thrown the West a lifeline of sorts, giving it the time needed to get its act together and offer an alternative to China’s nightmarish vision of a world order.

File photo: USGov.

Take China’s “14 demands” to Australia, for example, a form of economic terrorism. They include ordering Canberra to stop funding local institutions whose work the CCP deems “anti-China”, curtailing its law enforcement if such enforcement relates to China or the CCP, changing its industrial policy, changing its behaviour in international multilateral organs, altering its foreign policy to align better with the CCP’s wishes, and making legal changes to allow greater access for Chinese companies in security-sensitive fields. 

In short, should Australia acquiesce to those 14 demands it would become a modern-day vassal state. Even if other examples are less extreme, from Canada, to Sweden, Korea and the Czech Republic, it is nonetheless the same strategy in play. 

Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesperson Zhao Lijian. File photo: GovCN.

China is not seeking to take over Australia, Sweden or any other country. Rather it wants to make them submit to its authority, to become modern-day tributary states, if you will. A country has the freedom to do what it wishes unless it comes into conflict with China, in which case the CCP has the final say. 

Xi’s vision for a world where China dictates the terms is no different from longstanding CCP ideology. We are lucky that Xi Jinping’s blundering incompetence and desperate need to shore up domestic legitimacy under any circumstance is providing a sneak preview of what kind of world it aims to achieve, and thus giving us all time to respond. 

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Peter Dahlin

Peter Dahlin was co-founder of now-defunct Chinese NGO 'China Action' (2009-2016) and is the director of Safeguard Defenders, which assist lawyers, independent media, and civil society groups across east- and southeast Asia in protecting human rights and promoting the rule of law.