The Changing Scope of International Economic Relations – Chinese Leadership in the 21st Century

Svetoslav, BG

The crisis in Ukraine from March 2014 sparked a fire between the West and Russia that will smoulder long after its resolution. The conflict carries the potential for enormous repercussions – social, political, and economic – for both sides. With the outstripping growth of many Asian economies – China, South Korea, Singapore, inter alia – and the said crisis, the increasingly eastward focus of international economic relations gathered even more momentum.

Exemplar is the deal signed in May 2014 between the Russian Federation and the People’s Republic of China (PRC) in the amount of USD 400 billion for the transit of gas. After failing to secure fruitful relations with the West since the end of the Cold War, Russia, with the stroke of a pen, “significantly shifted its economic relations with its neighbors, creating a major new export market to the east” [1]. Moreover, all top 10 container ports in the world for 2014 are Asian, seven of which – Chinese[2]. This is another illustration of the economic upsurge of the East, and in particular – the growing importance of China in global trade which exports in 2009[3] surpassed that of Germany to become the leading exporting nation.

Economic relations between the two biggest trading blocs – the European Union (EU) and China – have tripled in the last 10 years (148 billion EUR in 2003; 428 billion EUR in 2013[4]), but are yet to flourish. The bilateral relations between China and EU Member States have been more active than the bilateral relations between China and the EU as a whole. However, 2013 was marked by two major breakthroughs. The first half of the year saw a development of the matter with the sales of Chinese solar panels in Europe, while the second was determined by an EU-China summit in Beijing which resulted in the signing of the ‘EU-China 2020 Strategic Agenda for Co-operation’. “[…] by pushing suddenly for a free trade treaty and hinting that it is open to talks with the US on joining the TPP, China may have switched the issue again at the top of the EU-China relationship.“ (European Council on Foreign Relations, 2014). Although this is a humble beginning, it shows that China and the European Union are realizing that they should step up their relations if they would like to remain leaders in commerce and seek even more active bilateral engagements.

By the beginning of the 7th century, China was one of the most prosperous and renowned civilisations worldwide. In economic and military terms – its power “dwarfed that of neighbouring peoples.” (The Economist, 2014). Currently, China is assiduously knocking at the door of the USA to soon claim again its spot as the world’s leading economy. But is economy the main indicator of a country’s strength? The Chinese elites are challenged by a huge-scale poverty, which outstrips any other country with the exception of India (The Economist, 2014).  Nonetheless, despite that PRC’s environment situation in many cities is in dire straits, some analysts regard that as providing even more leeway for economic development – by creating more jobs for ecologists, economists and political scientists fighting against climate change and pollution. In this regard, China could cooperate with the European Union, a ferocious supporter of environmental politics, on best practices and experience exchange. The newly elected President of the European Commission – Jean-Claude Juncker – reaffirmed this: “I strongly believe in the potential of green growth. I therefore want Europe’s Energy Union to become the world number one in renewable energies.” (Juncker, 2014). If Chinese authorities would like to have a leading role in the economic race, they should undoubtedly embrace a more sustainable yet more fervent environmental approach. It seems that this is inscribed in Xi Jinping’s model of Beautiful China – healthy environment, low pollution (The New York Times, 2013).

In July 2014, China was the leader in establishing the New Development Bank in Shanghai, members of which are all BRICS countries and which looks like an inexperienced substitute of the World Bank, “leading to a talk of a “Chinese Breton Woods”. “China’s people and leaders feel their nation’s time has come once again” (The Economist, 2014). In general, Chinese foreign policy is vehemently opposed to regime change and pursues little or no interference at all in other countries’ internal affairs. It vetoed against the military interventions of the West in Syria and Darfur and refrained from taking a position on the annexation of Crimea by Russia. In the US-Russia-China triangle, the central player will be China, rather than the United States of America (Russia in Global Affairs, 2014).

China’s remarkable growth rates of more than 10% in the last thirty years has led it to become the world’s second largest economy by nominal GDP[5] and the world’s largest manufacturing economy and the biggest exporter of goods[6]. However, in mid-2014 China’s growth has slowed and the country announced new plans. Having “conquered” the international trade, the PRC must now focus on reforms to increase domestic consumption and improve its internal infrastructure and overall well-being of its people (Beijing Bulletin, 2014).

To augment its image as a super power, will it adopt a different approach of more Chinese engagement, thus marching contrary to its current foreign policy, or will it be able to resist the temptation? “[…] China stands on the verge of greatness.” (The Economist, 2014). Xi Jinping developed the concept of the Chinese dream – the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation” or the “Two 100s” – turning China into a moderately well-off society by 2020, which marks the 100th anniversary of the Chinese Communist Party, and China becoming a fully developed nation by 2049, which marks the 100th anniversary of the People’s Republic (The New York Times, 2013). Will this dream of the current Chinese president materialise? The following decades could prove to be the most challenging of all.







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