In an idle moment this morning, I was browsing the sale particulars for the Isle of Wiay, a deserted island in the Outer Hebrides in Scotland. Pretty soon I was making mental plans of how I would restore the dilapidated croft, build a jetty and where I would position the wind turbine to avoid spoiling the extraordinary contours of the landscape.
This is what happens after a week in Shanghai. It is not just the scale of Shanghai that is overwhelming; it is the knowledge that this city is now just one of many mega-cities that have sprung up right across China. Just thinking about how this densely populated corner of this massive city is replicated across this vast land is exhausting and makes a depopulated island perched in the Atlantic on the edge of the European land mass seem quite alluring.
Each time I come here I am staggered by the sheer enormity of what it must take to run this country particularly because the stakes are so high. Keeping the Chinese economy growing, making major structural adjustments and meeting the material aspirations of the population is not just a domestic political imperative for the Chinese Communist Party. We all now depend on Chinese success given the extent to which China has become such an integrated and vital component of the global economy.
But can you imagine what it must feel like to be a senior government official charged with the task of devising public policy when there is so much riding on the decisions you make? It would make my brain ache. This is why in the unlikely event I had a major career change and became a high ranking Chinese politician I would want to try and keep the job as simple as possible.
The first thing I would want to clear from my in-tray would be foreign affairs. That has been – with a few exceptions – China’s strategy to date and they are reluctant to meet the rising expectation that China will weigh in on the big issues of the day. After a few days here talking to both Chinese and foreign business leaders, you understand why there is such reluctance: every day spent not keeping the economic show on the road at home must seem a dangerous distraction.
China will inexorably become more drawn into vexed global issues beyond its immediate self-interest. But how it becomes a more assertive global power without switching focus away from the vital work of economic management is the challenge. It would seem that China has three core requirements in crafting an international agenda:
A prosperous America. China and the United States are increasingly mutually dependent but are often locked in patterns of behaviour that reflect outmoded notions of strategic rivalry rather than a pragmatic recognition that on most of the big issues they share common cause. The notion of a rising China and a declining America locked in a competitive tussle is profoundly wrong, if all too familiar. Both need the other’s prosperity and to avoid redundant cold war thinking of geo-politics as a zero sum game. Unfortunately both administrations are populated by many smart and compelling people locked in the old thinking. For now, China will spend too much time trying to outfox America when it could be more productively engaged.
Play nicely with the neighbours. China’s rise has unnerved the region even as it has delivered significant material gains. The tension spikes over a series of territorial disputes with the Philippines, Vietnam and most pointedly with Japan. The China-Japan relationship suffers from too much shared and regrettable history. But like the US-China relationship it needs to shake itself free of old paradigms. Easier said than done and there are few signs that either side is about to take the nationalist edge off the relationship even though for both countries a booming China and a rejuvenated Japan are – currency disputes apart – entirely complementary.
Keep the oil flowing. Here China cannot avoid a degree of involvement and much of its foreign policy is shaped by its raw material needs. But the change of negotiating position by the Iranian Government over the country’s nuclear programme provides the opportunity for a bolder policy more aligned with the United States. No doubt the shift in the Iranian position is more about tactics than strategy; switching from confrontation and rhetoric to charm and guile. But when the tactics change there is sometimes the possibility – distant perhaps- that some kind of strategic breakthrough might happen. China’s interests are at one with America’s: cautious rapprochement lowers the temperature in the Gulf with beneficial consequences on the security and price of the 20% of the world’s crude oil that passes each day through the Straits of Hormuz and now mostly turns left towards China. China is the big winner of improved relations between Washington and Tehran.
It would be nice to think that China might craft a foreign policy agenda that sees it mending fences in the region, seeing America as a strategic partner not a rival and working towards common aims in the currently tumultuous Middle East. Sadly, this may all be hopelessly optimistic.
So perhaps I should make the move to the Isle of Wiay. At least with a very small population (friends and family are welcome) it will be easier to balance domestic economics (cutting peat and fishing) with international affairs (receiving supplies from the neighbouring islands of South Uist and Benbecula). So if you like the look of the place let me know. However brutal the winter storms, it has got be easier than running China.