Superpower in the making

Doaa El-Bey , Tuesday 7 Feb 2023

Chapters on China, Cairo

El Sayed Amin Shalaby, Chapters on China, Cairo: General Egyptian Book Organisation, 2022, pp224


In his latest book, the diplomat and analyst El Sayed Amin Shalaby traces the reform and economic development that has made China the second economic power in the world, after it surpassed Japan. In a chapter entitled “When China rules the world”, Shalaby writes that Goldman Sachs, the American multinational investment bank and financial services company, expects that China will be the biggest world economy by 2027; it will stay the biggest in 2050, when it will be followed by the US then India.

The author borrowed the title of that chapter from a 2009 book by the British journalist Martin Jacques, which mainly discussed the issue of how might China behave as a superpower. The book pointed to two factors that should be considered in answering this question. The first is based on the pragmatic school in international relations, which focuses on interests. According to that factor, China is going to behave like any other superpower including the US. The second factor is how the culture and history of a country might affect its behaviour when it becomes a superpower. As quoted by Shalaby, Jacques believed that these two contradictory factors will govern China’s behaviour as a superpower. Thus, it is unlikely that China will be aggressive in the next half century. It will rule with caution and self-restraint.

On the other hand, when China becomes more self-confident, the old feeling of supremacy will rise to the surface and the belief that it represents a more sublime civilisation will be more conspicuous. Shalaby devotes a sizeable part of Chapters on China to reviewing US-Chinese relations. He starts by briefly casting light on the last few centuries in the history of China, relying on the work of those who wrote about the country including the Venetian explorer Marco Polo in the 11th century, the French historian Montesquieu in the16th century and the US writer Pearl Pack in the 20th century.

He then goes on to discuss those relations in more detail, starting in 1971 when the US Secretary of States Henry Kissinger visited Beijing. That visit paved the way for US President Richard Nixon’s visit in 1972 which opened a new chapter of strategic relations and ended a quarter century of estrangement between the two states. Shalaby expresses his belief that the best way to review the US relations with China since then is Kissinger’s own book On China.  

In his review of On China, Shalaby says that in the first three chapters the author focuses on the history of China as a way to understand its modern reality. He casts light on modern China under four leaders, starting from Mao Zedong, to Deng Xiaopeng, to Jinag Zemin to Hu Jintao. After his visit to Beijing and meeting with Mao, Nixon predicted that in spite of poverty in China, the abilities of its people would push the country to become one of the world’s superpowers because, given an efficient system, 800 million Chinese would be able to govern the world.

That visit, Shalaby argues, led to the Shanghai Communique that prepared the ground for normalisation of relations between the two states. The document also formally acknowledged that Taiwan is part of China, and cited hopes to expand economic and cultural contact between the two nations.

Kissinger sees the visit as carrying the seeds of genuine development in international relations because the re-involvement of China in international diplomacy gave the new world order further flexibility.

Shalaby then casts light on the development of China under Mao Zedong who led the revolution and united China, followed by Deng Xiaopeng, who put China on the threshold of being a world superpower, Jinag Zemin and Hu Jintao who pursued Deng’s track and made China the second global economic power.

Then Shalaby raises two important questions. First, does China present a threat to the US and the West? And what is the best way to deal with it, through containment as the West did with the Soviet Union or engagement to ensure that it will be part of a co-operative world order?

The second question is whether the American dream is in contradiction with the Chinese dream. On first impressions the implication is that it is since the first is based on the success of the individual while the second is based on the success of the nation. However, there is a common factor between the two: equal opportunities. Americans believe that the individual should be given the chance to make great achievements in life while the Chinese believe that they should be rewarded for the efforts they exert. That is, both believe in and seek social justice.

The author devotes another chapter to the Belt and Road Initiative, regarding it as staring a new era of international cooperation. In addition, it ended the US and European monopoly on global trade and that explained their doubts about it. However, Shalaby explained, that did not stop European countries like Italy from joining the initiative, perhaps signalling the transition from a unipolar to a bipolar  or multipolar order, a healthier system that guarantees balanced international relations.

In the chapter entitled “China and Russia”, the author casts light on relations between the two countries from alliance in the 1950s to enmity in the 1960s and 1970s to the present rapprochement and trade cooperation. However, Shalaby reiterates in his book the queries of political analysts regarding whether the rapprochement and good neighbourly relations between the two states will last and if it can be developed into full-fledged alliance like that of the 1950s.

In his take on China’s relations with Africa, Shalaby writes that the black continent contributed to China’s ascendency to its present status. He refers to a Chinese study on the role of Africa conducted in 2009 that cast light on that role in detail. The study argues that the friendship between China and Africa for more than 50 years contributed to raising the international status of China. China, Shalaby argues, presents to Africa a successful track for development that it can follow to reduce poverty. It is an alternative to the track presented by the West that put pressure on the continent and burdened it via the World Bank and the IMF. Africa, for its part, has supported Chinese national unity and backed it in various internal venues such as applying for membership in World Trade Orgnisation among others.

Shalabi devotes the last chapter to China’s relations with Egypt. He points out that Egypt was one of the first countries to recognise the People’s Republic of China in 1956 at a time when there was ferocious competition between the two world camps for hegemony. Through the years, the two countries managed to accumulate mutual experiences that were reflected in the joint communique issued in 1999 which outlined the strategic cooperation between the two countries on the bilateral and international levels. The two countries also agreed on various issues regarding the Middle East, including creating a nuclear-free zone.

Shalaby, who has contributed regularly to the Weekly’s opinion page, has been a diplomat since 1961, serving in Prague, Belgrade, Moscow and Lagos before becoming our ambassador to Norway in 1990. In 1966, he took part in the establishment of the Foreign Ministry’s Institute for Diplomatic Studies and in 1999 of the Egyptian Council of Foreign Affairs, an NGO, serving as its executive director in 2000-2015.

Shalaby is the author of many books including World Order at the Crossroads in 1967, From the Cold War to the Search for a New World Order in 1996, Egyptian American Relations from 1952 to 2015 in 2015 and Egypt and the Development of the New World Order in 2020.

* A version of this article appears in print in the 9 February, 2023 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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