New Delhi: While there is no reason to relax the vigil against Chinese expansion, the fact is this. There are limits to Chinese expansionism. It could never get as far as China becoming a Middle Kingdom. Indeed, China would even struggle to be a reasonable Major Power, let alone a Great Power which can influence geopolitics to its lasting advantage. China’s handicaps are that it is a totalitarian state; it has negligible soft power; and its political and power projection capacities beyond the South China Sea and the East China Sea are quite limited. Take away the intervention in the Korean War and the war against Vietnam for seeking to bring Cambodia under its influence and China is revealed as a Major Power-lite. China is still many times stronger than when Mao Zedong seized power in 1949 after the victory in the civil war. But it will never become a superpower like the United States or even the former Soviet Union and it will suffer a swifter decline from peak than they did although a breakup of China like Soviet Russia’s is not yet indicated.

China has minimal soft power. Despite trying, the world is not sold on martial arts movies and Confucius. Mandarin is a good addition to business skills but it will never replace English. On its own, soft power counts for little in geopolitics. But when combined with hard power, it acts like a force multiplier. The United States is the world’s strongest power. Its passport, however, is as strong if not stronger. On any given day, there are more people queuing to immigrate to the United States than Russia or China. The magnetic quality of the United States swells its hard power and gives it insuperable edge over Russia and China. This quality not only magnifies its hard power, it also insulates the United States from excessive criticism over foreign interventions. Let China follow the US example in Afghanistan or Iraq or in the rest of the Middle East and North Africa and it will generate such implacable world opposition as to compel China to beat a hasty retreat. China is unlikely to manifest the staying power of even Russia in distant foreign wars.

China moves by stealth into other countries using money power and employing corrupt practices. It succeeds for a while as China succeeded with the Belt and Road Initiative in Malaysia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. China, however, has little understanding of or respect for the democratic process. It believes having the ruler in its pocket gives it a free pass forever. It saw this arrogance shatter in Malaysia, the Maldives and Sri Lanka. Unwilling to give up in Sri Lanka, it attempted a constitutional coup through a presidential dismissal of an elected prime minister enjoying legislative confidence, and its brinkmanship was terminated by the Supreme Court. Pakistan is a different case. The China-Pakistan Economic Corridor will certainly increase Pakistan’s debt burden but there is no other country to turn to except Saudi Arabia which has already proved overindulgent. In any case, the Chinese realize the pitfalls of putting any eggs in the Pakistani basket.

The consuming problem for China is that it became a Major Power rather late in the day. If it had built on the success of stalemating the Korean War with the United States, Chinese history would have taken another course. But Mao Zedong put China through such upheavals with the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution that when Deng Xiaoping brought corrective measures, it was almost too late, and his focus on geo-economics to the extended neglect of geopolitics made China somewhat unidimensional. In any event, totalitarian states are rarely adept at diplomacy and this is as true of Nazi Germany as of Stalin’s Russia. But China is particularly backward in the diplomatic realm. Can you imagine China bringing about an Israeli-Egyptian peace or introducing the Marshall Plan with universal acceptability in Western Europe? The Marshall Plan was offered to the states behind the Iron Curtain and a vast majority would have embraced it but for Stalin. BRI was initially touted as Marshall Plan II but China would be lucky if even one foreign country accepts it in totality.

Indeed, China has suffered such credibility loss with BRI that any capacities it possessed as a Major Power to influence geopolitics now stand discounted. A truism may be derived from this. The combination of liberal democracy with economic, soft and hard powers is essential for world leadership. Russia does not qualify or China. That leaves only the United States. Unless China becomes a democracy, it can quit thinking about world dominion. Ironically, however, democracies do not aspire for world conquests.