Writing about the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks on the U.S. would normally be outside our purview. Yet, on this 10th anniversary, we are struck by how the biggest gainer in the post-9/11 decade has been China. Over that time, its power has increased more than any nation’s, or non-nation’s, primarily its economic clout but also its diplomatic and political heft.
The attacks on New York and Washington remade the world in many dimensions, and the changes that were bringing about the emergence of developing nations, particularly China and its fellow Brics, were underway before 9/11. Yet they have undoubtedly gained in momentum and conspicuousness since. Washington’s “war on terror” distracted the U.S. from preparing for such a changed world in which its own primacy is lessened, power has become diffused among multiple centers, national interests have fragmented, multilateral institutions lost leadership and the developing world become more able and forceful in setting a global agenda.
That has provided, if not a power vacuum, then a set of circumstances in which Beijing has been able to grow its economy rapidly and to extend its global influence. In the latter years of the 9/11 decade, its economic travails have made it more difficult for America to absorb the extension of its military responsibilities beyond what it could afford. The total cost of the war on terror to the U.S. taxpayer is put at upwards of $4 trillion, while the benefits have accrued to a wider world than just America. That includes China, which, it is still worth remembering, for all its rise over the past decade, is more deeply embedded in the global framework than it was a decade ago, remains happy for Washington to bear the brunt of being global cop, and still depends on the U.S. and Europe for export markets that provide a sizable chunk of its people’s prosperity.
9/11 is a complex event for Beijing. America’s war on terror has been useful in dealing with its Muslim minorities in its western reaches and beyond. Curtailments of civil liberties in Western democracies have similarly been to its advantage more broadly domestically. America’s wars of choice over the past decade have also afforded Beijing diplomatic opportunities in its geopolitical jockeying with Washington, and to play the more internationally engaged role the West has asked of it.
Other consequences of the 9/11 decade have troubled it, notably the Arab Springs, fomented by the Arab youth that al-Qaeda would have hoped to recruit as its jihadists but who put their lives on the line in the cause of democracy against authoritarian governments. Internally, the Party has also struggled to balance the nationalist sentiments emboldened by a belief that the U.S. is wounded with the reformers who see the need for cooperation with America if they are to bring about the internal change China needs to rebalance its economy as its rapid pace of growth starts, inevitably, to slow–with the political challenges to the Party’s legitimacy to rule that that will bring.
We would not argue that China would be on a different development trajectory today had 9/11 not happened. There is a case though, we believe, that it would neither be as far along as it is nor as comfortable with its place in the world.