The Middle Kingdom.

China has emerged from backwardness and isolation with astonishing suddenness.  The death of Mao Zedong, followed by the overthrow of his immediate successors, brought to power Deng Xiaoping.  While opening China to foreign trade, investment, and learning, Deng counseled modesty.  “Hide your brightness, bide your time.”  Now that time has come.  China has begun to exert its power in ways unprecedented in modern times.

The Romans built roads to hold their empire together, then they built a lot of other things to increase its value.  Alarm has begun to spread at a new “One Belt, One Road” enterprise launched by ChiComCo.[1]  The “Belt” is an overland transportation system (roads, railroads, bridges and tunnels) and its attendant support systems (power generation and transmission, a regulated version of the Internet).  The “Road”[2] is the complementary sea-route to Europe, along with all the logistical support (like ports).[3]

Chinese companies can count on the lion’s share of construction contracts.  For example, Chinese construction companies have built “95 deep-water ports, 10 airports, 152 bridges, and 2,080 railroad” segments in countries along the routes of the Belt and Road.  As it is completed, the Belt and Road facilitates Chinese trade.

Recognizing the rising economic power of China, the United States sought to counter this with the “Trans-Pacific Partnership” (TPP) trade treaty.[4]  However, American politics suddenly shifted against an open world economy.  Not only Donald Trump, but Bernie Sanders and then Hillary Clinton declared the TPP a bad deal for Americans.  While the leaders of many countries likely to be touched by China’s great plan attended a “Belt and Road” conference in May 2017, the United States sent only a delegate.  Some of the negative commentary about China’s investments abroad is couched in humanitarian, rather than economic or strategic, terms.  China founded its pursuit of prosperity on seizing land for economic development projects and then shoving huge numbers of people off the land.[5]  (One counter to this is that countries like Pakistan or Cambodia act in similar ways—without greatly improving the economic lives of their citizens.)  The Chinese investment may have a long-term effect of putting the critical infrastructure of developing countries under Chinese control.  Hence, many people see the United States as ceding global leadership to China.[6]

It’s difficult to know what to make of this charge.  On the one hand, George W. Bush in his second term and Barack Obama in both his terms sought to limit American engagement abroad in the interest of strengthening a redoubled country at home.  The Trump Administration’s “America First” rhetoric and policies falls in line with these earlier efforts.  Thus the national impulse seems to be running toward dealing with domestic problems.  It is hard to deny that America has pressing domestic problems that will not be easily resolved.

On the other hand, China’s strengths are many and real.  It would be foolish to think that these will not reshape the global order.  So, where is the sweet spot?

[1] “China’s plan to run the world,” The Week, 16 June 2017, p. 11.

[2] Obviously, the planners hadn’t been reading Cormac McCarthy.  See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Road

[3] For the historical antecedents, see: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zheng_He

[4] The treaty was highly favorable to Americans.  It created a free trade zone encompassing 40 percent of the world’s trade, while creating safeguards for American interests through labor and environmental standards.

[5] Along the way, China moved  86 percent of its people out of extreme poverty.  Many of them moved into lives of middle-class abundance—and stress.

[6] American announcement that the country would withdraw from the Paris Climate Control agreement is offered as a further example of American abdication.