The Asian Century 7 19 July 2019.

What are the ambitions of contemporary China?  To what extent does Xi Jinping speak for those ambitions?  How do actions reveal ambitions?  How likely is China to attain those ambitions?  That is, how great are Chinese resources and to what extent will China’s actions create counter-vailing pressure?   These are important questions with no crystal-clear answers.[1]  Still, take them in reverse order.

First, China’s tremendous economic transformation in the years since the death of Mao and his system have raised China up into the second largest economy in the world.   On the one hand,[2] this has given China abundant financial resources to deploy.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” is a gigantic infrastructure program.  It is building highways, railroads, pipelines, and ports in that link China with “the Stans,”[3] with South and Southeast Asia, and with the Indian Ocean.  It is building dams and roads in places like Cambodia.  On the other hand, it has given the Chinese an immense, justified pride in themselves and their country.  The 19th Century “of humiliation” is at an end, but the psychological legacy remains powerful.

Second, there are forces that may disrupt the assertion of Chinese power.  On the one hand, the very uneven distribution of the fruits of prosperity, environmental degradation, and pervasive corruption have piled up fuel for a potential fire.  “Never throw a match when it’s dry, son.”[4]  Hoping to avert such a catastrophe, the Communist Party has engaged in “techno-authoritarianism” and old-fashioned prison camps.  Keeping a lid on a boiling pot isn’t the same thing as turning down the heat.  On the other hand, China’s growing presence in East Asia, South Asia, and Central Asia sets off many alarms.  The “Belt and Road Initiative” has expanded China’s influence in the “Stans.” If someone needs to be concerned about China’s expanding influence, it is Russia.  Around the South China Sea, China has aroused concern in other countries like Japan, Vietnam, and Taiwan.  Then, there is the Chinese impact on common people.  As one Burmese told a Western journalist: “[The Chinese] smile with their faces, but are crooked in their hearts.”

Third, under Zi Jinping, “China is determined to take its place as a modern world power.”  What does “world power” mean to the Chinese and their leaders?  It is useful to recall the work on American Cold War foreign policy by the historian John Lewis Gaddis.[5]  Gaddis traced the debates between a low-cost “point defense” of vital American interests and a “symmetrical” global opposition to Communism.  The Chinese appear to aim at dominating their peripheral areas, rather than at mounting a global challenge to America.  Can the United States untangle itself from its global commitments—some of them mere legacies of earlier times—in order to defend its economic and security interests in wat is shaping up to be the decisive arena of the new century?

[1] Tom Miller, China’s Asian Dream: Empire Building along the New Silk Road (2017).

[2] President Truman once exclaimed that “What I want is a one-armed economist so that I don’t have to listen to some son-of-a-bitch go ‘on the one hand,…’.”   Unfortunately, reality has forced the habit upon me.

[3] “Stan” is a Persian suffix that means “the land of.”  Commonly, “the Stans” refer to Kazakhstan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan, Tajikistan, and Kyrgyzstan.  All used to be part of Tsarist Russia, and then of the Soviet Union.

[4] Corb Lund: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N8YyDyap7wI

[5] John Lewis Gaddis, Strategies of Containment: A Critical Appraisal of American National Security Strategy During the Cold War (rev. ed. 2005).

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