“Will China dominate the twenty-first century?” So asks the title of a short book by Jonathan Fenby, a British journalist who was editor of Hong Kong’s South China Morning Post during the period when that bustling entrepôt was being transferred from British control to the sovereignty of the People’s Republic.
Fenby’s answer is no: The Communist Party is too ossified and inflexible in its authoritarian ways. China’s fabled economic growth is unsustainable and poorly managed. The burgeoning middle class notwithstanding, huge swathes of the populace are mired in poverty. Environmental, demographic, agricultural and social crises loom as water resources dwindle and rural migration leaves too few skilled workers back on the farm. To top off the list of festering ills, the model that China presents to the world — prosperity without participatory politics — does not stir the heart like the ideals of liberal democracy and human rights.
This negative review has been warmly welcomed in the Western press and in Washington. On the book jacket, former George W. Bush administration official and World Bank president Robert Zoellick congratulates Fenby, a “delightful writer,” on his success in explaining “why the ‘China dream’ may lead to a chilly awakening.”
In Washington, and among the American chattering classes, the “China dream” is more like a recurring nightmare. In the early 2000s, the pages of Foreign Affairs and other journals of elite opinion were full of ruminations about China’s “confident diplomacy,” “booming economy,” “global hunt for resources” and, in particular, whether Beijing’s claim to be “peacefully rising to great-power status” is to be believed. Left-leaning outlets broke out in cold sweats of their own about the enormous tranche of US Treasury bills held by the People’s Republic. The value of these holdings reached a record $1.317 trillion in November 2013. What would happen if Beijing stopped buying this US debt and started selling it?
Such anxieties set the stage for subsequent rounds of the wonks’ shadowboxing match with the dragon. As the Bush junior administration staggered through its second term, and US forces in Iraq reeled from the blows of multiple insurgencies, commentators began to wonder if China might seek to challenge the military might of the United States or even covet the US role as guarantor of stability in the Persian Gulf. Where, after all, could China find more tempting targets in the “global hunt” for fuel for its “booming economy”? The worries about China coincided with publication of several tracts that predicted overall American decline vis-à-vis Asia. In 2010, ex-Nixon administration man Geoffrey Kemp wrote a book titled The East Moves West, the text of which documents the growing Chinese, Indian, Japanese and South Korean business interests in the Middle East but the subtext of which warns that US power is waning.
Around this time, a pair of maps circulated in the foreign policy corridors of the Internet. One map shows the “nine-dash line” that the Chinese military draws in the South China Sea to delimit the territorial waters to which it lays claim. This line starts at Hainan Island off the Leizhou Peninsula, curls down the Vietnamese coast, heads far out to sea, then loops northwest to hug the island Malaysian shore and the Philippines before ending at the southern tip of Taiwan. The expansive claim, which China’s maritime neighbors strongly protest, is the basis for Beijing’s parallel claims to various island chains whose coastal shelves contain rare earths used in making electronics. A second map, which sounded even louder alarms in Washington, depicts the “string of pearls,” an 11-piece necklace of ports and military bases that coils from Hainan Island out to sea, wraps around the Burmese shoreline to Bangladesh, dips below India to Sri Lanka and then clasps the hand of Pakistan in the port of Gwadar. China is pumping millions of dollars into upgrading the port facilities and oil refineries at this last “pearl.” The plan is that Chinese tankers full of Middle Eastern crude will dock in Gwadar to offload their cargo for refining and transport to China by pipeline. In tandem with such moves, Beijing has hiked its military spending. In 2014, these expenditures will rise by 12.2 percent to a total of $132 billion.
Beijing says it sees commercial opportunity, cost savings and “energy security” in the “nine-dash line” and the “string of pearls.” Its maritime neighbors and India see an old-fashioned resource grab. The Pentagon sees “access denial” — strategists fear that, as part of a larger scheme to achieve superpower status, China will try to block US navigation of these waters, which the US Navy has patrolled as a matter of course since the close of World War II. This trepidation is not new. It is often forgotten that, before the September 11, 2001 attacks interrupted their reverie, the hawks in the Bush junior administration were deep in contemplation of a perceived yellow peril. The most serious US foreign policy crisis of 2001 before the fall was an incident that April when a Chinese fighter pilot forced to ground an American EP-3 spy plane. According to Col. Lawrence Wilkerson, then chief of staff for Secretary of State Colin Powell, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld were bent on fomenting a new Cold War over the captured plane. Later, as the post-September 11 “war on terror” unfolded, it could not have been lost on Beijing that US deployments in Pakistan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan not only encircled the Taliban but also formed part of a semicircle cupping China.
We surmise that Chinese strategists must pass around a third set of maps, those demarcating the “areas of responsibility” of the various fleets of the US Navy. The Fifth Fleet, based in Bahrain, prowls a massive expanse of the Indian Ocean; the bombers on its aircraft carriers are “responsible” for dozens of countries stretching from Kenya to Kazakhstan (but not including Israel). Much of the oil that China imports from the Persian Gulf passes through the “chokepoint” of the Strait of Hormuz, which the Fifth Fleet could seal shut. The Seventh Fleet, headquartered in Japan, sails the oceans blue and gray from the boundaries of the Fifth Fleet’s domain all the way to California. That “area of responsibility” includes the Straits of Malacca, another “chokepoint” that Chinese tankers must traverse at present. The US military budget is larger than those of the next eight countries combined and six times greater than the Chinese allocation. In view of these facts, one might think that American China watchers would calm down a bit. But there is little such serenity in Washington, where the alternative to utter US domination is envisioned as chaos or worse.
Pentagon planners, for their part, are most perturbed by the allotment of the increased Chinese military spending. Many of the dollars are going to long-range missiles and small, agile warships rather than to aircraft carriers or other such symbols of leviathan strength. The Pentagon, in fact, sees the missiles and attack boats as instruments of “access denial,” ways for Chinese admirals to harass or hobble the carriers and battleships of the Fifth and Seventh Fleets as they steam to the combat zones of the future. “We need to make sure that we can actually get to the fight,” a US Air Force official told Financial Times scribe Geoff Dyer for his entry in the US-versus-China canon, The Contest of the Century. To comfort themselves, Pentagon soothsayers have hatched the idea of AirSea Battle, a “blinding campaign” of bombardment aimed at Chinese radar and missile installations. An escalatory dynamic is in place.
On the economic front, the Obama administration is pursuing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), a trade liberalization pact with multiple Asian partners of whom China is conspicuously not one. The TPP negotiations face many pitfalls, including opposition from prominent legislators in both Tokyo and Washington, as well as many other capitals in Asia and the Americas. Aside from tariff reductions, the TPP would permit corporations to demand restitution for sales lost to national consumer protection laws, like Australia’s restriction on offshoring of personal medical records and Mexico’s “junk food tax.” Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz compares such coercive components of the TPP to the pretext for the Opium Wars, when “Western powers successfully demanded that China keep itself open to opium because they saw it as vital in correcting what otherwise would be a large trade imbalance.”
China has its own trade integration project that embraces Indonesia, another Asian country left out of the TPP, as well as many nations that are entertaining the TPP offer. Thus far, Chinese officials are circumspect about the specter of a competing US-centered free trade agreement. “We think there will be no conflict,” said assistant commerce minister Wang Shouwen at an April briefing on the subject. But, again, the potential is there.
The dynamics of great-power rivalry find rhetorical expression in the Obama administration’s pronouncement of a “pivot to Asia.” Thus far more aspiration than reality, the “pivot” is the phrase-long distillation of the past decade of apprehension about Chinese progress and American overstretch. If the Republican jabs at President Barack Obama for failing, to date, to execute the pivot are any indication, the state of US-Chinese relations will be a bone of partisan contention for some time to come. Politicians of both parties have proven depressingly adept at blaming China for the profit-driven decisions of American capitalists to rely on poorly paid and protected Chinese workers to assemble their products. The corresponding current of popular hostility to China has its counterpart on the Chinese side, where a nationalist-populist right of unknown size but impressive lungs is vocally anti-American (and even more anti-Japanese). This strain of Chinese nationalism seems similar in genealogy to the contemporary brand of anti-Americanism in Egypt. The old anti-imperial state ideology has withered away; the new state has accommodated itself to the US-led world order; the socio-economic status of the majority of the citizenry is incommensurate with the past glories of which the state claims to be guardian and heir.
It is possible, of course, to conceive of a different future, one defined by cooperation rather than competition. Wilkerson, for example, calls for a “great state compact” between the US and China, akin to the Atlantic Charter binding the US together with Great Britain. Such a compact, he says, would consist of amends for past wrongs and pledges to work together in the present, most pressingly on mitigation of the effects of climate change. Such ideas are worthy of exploration, but scarcely account for politics. The US leaders who would conclude this grandest of bargains would have to be extraordinarily skillful and patient, not only in building from the ground up the social base that would support them, but also in neutralizing the numerous vested interests who cannot imagine a world not defined by competition and whose entire conception of strategy is rooted in keeping America number one. We doubt that the Chinese elite’s ingrained impulses are significantly more enlightened.
We offer this issue of Middle East Report in accordance with two other propositions. First, the forces of history (not to mention climate change) are usually stronger than the predilections of the wisest statesmen. Second, the post-World War II “American century” is not a norm but a historical period like any other. It will end. During this period, most sets of international relations were refracted through the prism of relations with Washington, so that, for instance, China trod carefully in the Middle East to avoid disturbing the US system of alliances. The countries of the Middle East, in turn, saw China in reaction to how they saw the US — as friend or foe.
It was not ever thus. In previous centuries, China and other non-Western regions, whether the Middle East or Africa, had mutual ties that had nothing whatsoever to do with the West. There was the Silk Road, of course, that long predated the journey of Marco Polo. There was the Chinese commander Zheng He, a Muslim who undertook several voyages by land and sea to the Middle East in the fifteenth century. Zheng’s trips were not just pilgrimages to Mecca, but diplomatic and commercial overtures, according to the contemporary Chinese state, which has revived this history as a way to court chanceries in Muslim states. He “brought silk, tea and the Chinese culture” to distant shores, as former Chinese premier Wen Jiabao put it, “but not one inch of land was occupied.” Geoffrey Wade, an Australian historian who studies Zheng, is not so sure that the commander’s expeditions were peaceful. His fleets could number as many as 300 ships and they were well armed. In any case, it is entirely possible that the world of the twenty-first century will be “no one’s world,” as Cemil Aydin writes in this issue. The world certainly need not revolve around the White House.
We advance still a third proposition: In today’s world, the links between regions will be shaped by states, but not controlled by them. Petty commerce, migration, language learning, cultural and intellectual exchange, sharing of experiences of struggle — these forces are also bigger, arguably, than the programs of policymakers. The everyday connections between China and the Middle East documented in this issue are modest examples. If there is to be an alternative future, one less violent and unjust, one where the structural incentives do encourage cooperation, it will emerge from the contact of ordinary people with their peers across the near seas and the far.
Image: The US Fifth Fleet’s “area of responsibility.”