by Brandon J. Weichert
Whatever China's ultimate intentions are, it is clear that China intends to radically reshape the world order to benefit the Chinese.
The Chinese are intent on rehabilitating their old empire. Once Beijing has achieved this lofty goal (which it is closer to achieving than any care to admit), the Chinese hope to displace the United States as the world's dominant power. Many analysts – particularly Western ones – scoff at this notion. Whatever China's ultimate intentions are, it is clear that China intends to radically reshape the world order to benefit the Chinese. This is the nature of international relations.
Looking at the growth of China from its beginning to the present time, one sees that China has ceaselessly expanded from beyond its cradle along the Yellow River to encompass a large chunk of territory in eastern Eurasia. Initially, Chinese expansion emanated outward from the Yellow River area, moving north and west. Slowly, Chinese expansion pivoted and began moving south, toward the ocean. It now stretches from Afghanistan to North Korea.
Matching Capabilities to Intentions
The reason so many China-watchers have been skeptical about China's intention to become a great power – a truly global empire – is that China's capabilities have not been commensurate with such a goal. For most of China's history, the country has been a continental power. China eschewed major military commitments at sea (with the notable exception of Zheng He's Treasure Fleet in the 15th century). The skeptics assume that this will always be the case in China.
In other words, China is a continental power, like Russia. Therefore, China will remain dominant on land and weak at sea. Yet, unlike Russia, China has a long coastline touching highly important waterways. Its wealthiest provinces disproportionately benefit from maritime trade. Besides, the notion that a continental power, like China, could never pivot and become a maritime force is absurd. After all, the United States did just that!
As a settler nation, the United States began its existence as a predominantlycontinental force. Sure, America had a navy and a long coastline touching the Atlantic Ocean (and it relied heavily on global trade to sustain the country economically). However, from the time of the American War of Independence until the Spanish-American War, the United States was concentrated on expanding – and controlling – the entirety of the North American continent. This was, by definition, a continental policy. Inevitably, the country pivoted and became a naval force used to push out the Spanish Empire, which had long controlled the small island-nation of Cuba to the south of the United States.
What began as a somewhat unbelievable effort to warp the American military away from a continental force – focused on protecting settlers in the frontier – eventuated in the creation of a magnificent navy. The U.S. navy was able to assist in the invasion of Cuba (and the toppling of the Spanish Empire's position in the New World). It also resulted in the United States taking over Spanish colonies in the Philippines – thereby making the United States a key player in the world from then on.
Necessity is the mother of all innovation. The United States believed it had conquered the continent by the close of the 19th century. Rather than simply demobilize its small military force, Washington repurposed it for maritime-heavy operations and began looking farther afield.
This is precisely what the Chinese are doing today. Should Beijing dominate its near abroad, it will turn its gaze toward America's sphere of influence.
Chinese Imperial Ambitions
Where China was once a continental power, Beijing is methodically enhancing the country's naval capabilities. Just like the United States before it, the Chinese naval expansion is meant to displace what Beijing perceives to be a hostile, foreign empire (the United States) supporting an island that has menaced China – since 1949 – from within China's purported sphere of influence. In this instance, Taiwan is to the budding Chinese empire what Cuba in 1898 was to the United States.
Observers are quick to point out that even at its height, the Chinese Empire was only ever a regional power. What few understand is that globalization – and China's sheer size – has led to China becoming a key player in the international system. In fact, since the Sino-Soviet split in the 1970s and the subsequent entente between the United States and China, American money and knowledge has been used to effectively build up China into a major player today.
At one time, the Chinese-American relationship was dubbed "Chimerica." Ever since the 2008 Recession, however, it appears as though the two groups have suffered a divorce (or at least a separation). As old rivalries are inflamed, many soothe themselves with notions that China can never be a threat to the pre-eminent United States.
It is true that China is staring down some major problems: demographic woes, slowing economic growth rates, fallout from an overly centralized government. However, with the exception of demographic woes, China has long suffered through cycles of stagnating economic growth and political turbulence.
Somehow, China has persisted over the centuries. China's return to the world stage as not only a great power, but potentially the greatest power should rouse even the most apathetic American to the nature and extent of the threat.
Unfortunately, like the Spanish Empire in 1898, the United States is ignoring significant threats to itself.
Toward the Chinese Century?
One thing is clear: the Asia-Pacific is a key component of the world economy, and America must have a serious presence there. For decades, China has indicated its intention to harm American interests while empowering itself. That alone is reason to build up America's presence in the Asia-Pacific and to align other states in the region against China.
We continue telling ourselves that China's military threat will never materialize the way some (like myself) fear. However, at each moment, the Chinese threat matures. Westerners said we could impart our industrial capabilities onto Beijing because the West would spearhead the next "knowledge" economy. Not only did the Chinese absorb our industry (that we willingly gave them in exchange for trinkets), but China also (in the last decade) began pivoting to dominate the knowledge sector as well – which it is doing.
My friends on Wall Street maintain that the Chinese economy willimplode. Maybe. We're all still waiting for this to happen. Even if China's economy did implode, that would not mitigate the threat. It would merely change it. After all, an unstable, decentralized China riven with nationalism is possibly even more dangerous than a united quasi-communist one.
For the first time in decades, the United States is competing against a rival whom, in many respects, it has fallen behind. First, American leaders must fully acknowledge the threat. Then the U.S. must move to do what the Spanish failed to do to the rising United States: challenge it early enough to head off any real threat.
Time is not on our side.
Brandon J. Weichert is a geopolitical analyst who manages The Weichert Report: World News Done Right and is a contributor at The American Spectator, as well as a contributing editor at American Greatness. His writings on national security and Congress have appeared at Real Clear Politics, Space News, and HotAir.com. He has been featured on CBS News.com, the BBC, and the Christian Science Monitor. Brandon is a former congressional staffer who holds an M.A. in statecraft and national security affairs from the Institute of World Politics in Washington, D.C. and is currently working on his doctorate in international relations.
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