China is unnerving a lot of people. Its hackers have been launching cyber-attacks on companies, institutions, and web sites. It is refusing to be a responsible stakeholder in the international political system, cultivating, as it has been, good relations with some of the world’s most odious regimes. And, as I have been reporting for several years now, its military—particularly its navy—has been growing by leaps and bounds. Should we be worried about China?
We should be concerned, but not hysterical.
China is rising as a great power, that’s for sure. I see China’s rise as similar to that of the United States after the Civil War. From the end of the Civil War to the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. economy (under forgettable presidents – Hayes, Garfield, Arthur…) expanded steadily, with high growth rates for decades. We closed the frontier and would eventually build the Panama Canal. And as our power grew, we developed interests around the world that we never previously had, and that led to Navy and Marine landings in South and Central America, and in the Pacific, as we became a two-ocean Navy. We didn’t explicitly seek power so much as we naturally followed our interests. We rose legitimately, in other words. And China is doing likewise.
It needs to be emphasized that China is not Iran under Mahmoud Ahmedinejad: it is not threatening to destroy any nation. It does not promote a radical philosophy. Its nationalism may at times be assertive, but it also sends out signals of benevolence.
A case in point, which may indicate the kind of military power China will turn out to be in the 21st century, involves its recent commemoration of Zheng He, the early-Ming Dynasty explorer. Zheng He sailed his treasure fleet through the Strait of Malacca and out across the Indian Ocean as far as the Horn of Africa, stopping in Ceylon, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Arabian Peninsula along the way. Zheng He’s naval fleet brought trade and prosperity and suppressed piracy, and his commemoration is a way for China to indicate two points: that it intends eventually, if all goes well, to build a two-ocean navy – covering the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean (a development that would signal China’s rise as a great military power to go along with its economic clout); and that it intends this projection of power to be benign.
But China is a long way from having a two-ocean navy. It does give significant amounts of military and economic aid to Indian Ocean littoral countries like Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Burma, and is involved in port building projects in all these places. But whether these projects evolve into overt naval bases for the Chinese is highly questionable. More likely, port authorities from third countries will end up running these harbors. And China will be careful not to provoke India, with whom its relations are already quite delicate. What’s more likely to happen – and this is a clue to power relationships as a whole in this new century – is that rather than official Cold War-era style military bases, navies and air forces like our own and China’s will have subtle access agreements, whose use will depend upon the health of the bilateral relationships in question.