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.
In The Grand Chessboard (1997), Zbigniew Brzezinski presents a map of what Greater Chinese influence is likely to look like in the future, and shows it extending through parts of the Indian Ocean, all of Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, and the First Pacific Island Chain. But he also suggests that, in keeping with Chinese imperial history, Beijing will seek to apply its influence very indirectly.
According to that vision, the navies and air forces of America, China, India, Japan, and other powers would patrol the seas and air spaces in concert, defending the global commons against pirates and other marauders. That is the future we should strive to achieve. Just as celebrating Zheng He was one signal sent out by China, its dispatch of ships to the Horn of Africa both to fight piracy and to assert its presence in the Indian Ocean was another. Rather than fret over China’s rise we should embrace it, and seek to manage it through robust relationships with democratic countries like India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and others.