Don't Panic About China

Why we should embrace—rather than fear—the next superpower.

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.

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.

During his term as Secretary of Defense, Donald Rumsfeld expressed concern about China—asking out loud why China was investing so much in its military: who were its enemies? But Rumsfeld missed the point. As a great continental nation’s economy grows, it begins to trade more with the outside world and develops interests it did not have previously: hence a military build-up. As I’ve said, China is simply following the same path we once did.

True, we must be vigilant. We should follow China’s military rise closely, and have plans to confront China in the unlikely event of asymmetrical attacks at sea. A subtle cold war in the Indian and Pacific oceans with China is not out of the question sometime in the 21st century. We should hold Beijing’s feet to the fire on numerous trade and human rights issues. But we must not panic. And we should not assume that the future is necessarily linear. The fact that China’s economy has been growing exponentially for decades now does not mean it will continue thus. Because its government has no unifying philosophy beyond continued economic growth, China is prone to internal unrest in the event of a downturn or Dubai-style unraveling. And that could push it toward assertive nationalism as a way to distract its angry multitudes. Then we might panic. But not now, and not yet.