In this second article in my series on the emerging new global order, I look at China’s objectives, calculus, and way of operations as it, not only, asserts itself as a mega power, but also corrects what it sees as a historical aberration in the past 150 years.
Understanding China’s rise to become a mega power in the world necessitates looking at a map of the Pacific ocean and East Asia. On it, one must keep three crescents (or curved lines) ) in mind. The first is the immediate maritime sphere surrounding China’s eastern and southern borders. This, by all assessments, has already come under China’s direct control. No power, not even the United States, will now challenge China’s supremacy in this area. China has now fully secured its mainland.
The second crescent extends to China’s key neighbours: from Japan and Korean in the north to Vietnam in the south. This is now the crux of the strategic, yet distant and still cool, face-off between the US and China. China’s most important current strategic objective is to deny the US, and certainly Japan, the ability to challenge its supremacy in this maritime region, which includes Taiwan as well as the islands contested by both Japan and China. But the core of the matter here is not any territory; it is influence. America, as we’ve presented in the first part of this series, has been building major capabilities exactly on the border of this area. Actually, two thirds of all American forces stationed in Japan are at its maritime border with China. For China, however, this area has always been its civilisational realm.
Two words merit attention here: “always” and “civilisational”. China has been absent from that region since Western powers – initially Britain then the US – have established presence in the area in the mid nineteenth century. And for a period in the first half of the twentieth century it was Japan that held sway in the region, including by invading China itself. But these 150 years are a historical aberration, for before that, for at least two thousand years, the whole of East Asia was utterly under China’s influence.
Influence here transcended political homage from the region’s rulers to China’s emperor. Influence meant that social norms, religious or philosophical foundations, commercial underpinnings such as customs and precedents, and key cultural features, including language, all had their ultimate references in China.
Returning to that state of affairs, which existed prior to the Western appearance in East Asia 150 years ago, is the central idea behind China’s rise as a mega power. It is the desire – or aspiration – that the Chinese Communist Party, supported by large swaths of the population, instils in the society.
This is why the question of China projecting its power in that second crescent is not a matter of if but when.
This “when” is a function of two variables.
The first is how resistant East Asian nations would be to this Chinese expansionism. The offer is clear. In return for their acceptance, China presents them with major investments, a largely subsidised pan-regional infrastructure, often developmental support, and of course access to its colossal market. This is a historical evolution. In the centuries prior to the nineteenth, China expected acquiescence to its supremacy on the back of its unrivalled size, and in its view, cultural superiority. Now, China’s offer is quite transactional.
It is also a restraint offer. China is orchestrating and executing its expansion in East Asia, in the current phase, so that it stops short of antagonising India to the level of mobilisation, and short of resuscitating in Japan its old militant spirit.
But it is the second variable that is crucial to this first phase of the emerging new global order. That is, America’s response towards China’s expansion in East Asia along that second crescent in the Pacific.
It is highly likely that America seeks to delay – rather than deny - China’s securing that region for itself. America realises that, for it, East Asia is the most important theatre in the strategic confrontation with China. For China, however, East Asia (excluding Japan) is its backyard, that old domain China’s idea of itself is inextricably linked to. America will deploy major resources to make China’s expansion into this region slow, gradual, and crucially costly and fraught. Ultimately, however, America will yield it to China - for denying it will mean war.
Simultaneously, however, America will erect strong barriers against any further Chinese expansion beyond East Asia, beyond that second crescent. The nuclear submarines that are at the heart of the new AUKUS arrangement between the US, the UK and Australia, are but a clear example of such barriers. America is already putting its foot down, along the third crescent, from Japan to Indonesia’s maritime borders. In this way, America is tactically acquiescing to China’s rise to be a mega power with a clear, historically-backed sphere of influence in East Asia (excluding Japan), but strategically denying China the potential of asserting itself as an equal, as a superpower of growing multiple global presences.
This is an arrangement that China will likely accept – in the first phase of the emerging new global order.
This means that the next few years will witness pushes and pulls between America and China in East Asia – a game intended not to mark territories, but to expend the other’s energies and resources – a new Cold War largely focused on one specific, though vast, region. And it is the region with the most promising economic growth and social mobility in the world.
Two more variables arise.
The first would be how China will operate in East Asia. China understands that almost all East Asian countries are apprehensive about its return. Some are clearly deepening their links to the US, and so joining its efforts to exact major costs on China as it re-enters the region. China’s ability to balance what it considers its historical right and the grand idea of its rise, with the transactional approach she has been using in the past decade, will be the most important dynamic to observe here.
However, the second variable is perhaps more important, for its implications affect the nature of the emerging order. That is, what will Japan and India do? These two powerful countries stand at the north and south of East Asia. And in the same way that China remembers the centuries before its humiliation in the mid nineteenth century, both Japan and India remember their centuries-long acute competition with China before the mid-nineteenth century – let alone their wars with her in the twentieth. This is why the calculus of Japan and India is different from that of the US. The third article in this series reflects on their potential courses of action.