China is emerging from the deep slumber it has been in for the past centuries. Slowly and awkwardly, the Asian dragon is exerting itself ever surer on the geopolitical chessboard. The weapons of choice are economic, diplomatic, and military—carefully and shrewdly arranged in that order. China understands that it can’t compete militarily with the United States—not yet, at least. Therefore, it opts for other, softer means of coercion.
Take the ambitious Silk Road initiative, for example. The scheme endeavors to connect the world with China to increase mutually beneficial trade. If China secures a steady flow of raw material in the process, it’s just part of the deal. The dragon has a voracious appetite, and it must feed.
Another example is Africa. Chinese involvement in the developing continent resembles a form on neo-imperialism. Wherever in Africa Chinese interests prod, they created dependencies. Whether it is in Angola, with its vast oil fields; or Namibia, with its uranium; or Zambia, with its copper and cobalt resources; or Botswana, with its diamonds.
China has a long history spanning millennia. We often forget that the political, economic, and military decadence of the past few centuries is just a parenthesis in the long and proud history of one of the pillars of human civilization. We may forget it, but the Chinese government certainly doesn’t. Chinese understand history and its continuity. Their current approach somewhat resembles Imperial Japan’s Asian and Pacific expansionism that led to the conquest of most of the region, and Pearl Harbor. The Japanese disguised their imperialism behind a cloak of security. They argued that they were saving Asians from the decadent and corrosive influence of foreigners. That their actions told a different tale, is another a thing.
The most troubling fact, however, is that China is taking advantage of a leadership vacuum that the U.S. has been imprudently creating. The Chinese government must be amazed at the opportunity to increase its global standing that recent U.S. actions and remarks present them. And that opportunity has two components: economic and diplomatic.
Trade-war threats and tariffs may serve a domestic political purpose, but abroad they are perceived as reckless and destructive. Tariffs on China don’t only affect China. We live in a globalized economy. Others will be affected by such actions. And then China will appear the steadier partner, the more reasonable party to deal with. Not now, of course. But in the future. And the Chinese play the long game.
Neglecting international norms and agreements isn’t a prudent way to exert global leadership. China can hardly claim the moral high-ground. But, amazingly, the administration’s shunning of the U.N., for example, allows them to do just that. How can the U.S. claim that the South China Sea is an international waterway, protected by international law, but undermine similar international institutions? Isn’t it hypocritical? International relations don’t exist in a vacuum. Currently, China begins to appear as the warden of multilateralism against the US’ reckless unilateralism.
China’s awakening isn’t a negative development. The deep concern must lie with what the Asian dragon can achieve once it’s up and about.