The Geopolitics of China’s Rise

Analysis of China’s rise from the perspective of civilization or economics is missing a crucial factor.

The Great Wall of China, August 5, 2007
The Great Wall of China, August 5, 2007 (Steve Bailey)

Will the twenty-first century belong to China like the twentieth belonged to the United States and the nineteenth century belonged to the British? The world is very much divided on this question as are key American policy and opinion makers.

Two recent books have tried to understand China’s rise. One, On China (2011), was authored by former secretary of state Henry Kissinger; the other, Civilization: The West and the Rest (2011), by historian Niall Ferguson.

Neither volume offers a clear answer to the question. Part of the reason for this ambiguity is that China has been rather paradoxical as a nation since the end of the Second World War.

Kissinger, who was the first American official to travel to Red China in the early 1970s, has tried to unravel the country’s mysteries in his book and raised many questions. Why did China attack India when the two powers were in such similar positions? Why did China, despite being a communist state, turn against the Soviet Union? And how could Mao Zedong, an ardent socialist, ever make friendship with the United States?

Both books offer some refreshing thoughts on China because they approach it from the perspective of civilization instead of economics which is nowadays more common. Kissinger analyzes China from his realist “balance of power” perspective whereas Ferguson contrasts it to civilization in the West. One crucial insight from the former’s book is that China conducts its diplomacy with a clear understanding that its better days are ahead of it which is in complete contrast to Western policymakers who think in terms of strategy within the time span of their own lives. Kissinger suggests that a civilization as old as China’s cannot simply be contained by other nations when it’s on the rise.

One aspect that is unfortunately missing from both their works is geopolitics. American strategy has long attempted to prevent the emergence of a single great power able to dominate the Eurasian continent. It was this imperative that prompted Kissinger’s original mission to China during the Cold War. It should guide American policy toward China today.

Civilization matters but it doesn’t determine the greatness of a nation. Greece, Iran and Turkey have ancient and great civilizations but their influence is limited due to their place in the world. The sheer mass of land that is China and the fact that it is both a naval and a land power makes it formidable even taking for granted that its economy will recede. Geopolitics matter even in the age of globalization when individuals can succeed everywhere but nations are still bounded by their geography.

The American strategic community in recent times has concentrated more on counterterrorism and -insurgency that geopolitics. There is no George Kennan, Harold Mackinder, Alfred Thayer Mahan nor a Nicholas Spykman today. It might not be an exaggeration to state that these geopolitical stalwarts who lived between the late nineteenth and mid twentieth centuries helped achieve victory for the Allies over the Central and Axis powers during both world wars and set the tone for American policy during the early Cold War. The geopolitical field which helped ensure Western domination is now missing in the American foreign policy establishment. Too much emphasis is laid on the economics of world power but the United States can still win the cold war with China if it stops obsessing over whether the Chinese economy will overtake America’s in 2017, 2025 or 2040.

There is mounting resentment if not outright fear over China in countries ranging from Australia, India, Russia to Vietnam which can encircle the Middle Kingdom and contain its influence to the Asia-Pacific before it ventures into Africa, Europe and Latin America. A concentrated effort on their part requires American involvement however. Otherwise, the United States may just end up warming the seat of superpower for the next claimant to come along.