The Chinese Communist government does not have so much a strategy to translate its economic ascendance into global hegemony as several strategies. All of them are brilliantly insidious.
On matters of trade, China is always flexible in responding to critics of its asymmetrical, 30-year mercantilism. In the initial stages of Westernization, China was exempted from criticism over serial copyright and patent infringement, dumping, and espionage. Western elites assumed that these improprieties were just speed bumps on the eventual Chinese freeway to liberalism. Supposedly the richer China got, the more progressive it would become. Huge trade deficits or military technological appropriation were small prices to pay for an evolving billion-person Palo Alto or Upper West Side.
After a time, the now-worrisome huge trade deficits and Chinese cheating were further contextualized as “our fault.” The Tom Friedman school of journalism chided our clumsy republican government as lacking Chinese authoritarian efficiency that could by fiat connect new planned utopias by high-speed rail and power them with solar-panel farms. The Wall Street–investor version of this school saw flabby, pampered Americans getting their just deserts as more productive and deserving Chinese workers outhustled and outproduced us. In such tough-love sermonizing, the more Michigan or Pennsylvania rusted, the quicker culpable Americans would either emulate China or die. China of course again agreed.
Then there came a third phase of Chinese contextualization — one of Western arrogance that confused China’s emulation with supposed admiration. We were not to worry about China, because they love buying our rich homes, visiting Stanford, and going to Disneyland. In short, they love being us.
Somehow, we forgot that nations that copy the West do not do so out of empathy or veneration. More often, they pick and choose what to buy, steal, or copy, entirely in their own interest. They often see superior Western science arising despite, not because of, Western freedom, and therefore they think it can be improved upon when grafted to a properly authoritarian or totalitarian root.
Trump has been an unlikely truth-teller. But as a disrupter who screamed about Chinese mercantilism, he made it acceptable even for liberals to do an about-face and now fault China for human-rights abuses and religious persecution of minorities. As long as such new Western critics do not mention the word “Trump,” they feel empowered suddenly to say about China what heretofore they have repressed.
It was Trump, remember, who challenged the gospel that even asymmetrical free-market exchanges were a national advantage. Even the most flagrant Chinese cheating supposedly had benefits for Americans, who “rented” free stuff from stereotyped sweatshop-toiling Chinese. Cheap imported consumer goods were lapped up by the strapped American middle classes and poor, allowing them to obtain things that their stagnant wages would not.
Chinese state subsidies, we were told, would in the long run bankrupt China long before they bankrupted us. And insidious Chinese commercial cheating would force Americans to recalibrate, creatively destroy and rebuild, and in the end become more competitive, productive, and streamlined. China again oddly agreed — ostensibly dismissing the importance of trade deficits as long as they ensured that Americans, not Chinese, would have them.
China is patterning its neocolonialist agenda after both the British Empire of the 19th century (without the pretensions of a Western nation’s paternalistic “burden” of spreading civilization) and the Pacific expansionism of Japan’s Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere of the 1930s and 1940s (this history might explain why Japan, of all its Asian neighbors, knows all too well what China is up to).
As the British did with their coaling stations, which dotted the globe and served British warships and commercial vessels in the 19th century, China is buying up leases on dozens of ports in key strategic areas from the Piraeus to the Horn of Africa. In theory, in time the Chinese could pressure these ports’ host countries to deny entrance to hostile military or commercial rivals. Or in periods of crisis, they could empower supposed merchant ships with all sorts of advanced weaponry — sort of like the stealthily armed German merchant-marine raiders of early World War I. The strategic advantages of linking such ports to facilitate a nexus of Chinese military and commercial ships allow the imagination to run wild.
That these massive investments in ports and infrastructure might seem to be bad financial deals makes their acquisitions even more astounding and strategically germane. Beijing is not at all sure that China will ever receive, in the short term at least, a good return on the trillions it is investing to update cargo terminals and transit routes in and out of foreign port facilities. China, recognized as a more or less global commercial renegade, might have a hard time collecting its investment debts in the event of defaults. Short of using military power, what would China do to coerce a debtor? Appeal to multilateral trade and banking oversight institutions, whose protocols it has so commonly ignored with impunity?
It also has no major alliances or pacts that might allow it to pressure nations in arrears. Who collects for China its $50 billion investment in a collapsing Venezuela? If Greece defaults on the multibillion-dollar Chinese investment in the Piraeus, will the Chinese use the European Union or NATO to coerce Greece?
Like the Japanese of the 1930s and the Russians of the 1960s and 1970s, but unlike the British of the 1870s, the Chinese are not very good imperialists. To know their colonial agents is to distrust them — given the authoritarian, and often racialist, presumptions of the Chinese government.
In military terms, China’s naval strategy is somewhat reminiscent of the ideas of Nazi admiral Karl Dönitz, the sometime genius of Hitler’s U-boat fleet, who argued with varying degrees of success that it was idiotic to repeat imperial Germany’s former failed and bankrupting efforts to match the battleships of the superior British navy ton for ton, when German submarines more cheaply and effectively could tie up the Royal Navy’s assets and deny its ships easy transit in the Atlantic.
The threat of China is not that it will in the near future match America’s eleven carrier battle groups, but that it will, in an effective cost-to-benefit manner, deploy small and more numerous submarines, frigates, and shore-to-ship batteries to create storms of sophisticated anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles that would ensure that key areas of the South China Sea were no-go zones for the fossilized multibillion-dollar flagships of the American navy.
More insidious is the Chinese effort to send hundreds of thousands of students to the West in general, and in particular the United States. Again, in theory it is a brilliant strategy. Like the madcap effort of late-19th and early-20th-century Japan, following the Meiji Restoration, to place a quarter-million students in Britain, France, and Germany to soak up everything from army organization to nautical engineering, China has appropriated trillions of dollars in sophisticated Western technology through espionage, well apart from the legitimate Chinese expatriate mastery of Western science, technology, and engineering.
Arrogant Westerners assume that Chinese investors, owners of American real estate, and legions of students will be eventually overwhelmed by American popular culture, liberality, affluence, and freedom, and that they will therefore repatriate to China as subversive agents of change.
More likely, Chinese expatriates will return to China in the fashion of early-20th-century Japanese residents, attachés, and students in the United States, whether a future admiral Isoroku Yamamoto or foreign minister Yōsuke Matsuoka. They equated their experience of Western affluence with license and decadence and, as a result, were determined to marry Western engineering expertise with superior Asian discipline, nationalism, and patriotism to nullify the United States as a great Pacific power.
China is not Russia. It differs in underappreciated ways that transcend its obviously vastly greater population, far-larger economy, and ascendant military. China brilliantly plays on the fact that its expatriates are temporarily part of the American “other.” As marginalized peoples, by feigned surrogate empathy with Asian Americans, they can cite grievances against prior “yellow peril” racism — at least anytime Chinese students are caught spying or engaging in protests against Chinese dissidents.
Recently at a colloquium Kiron Skinner, director of policy planning at the U.S. State Department, tried to point out some of these paradoxes in outlining the totality of the Chinese threat, but she was quite unfairly demonized for an impromptu exchange in which she used the politically incorrect “Caucasian” to emphasize aspects of the Chinese challenge (“So in China we have an economic competitor, we have an ideological competitor, one that really does seek a kind of global reach that many of us didn’t expect a couple of decades ago, and I think it’s also striking that it’s the first time that we will have a great-power competitor that is not Caucasian”).
Aside from the fact that imperial Japan was a great-power Asian competitor during the lead-up to World War II, Skinner’s general implications were nonetheless valid: China, not Russia, can more easily pose as a historical victim of Western oppression by its status as an Asian nation. And it can more easily both bully and entice dynamic Asian countries. Its message, like Imperial Japan’s earlier narrative, is that European powers and indeed the United States itself are themselves tired, spent, and increasingly impotent in Asia and the Pacific, and either cannot or will not challenge the inevitable Chinese ascendency to hyperpower status.
Skinner’s implication is that central to the Chinese government’s sense of confidence is both its racial and its cultural chauvinism — an unspoken reality that is not so easily appreciated when our own diplomatic elite is often neither culturally nor politically diverse and may exaggerate the European Russian threat and in either condescendingly or politically correct fashion ignore the far greater Chinese challenge. As bad as Russian absorption of Crimea was, there were at least long historical and cultural ties between the two nations and a shared bloody history of resisting foreign conquests at iconic sieges such as Sevastopol. In contrast, China simply stole the far more strategically important Spratley Islands, ignored its neighbors’ claims, created military bases, and may soon adjudicate traffic in the South China Sea — and face no pushback of the sort accorded Putin.
We also see the effects of multipronged Chinese financial, cultural, and political influence in popular culture. Hollywood remains in deathly fear of negatively portraying Chinese characters, or the Chinese government in particular. Is it apprehensive of the power of Chinese markets and money, and attuned to the delicacy of portraying supposedly “nonwhite” characters in a negative light?
Contrast that touchiness with the graphic portrayals of Russians, who are action cinema’s most common 21st-century villains. They are ad nauseam usually cast as evil oligarchs, cartel thugs, assassins, or die-hard Soviet fossils, appearing on screen with shaved heads, creepy tattoos, often dotted with czarist and Orthodox runes, and speaking in harsh guttural accents.
No wonder: Hollywood producers do not fear offending Vladimir Putin, or a few hundred Russian students in southern California, or the domestic politically correct Twitter lynch mob. In our superficial identity-politics-obsessed culture, who would speak out against Russian bashing and stereotyping? Russians are seen by Hollywood as the perfect heavies, akin to other common villains such as southern hillbillies and diehard South African racists. Do any social-justice warriors know that the number of those interned in Chinese reeducation and detention camps for incorrect thoughts, religiosity, or minority racial status constitutes a vast archipelago that dwarfs Putin’s decaying gulag?
China understands the often blame-itself-first Western mind (and there is such a thing) far better than Westerners themselves do. It assumes that it will not really suffer blanket criticism for its inhuman treatment of religious minorities and dissidents, or its ruthlessness in Africa. Instead, it figures that many will side with it as victims of a Western racism that supposedly prevents Western liberals from appreciating genuine Asian efforts to join the family of nations. The old myth of missing the bus on a supposed Lincolnesque Ho Chi Minh, or the Jeffersonian Mao, has until Trump been updated to give a soon-to-be-Westernized China a pass on the sorts of human-rights abuses and regional aggressions that earn Putin’s Russia (with a far greater nuclear arsenal) sanctions and threats.
In the end, China is confident that it now knows the U.S. only too well, and it is mastering the political, economic, cultural, and military methods of nullifying American advantages. And it may be right.
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