It is now widely accepted that China aspires to displace the United States as the world’s sole superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of its modern founding. Amid a trade war and military escalations, an atmosphere many describe as “Cold War 2.0” has set in. But whatever happens between the United States and China, the outcome will not be a unipolar world, neither under American or Chinese tutelage.
The United States neither wants nor can afford to re-extend itself globally nor do most countries want a return to American hegemony. The same applies to China. In fact, far from displacing the United States globally, it is not even likely that China will unilaterally dominate its own region of Asia.
To understand why, we need to quickly examine a pair of interrelated theoretical and historical falsehoods. A highly selective reading of the past two centuries leads many analysts to view geopolitics as a contest between the two most powerful states in the system at any given time. It is as if the planet is a friction-less table on which the United States and China alone are playing a game of Risk. But the global system as a whole bears no little resemblance to the narrow European historical template on which this power transition theory is based. Europe is composed of societies that share a small region and have common culture and religion, with each fearing conquest by a neighbour.
But to understand Asia, it makes more sense to look at Asia’s geography and history. In the West, “Asia” has become shorthand for East Asia or Greater China. In reality, Asia’s vast landscape stretches from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, a diffuse constellation of unique civilisations centred on fertile regions such as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Indus Valley, the Gangetic Plain, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, and the greater Mekong region. Unlike a Risk board, Asia is not flat but extremely bumpy. The Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountains, Taklamakan Desert, and other harsh terrain are among the major natural barriers to power projection across Asia.
With geographies so distant and cultures so distinct, Asia has remained multipolar for almost all of recorded history, with Mongol suzerainty in the 13th century the sole exception (for the Mongols were themselves nomadic rather than sedentary people). Rather than seeking far-reaching conquest, Asians’ attitude has generally been to live and let live. Over centuries of Silk Road interaction, commerce and cultural exchange are far more the norm than conquest. Even the Mongols ruled by way of adopting local religions and languages. A proper appraisal of Asian geography and history thus reminds us that Asia is not a set of dominoes that will fall before an expansionist China. China may be as nationalistic as ever, but the Chinese are not the new Mongols.
Understanding the patterns of centuries past helps us forecast the evolution of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which President Xi Jinping himself proclaimed as “the project of the century” at its first convening in 2017. Even though the Belt and Road Initiative is an informal coalition with the sensible aim of coordinating trillions of dollars of desperately needed infrastructure investment across more than 60 countries, a narrative has taken hold in Washington that Belt and Road is a nefarious plot aimed at neo-colonial hegemony through debt traps that result in militarised extraterritorial ports and control over foreign economies. Reality veers between both versions of this story. Importantly, consistent with Asian history, China alone does not determine the outcome as much as the rest of Asia’s powers, which have thus far been neglected in geopolitical conversations.
For those uninitiated in China’s nearly three decades of sustained infrastructure investment in its periphery dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s grand strategic motivation for the Belt and Road Initiative is as much defensive as offensive. Over this period, China has become the world’s largest commodities importer as well as largest exporter of finished goods, heightening its exposure to the so-called Malacca trap by which its physical trade depends on the narrow chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca passing between Singapore and Indonesia over which it has no control.
Its aggressive manoeuvres in the South China Sea are an effort to at least secure the waters on the eastern side of the strait, as it cannot control the Indian Ocean which Belt and Road projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are meant to enable overland access to. And as China’s trade rapidly expands with the European Union (with whom China trades $500 billion more per year than it does with the United States) and the Arab world, it’s only logical that it would seek overland corridors toward Europe and the Gulf region of West Asia, too.
However, commentators who portray China as having a thousand-year vision and presume an unwavering path to its achievement both overstate China’s wisdom and underestimate that of its neighbours, who have thousands of years of historical engagement with China. China today seems an unstoppable force but Asia is full of immovable objects in the form of civilisational states such as Russia, Iran, and India, whose ancient histories allow them to stand up to China whenever it suits their interest to do so. China dares not trespass on Russian soil even as the two increasingly coordinate their military exercises, and Iran has shown little remorse in cancelling Chinese oil contracts despite its dependence on China to withstand Western sanctions.
The 2017 Doklam Plateau standoff between India and China was similarly instructive, for it was China that blinked first, withdrawing its army and suspending some of its controversial road construction activities in disputed Himalayan terrain. China is known to play the long game now so, too, is everyone else.
China bears the additional burden of having to juggle a bewilderingly complex 360 degree array of neighbours all at the same time. China shares borders with 14 countries, a reminder that throughout history, it has far more often been invaded than been the invader. China has not been immune to defeat at the hands of Arabs, Turks, Japanese, and Europeans, and been forced to stalemate by Russia and Vietnam. Today it is all too keenly aware that even if its high-tech but untested and inexperienced military were to swiftly defeat a neighbour, the cost in terms of diplomatic blow back from other neighbours would be severe.
This is a reminder that even with all of China’s investments in military modernisation, there it is little reason to believe it will purchase any more political leverage beyond its immediate periphery than America’s mighty forces have in Iraq and Afghanistan.
From the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, China’s naval footholds, access points, and probing have awakened multi-directional countermeasures in the form of new coalitions such as the Quad (made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) and smaller powers they now back such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Littoral powers are thus crowding in across the Indo-Pacific to make clear that none should dominate. Even if China builds the modern military equivalent of the its fabled 15th-century Treasure Fleet, it will never dominate maritime Asia. A much talked about restoration of the Ming-Qing tributary system is not Asia’s most likely scenario.
In defiance of superficial colonial analogies used to describe China’s behaviour, today’s world features deterrence and sovereignty, democracy and transparency, instruments and forces that severely restrict China’s ability to dictate affairs. Consider again the Indian Ocean, where China has made significant commercial and diplomatic inroads from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Pakistan and Kenya.
In Sri Lanka, a near-default situation led to China taking control of the Hambantota Port that China itself built on a 99-year lease. The issue has become so central to the country’s politics that no leader, not even Chinese-backed former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa now opposition leader after a failed attempt to unconstitutionally depose the Government in December could conceivably bow any further to China if he eventually returns to power.