The UK may have pipped China to second place in the medal table at the Rio Olympics but we should be under no illusions as to who the big boys are when it comes to global affairs. The British government’s decision to review its plans for the Hinkley Point C nuclear plant suggests that Theresa May is more cautious when it comes to courting China than David Cameron and George Osborne. The Chinese state news agency has warned that her apparent “suspicion towards Chinese investment” threatens the “arrival of the China-UK golden era” that President Xi Jinping declared on his trip to London last year. May made her first trip to China as Prime Minister this month. Our American friends – already peeved by the UK’s decision last year to join the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank – will have been watching closely.
In 2014 the IMF announced that, in terms of purchasing power, China had become the world’s largest economy. But there are many indices by which the United States remains way out in front: it is much richer in minerals, oil and other energy sources, and its geopolitical neighbourhood is far more secure. At the end of his panoramic primer on the “Asian century” that lies ahead, Gideon Rachman also makes the point that the current position of the West is buttressed by certain inbuilt advantages, such as its representative (though creaky) institutions and open (if increasingly fractious) societies.
Yet one does not need to be a gloomy declinist to recognise the shifting of tectonic plates. By 2025, two-thirds of the world’s population will be living in Asia, with 5 per cent in the US and 7 per cent in Europe. Even the US National Intelligence Council warns that the era of Pax Americana is “fast winding down”. America’s own “pivot” to Asia was announced by Barack Obama in November 2011 but it has yet to assume a tangible form. Washington remains torn between various bumper-sticker approaches to Asia, from “primacy” to “offshore balancing”, “containment” to “accommodation”.
For Britain, the rise of China is likely to cause a string of second-order effects and dilemmas, to which Hinkley and the collapse of the British steel industry are mere curtain-raisers. To what extent, for instance, will the new government seek to synchronise its approach with the next US administration (especially as it seeks a bespoke trade deal and strong defensive alliance with Washington)? Having our cake and eating it may not be possible. Instructive here is the experience of Australia, which also lives under the US security umbrella but is umbilically tied to Asian markets. When an international tribunal at The Hague ruled against China’s territorial claims to sovereignty over most of the South China Sea in July this year, the Australians joined the Americans and the Japanese in calling for the Chinese to respect the verdict. Australia has now become a lightning rod for Beijing’s irritation at the West, and is increasingly wary of Chinese investment in its energy infrastructure.
In a speech in Washington this year, the Australian prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, spoke of his concern about the “Thucydides Trap”. Named after the classical Greek historian, this notion is a creation of the Harvard political scientist Graham Allison, who calculates that in 12 of the 16 cases in which a rising power has confronted a status quo power in the past 500 years, the result has been war. Past iterations of Chinese strategy under Xi’s predecessors Deng Xiaoping and Hu Jintao spoke of China’s “peaceful rise”, its amenability to international rules and its willingness to fit in with the existing order. The period of “hide and bide” may now have passed. Fu Ying, a former Chinese ambassador to the UK, has said: “The US-led world order is a suit that
no longer fits.” Close China watchers suggest that the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) exerts a growing influence on decision-making, and that the Communist Party has sought to shore up its legitimacy by riding on the back of nationalist sentiment.
Both Washington and Beijing have telescopic definitions of their peripheries and first line of defence. War games scope out a series of alarming scenarios. The Pentagon views Chinese defensive strategy as “anti-access and area denial” and has crafted its own “air-sea battle” doctrine in response. Simultaneously, China’s “belt and road” strategy, by which it aims to reconstitute a Silk Road through the Eurasian landmass, can be explained partly by a historical fear of Western blockades of Chinese ports or incursions into its territorial waters.
Asia is riven by racial divisions and historical enmities and dotted with flashpoints that could spark a larger conflagration on land or sea. There is much dry tinder in the territorial disputes in the South China Sea over a series of uninhabited islands such as the aptly named Fiery Cross and Mischief Reefs. These fall within the “nine-dash line” by which Beijing defines its territorial waters. There are large numbers of ethnic Chinese in such places as Malaysia and Indonesia for whom Beijing feels some responsibility. Meanwhile, under Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Japan has assumed a more offensive posture in response to Chinese claims to the uninhabited Senkaku Islands (as the Japanese call them) in the East China Sea. South Korea has sought to reach an understanding with Beijing but Vietnam has looked to the US for protection as relations with China have soured.
Easternisation is a plea for rapid improvement in the West’s situational awareness, and a welcome rebuttal of the tendency to view Asia through the prism of markets alone. Although it has become fashionable to speak of the “Pacific century”, Rachman suggests that an “Indo-Pacific” lens might be a more helpful way of viewing Asian geopolitics from the West. The development of the relationship between China and India – which share a contested land border and view each other with some suspicion – is worthy of particular attention.
India is already a powerhouse in its own right, with almost the same size population as China, but a much healthier demographic balance and a more experienced military. For the moment, it is still something of a “geopolitical outsider”, with no seat on the UN Security Council. There is a scenario, however, in which India – as a potential “swing state” – is harnessed to a newly constituted democratic alliance. For those in the West, the certainties of the past are passing. For the new superpowers in the East, the learning curve will be steep and perilous.
John Bew’s most recent book is “Citizen Clem: a Biography of Attlee” (Riverrun)
Easternisation: War and Peace in the Asian Century by Gideon Rachman is published by Bodley Head (280pp, £20)
This article appears in the 14 Sep 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The fall of the golden generation