Understanding China’s rise to become a mega-power in the world today necessitates looking at a map of the Pacific and East Asia.
One must keep three crescents (or curved lines) in mind. The first is the immediate maritime sphere surrounding China’s eastern and southern borders. This, by all assessments, has already come under China’s direct control. No power, not even the United States, will now challenge China’s supremacy in this area. China has now fully secured its mainland.
The second crescent extends to China’s key neighbours from Japan and Korea in the north to Vietnam in the south. This is now the crux of the strategic, yet distant and still cool, face-off between the US and China. China’s most important current strategic objective is to deny the US, and certainly Japan, the ability to challenge its supremacy in this maritime region, which includes Taiwan as well as the islands contested by both Japan and China.
But the core of the matter here is not territory; it is influence. The US, as has been noted in the first part of this series, has been building major capabilities exactly on the borders of this area. Today, two-thirds of all US forces stationed in Japan are on its maritime borders with China. For China, however, this area has always been its civilisational realm.
Two words merit attention here: “always” and “civilisational.” China has been absent from this region since the Western powers – initially Britain and then the US – established their presence in the area in the mid-19th century. For a period in the first half of the 20th century it was Japan that held sway in the region, including by invading China itself. But these 150 years are a historical aberration, for before that, and for at least 2,000 years, the whole of East Asia was under China’s influence.
This influence transcended political homage from the region’s rulers to China’s emperor. It meant that social norms, religious or philosophical foundations, commercial underpinnings such as customs and precedents, and key cultural features, including language, all had their ultimate references in China.
Returning to this state of affairs, which existed prior to the Western appearance in East Asia 150 years ago, is the central idea behind China’s rise as a mega-power. It is the desire – or aspiration – that the Chinese Communist Party, supported by large swaths of the population, has instilled in Chinese society.
It is also for this reason that the question of China’s projecting its power in this second crescent is not a matter of if, but when, with this “when” being a function of two variables.
The first is how resistant the East Asian nations will be to Chinese expansionism. The offer is clear. In return for their acceptance, China will present them with major investments, a largely subsidised pan-regional infrastructure, often developmental support, and, of course, access to its colossal market. This is the result of historical evolution as in the centuries prior to the 19th, China expected acquiescence to its supremacy on the back of its unrivalled size, and, in its view, cultural superiority. Today, China’s offer is more transactional.
It is also a restrained offer. China is orchestrating and executing its expansion in East Asia in the current phase such that it stops short of antagonising India to the level of mobilisation and of resuscitating Japan’s old militant spirit.
But it is the second variable that is crucial to this first phase of the emerging new global order. This variable is the US response to China’s expansion in East Asia along the second crescent in the Pacific.
It is highly likely that the US will seek to delay – rather than to deny – China’s securing this region for itself. The US realises that East Asia is the most important theatre in its strategic confrontation with China. For China, however, East Asia (excluding Japan) is its backyard and an old domain that its idea of itself is inextricably linked to. The US will deploy major resources to make China’s expansion into this region slow, gradual, and, crucially, both costly and fraught. Ultimately, however, the US will yield it to China, as denying it would mean war.
However, at the same time the US will erect strong barriers against any further Chinese expansion beyond East Asia and beyond the second crescent. The nuclear submarines that are at the heart of the new AUKUS arrangement between the US, the UK and Australia are a clear example of such barriers. The US is already putting its foot down along the third crescent from Japan to Indonesia’s maritime borders.
In this way, the US is tactically acquiescing in China’s rise to become a mega-power with a clear and historically backed sphere of influence in East Asia (excluding Japan), but it is also strategically denying China the potential of asserting itself as an equal and as a superpower with a growing and multiple global presence.
This is an arrangement that China will likely accept in the first phase of the emerging new global order. It means that the next few years will witness pushes and pulls between the US and China in East Asia in a game that is not intended to mark out territories as much as to expend the other’s energies and resources, in other words, a new Cold War largely focused on one specific, though vast, region. This is also the region with the most promising economic growth and social mobility in the world.
Two more variables arise. The first relates to how China will operate in East Asia. China understands that almost all the East Asian countries are apprehensive about its return. Some are clearly deepening their links to the US and are thus joining its efforts to exact major costs on China as it re-enters the region. China’s ability to balance what it considers to be its historical right and the grand idea of its rise with the transactional approach it has been using over the past decade will be the most important dynamic to observe here.
However, the second variable is perhaps even more important, for its implications affect the nature of the emerging order. It regards what Japan and India will do in response. These two powerful countries stand in the north and south of East Asia. And in the same way that China remembers the centuries before its humiliation in the mid-19th century, both Japan and India remember their centuries-long competition with China before that century, let alone their wars with it in the 20th.
It is for this reason that the calculus of Japan and India is different from that of the US. The third article in this series will reflect on their potential courses of action.
* The writer is the author of Islamisim: A History of Political Islam (2017) and Egypt on the Brink (2010).
*A version of this article appears in print in the 2 December, 2021 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.