By Lex, Posted on March 22, 2007
I mentioned yesterday that I was reluctant to play patty-cake with Barnett on Asia – certainly more reluctant than I was with respect to his Middle East trend analysis – not least because, when it comes down to it, I just don’t know.
Change is the one true constant, and nothing on this side of the veil lasts forever, so I am willing to entertain the possibility that Barnett is correct and that the current, strange status of the US as a global ”hyperpower” is a historical anomaly, even as I’m philosophically committed to forestalling any climb down from that status as long as I might. (If you want to know why, take a look at the Melian Dialogue and ask who you’d rather be: The elders of Melos, or the emissaries from Athens.) Having said that, I am not so certain as Barnett is that China’s rise is inevitable, and there are in fact demographers who predict that China will become old before it becomes wealthy.
Nor do I take it as necessary, stipulating for argument’s sake that some time in the near or distant future the sun will rise in the west, that an emerging center of superpower gravity in Asia would be the least bit interested in letting our theoretically declining star get hitched to their ascendant wagon. While bandwagoning with American military and economic power might have worked for Great Britain as she watched the sun set on the Empire, the historical, cultural and linguistic ties between our two countries, our two peoples could not have been more far reaching and profound. We were one people, one culture – a family who had a nasty argument a couple of hundred years ago, parted company to blows and eventually re-built a fraternal understanding based on our foundational similarities.
In the case of China, nothing could be further from the truth: Theirs is an ancient, alien culture as well as one with an opaque political system which makes their deliberative processes difficult to understand, with the result that their policy actions are difficult to predict. The fact that they have up to this point focused their efforts on economic reform and internal growth does not necessarily mean that this enabling function points us to the end product which they are targeting. Is it growth as a good in its own right, for the social benefits it accrues to the Chinese people? Or is it growth to underwrite the development of a new economic and military hyperpower? The fact is that we just don’t know, which uncertainty helps to explain the maddening duality of our apparently schizophrenic foreign policy towards China, our Strategic Partner/Competitor.
Certainly China could have a significant impact on the subject of North Korea. As Skippy-san points out, a re-united Korea may well not be in the best interest of either China or South Korea, since the former will have an even worse refugee problem on their doorstep once the police state collapses, while the latter will have to underwrite an East German-style reintegration of the North into modernity at an even more appalling cost than came with German unification.
North Korea is the last truly rotten egg in the Asian basket, so if the Korean problem was solved without offering up Taiwan in exchange – and there’s as blood-chilling bit of old school Realpolitik as ever I’ve heard – China might lost a bit of geo-political importance. Keeping things at a simmer but not allowing them to boil over might be just what the doctor ordered, from the Chinese perspective.
Finally, although the idea of India and China providing the bodies for SysAdmin while the US retains Leviathan sounds attractive to us, I don’t see that it brings much in the way of advantage to them. Chinese ad hoc nation-building in places like Sudan might be one thing, but cleaning up the American mess in the kinds of places that we end up making them?
Not so much.
Still, it was a thought provoking lecture, as you can probably tell.