The China Challenge

China Story Yearbook 2013: Civilising China

edited by Geremie R. Barmé and Jeremy Goldkorn
Canberra: Australian Centre on China in the World, 459 pp., available at
Erik De Castro/Reuters
Filipino crew members gesturing at a Chinese Coast Guard vessel that tried to block their supply ship from approaching the decrepit BRP Sierra Madre, where Filipino Marines are stationed to guard the disputed Ayungin reef, Spratly Islands, South China Sea, March 2014

In 1890, an undistinguished US Navy captain published a book that would influence generations of strategists. Alfred Thayer Mahan’s The Influence of Sea Power Upon History, 1660–1783 posited that great nations need potent, blue-water navies backed by far-flung naval bases to project power around the globe. His work was so influential that Kaiser Wilhelm II of Germany pledged to learn it by heart as he sought to triumph over the dominant power of his day, Britain and its Royal Navy. When Mahan died nearly one hundred years ago, just after the outbreak of World War I, he was widely blamed for being the lead theorist for an arms race that led to the catastrophic conflict.

It may be a little too pat, but it’s probably no coincidence that Mahan is enjoying newfound fame in another rising power: China. Mahan’s books have been widely reprinted in China, including one that features a fold-out map of the Pacific showing US naval facilities in the region. The lesson for China is plain—at least in the Pacific region, it must emulate America’s naval strength if it wants to become a great power.

The popularity of Mahan’s book is one of the fascinating threads in Geoff Dyer’s The Contest of the Century. The title might sound a bit like a reality show, while the subtitle (The New Era of Competition with China—and How America Can Win) has the tone of a self-help book for a fading superpower. But ignore these examples of editorial overreach; Dyer’s book is stimulating, erudite, and deeply researched, perfectly timed to explain the unfolding conflicts in East Asia. He focuses on maritime affairs as a clue to China’s intentions, which he bluntly states as: “Forget their bland rhetoric: China’s leaders think very much in geopolitical terms and would like to gradually erode the bases of American power.”

This runs counter to the two dominant ways of looking at China. One is that China is so obsessed with domestic issues that it has little real interest in getting involved abroad. Its corollary is that Beijing is too insecure about its hold on power at home to think seriously about challenging the US. But Dyer—a former Beijing bureau chief for the Financial Times—points out that China already is involved abroad, while “domestic insecurity is feeding, not inhibiting, the desire to stand tall overseas.”

Dyer is hardly an alarmist. His main point isn’t that China and the US are headed for a military conflict. With both sides possessing nuclear weapons, a war isn’t likely. Instead, his broader point is that China is shifting from a country that accepts…

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