Recreating China’s Imagined Empire

Xie Huanchi/Xinhua/eyevine/Redux
Chinese President Xi Jinping and Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte at a welcoming ceremony before talks in Beijing, during which they agreed to reopen direct discussions on disputes in the South China Sea, October 2016

China’s influence in the world has become a persistent theme of these early days of the Donald Trump era. During his campaign, Trump portrayed China (not entirely incorrectly) as the leading malefactor in the politics of international trade—holding its currency down in order to pump out exports, while making it hard for foreign companies to enter its own vast market. Then, after his victory, Trump as president-elect came up with the provocative idea of accepting a congratulatory phone call from the Taiwanese president. His intent seemed to be to knock the Chinese off balance in hopes of starting trade negotiations on a more favorable footing. Predictably this angered Beijing, which believes that it should control Taiwan, the self-governing island that Western nations, in deference to China, have long excluded from full diplomatic recognition.

But upon taking office, Trump executed a quick about-face. During a phone conversation in early February, Trump told Chinese President Xi Jinping that his administration would abide by the One China policy, a vague formulation that China interprets to mean that Taiwan is part of China. In other words, the new administration caved. The score: The Art of War 1, The Art of the Deal 0.

One obvious conclusion is that the new administration has, as on so many other matters, shown itself to be a diplomatic dilettante. If the US really wanted to challenge the fiction that Taiwan has no choice but to unite with mainland China, then it would have needed a real strategy and not just bluster. Similarly, the new administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade deal, one widely regarded as favorable to the US, without any backup plan. Devoid of substance, the administration’s forays into China policy have left the US weaker in its dealings with China, and looking less reliable to China’s neighbors.

Seen from a broader perspective, however, a less obvious and more interesting point emerges: China is now such a strong regional power, and has such a focused strategic vision, that some sort of US eclipse in East Asia is inevitable, regardless of who is in office in Washington. The first part of this point is easy to understand: forty years of rapid economic growth have allowed the Communist Party to modernize its military. That’s made it a budding world power. But what of the second part: the strategic vision? What pushes China to want to dominate this part of the world? What is the ideology driving not just Xi and his team, but successive Chinese leaders who have looked out over East Asia, bided their time, and built their strength until now, in the second decade of the twenty-first…

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