The Times is a new daily news venture edited by Ray Hartley, who consistently provides some of the best commentary on where South Africa is headed. They asked me to do a three-part series on the changing global power balance and its implications. This is part two, which appeared last Monday (The first installment, Honey I Shrank the Superpower, was posted here last week.)
President George W. Bush could be forgiven for underestimating China: He had spent some months there in the mid-1970s, when his father was U.S. Ambassador to Beijing. His firsthand experience of a largely pre-industrial colossus could hardly have prepared him for dealing with the China of today — a China to which the U.S. owes some $1.5 trillion and counting, and to which America’s beleaguered banks turn for the multibillion dollar loans required to keep them afloat.
By the time Bush took office, of course America was well aware of China’s growing economic significance — its ability to produce quality goods at lower prices for U.S. corporations had already largely gutted the U.S. manufacturing sector, and American politicians routinely complained about Chinese currency policy and the ballooning the U.S. trade deficit. (Less is said, of course, about the Chinese credit that allows Americans to consume way beyond their means — by one estimate, Beijing has loaned an equivalent of $4,000 to every person in the U.S. over the past decade alone.)
But on the geopolitical plane, the incoming Bush Administration would have pictured China as focused on economic growth and social stability, its strategic ambitions limited to the recovery of breakaway Taiwan. China’s military capacity to project power beyond its borders remains very limited, and Beijing has studiously avoided confrontation. Even when a U.S. spy-plane collided with a Chinese fighter off Hainan two months into Bush’s tenure, both sides moved quickly to contain the damage.
Yet, just seven years later, the cases of North Korea and Iran demonstrate an an unprecedented willingness by Beijing to thwart Washington when its foreign policy objectives clash with China’s national interests — interests that include the maintenance and expansion of supplies of the key resources (energy, first and foremost) to feed the voracious appetites of its booming economy, and the restriction of influence by foreign powers in its immediate neighborhood.
Having trashed the Clinton policy of offering North Korea political and economic incentives to refrain from building nuclear weapons, President Bush left no doubt that he’d prefer to oust its regime. China and South Korea were not prepared to risk the chaos of North Korea collapsing, nor was Beijing about to let the U.S. decide the fate of a regime on its border. And, six years later, despite North Korea having successfully tested a nuclear weapon, Bush is now offering political and economic incentives for it to end its nuclear weapons program. The U.S. simply had no plausible alternative to the diplomatic solution brokered by China.
On Iran, also designated for regime-change by Washington’s hawks, U.S. policy directly threatened China’s energy supplies. Beijing already consumes the largest share of Iran’s oil exports, and it plans to invest hundreds of billions of dollars
in new Iranian oil and gas fields. That’s why China has effectively blocked any sanctions that would seriously threaten the Tehran regime or put its energy exports off limits. Iran has been able to largely ignore the wrist-slap sanctions adopted by the UN, knowing that Chinese investment and Russian nuclear fuel (and air defense systems) will continue to pour in.
Where Russia and China had been Cold War adversaries whose rivalry had been skillfully exploited by the U.S., Moscow and Beijing are closer than ever (albeit with Russia the junior partner in their new capitalist comradeship). Their relationship will deepen as China’s share grows of the energy exports that have revived Moscow’s fortunes and allowed it to begin to reverse what Russians see as widespread U.S. encroachment during the Yeltsin years of penury. While doing most of their business in the West, Beijing and Moscow share an enmity towards U.S. political influence in their own neighborhoods, and they have begun to work consciously to restrict it — most notably in the Shanghai Cooperation Organization, envisaged as a NATO-style security umbrella body created by Russia and China and including Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgystan and Tajikistan — the oil pipeline nations assiduously courted by the U.S. Washington is simply not invited, although India, Pakistan and Iran have observer status.
But Beijing, whose riches are held predominantly in U.S. dollars, certainly recognizes the intimate connection between the fate of its own economy and that of the United States, the world’s leading consumer nation. China’s rise does not signal the emergence of a new bipolar order dividing the world into rival camps as the Cold War once did. Beijing’s influence may be growing at U.S. expense not only in Asia but also in the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, but it is nowhere close to being a peer competitor to the U.S. — nor is its objective the dominant global position of the sort enjoyed by the U.S. since World War II. China is simply increasing its own strategic influence, in proportion to its growing share of the global economy, and that inevitably involves displacing the influence of the superpower that has defined its own national interests as extending across five continents.
Beijing will be one of a number of different power centers that emerge amid the decline of U.S. global hegemony, in a geopolitical order more akin to that of the late 19th century than that of the last one. Viewed in the big sweep of history, the current moment will be read simply as the completion of the Cold War era, laying to rest the fantasy of that contest’s sole surviving power dominating a global capitalist order in perpetuity. And it may also be remembered as a moment in which emerging regional players such as India, Brazil, Turkey, the Gulf States and yes, even South Africa, suddenly found themselves offered unprecedented opportunity to advance their own interests in a global arena where the price of admission was the tutelage of a single power center.