Have We Experienced the Dawn of the Chinese Century?

By Bill Anderson

As Second Line of Defense completes its first issues forum, I offer a final thought from a different perspective on Chinese influence…both on a regional and world scale.

We don’t have to wait 15 years for the PRC to dominate the Pacific…it already does in many important ways….and it extends globally as well.

Domination not from the overt wielding of significant military power, but rather from commerce, made possible by the global demand for the goods and services that China is, and will continue to be, uniquely positioned to provide.  It is almost certain that as the global economy claws its way out of recession, commercial demand will spark another uptick in China’s growth and its influence across the globe.

And the West can do very little to halt this march forward.  As China’s influence grows, business, politics and international legal norms will take on a decidedly Eastern flavor, reflecting that growing influence.

The real question is whether the US…and the West for that matter…will adapt and reposition to remain a powerful influence on the world stage in the coming decades, or fail to see what is on the horizon as the world passes us by.

Just as many factors aligned one hundred years ago to set the stage for the American Century, a number of critical building blocks are in place to position China for prominence today:

  • Population:  China enjoys a 4X population advantage over the United States.  Now, that large population looms potentially as a huge social and financial liability.  But, my guess is the Chinese government, desperate to maintain control, will be incentivized to find opportunities for growth on a large scale…and so far, they seem to be doing a pretty good job of it.  Some suggest that China’s one child policy will stifle the country’s growth.  Now, that might be an issue for a nation at capacity from a human standpoint.  But, China has hundreds of millions of underutilized human resources…and they know it.  The Chinese will move up to 300 million people into cities to man the factories of the future.  Imagine having the equivalent of the population of the United States available as new industrial workers.  What a huge strategic asset.
  • Government:  While the current Chinese government does not meet the Western standard for self determination, it has certainly proved itself nimble enough to execute policies positioning the country for growth.  It plans with a national view…it takes an end to end look at requirements to keep things moving in the right direction…and it takes actions to secure the means necessary to reach its goals.
  • Natural Resources:  Where China has advantage in terms of indigenous supply…as in the case of rare earth metals…it has taken steps to ensure that adequate supplies remain in the country to support the development of local industries.  We can debate whether those actions are contrary to international trade norms, but it is hard to argue the logic of their actions from a nationalistic perspective.  And, where China sees internal resource shortages, they have moved aggressively to lock up supply from around the world.  One example…China is moving decisively to secure energy feedstocks in Canada, Cuba and South America.

China is busy collecting friends in the Pacific and around the world, not by applying military force, but by providing economic opportunity to others.  As China’s manufacturing labor rates have grown uncompetitive, China has taken action.

They have moved off shore to look for lower costs…at the same time providing opportunities to other nations.  And every business deal that is signed delivers another friend to China.  While the United States was busy establishing Africa Command…a US presence that no African nation is too keen on hosting…China has been busy cutting business deals on the African continent.  When push comes to shove, who do you think will have the hearts and minds of the peoples of Africa?

And as Chinese influence grows in the global marketplace, so will their impact on international customs, laws and norms.  Chinese President Hu Jintao, while recently in the U.S. gave us a glimpse as to how Chinese values differ from the West.  His message was clear…different national circumstances impact how one addresses so called universal values like human rights.  It is pretty safe to say that Eastern views of business, property rights, human rights, etc. will in the future have a greater influence on international norms currently dominated by Western views.

As President Obama is reaching out to Brazil to secure another stable source of oil for the U.S., let’s take a look at which country is having the most effect on Brazil’s economy.  In 2010, China absorbed 11% of Brazil’s exports (up from 4% in 2000)…the US only accounted for 10% (down from 26% in 2002).  In 2010, China became Brazil’s largest foreign direct investor with inflows of almost $50 billion.  China is now Brazil’s largest trading partner.

Western leadership has all grown up in the American Century…we have no other frame of reference.

Are we now ill equipped to function within a new set of paradigms?

Has it made us blind to what is happening around us…a steady shift of the playing field in favor of the East?

As the West contemplates how it will position itself vis-à-vis the emerging powers of the East…especially China…it will be helpful to see the world as it actually is and will be in the future, rather than as it was or how we wish it to be.  China has the capacity and skill to produce what the West demands.

Do they really need overwhelming military capability to dominate the world stage…or are they already there?

The Honorable William C. “Bill” Anderson served as Assistant Secretary of the Air Force from 2005-2008.  He can be reached at CO2RCR@hotmail.com


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2 responses to “Have We Experienced the Dawn of the Chinese Century?”

  1. good stuff says:

    Right on!

  2. Len Zuga says:

    Perhaps the most succinct summary of the dilemma that the US and West now finds itself confronted with. The subtle reference to the cultural differences on key issues is one that I fear we in the US especially are not very quick to understand or appreciate. It is those differences that give China the leverage it has been able to achieve.

    However, China will eventually be challenged by its own cultural differences between itself and client states as it is already in Africa. The question is, will China learn from those gaffes? Bets are they will as they have illustrated the ability to absorb the lessons learned from the West’s militarism and adapt them to their own culture.

    The only speed bumps in China’s continuing march will be internal, its environmental and domestic stability concerns may be its undoing in the long run. Military ventures and expenditures certainly will not bring down the what is soon to be the world’s largest economy.

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