First of all, China is no longer China, at least in the way it was known. The China whose economy grew annually at double digits and that was governed by a group of faceless, risk-averse, and collegial technocrats, held in check by strict term limits, has been replaced by a country ruled by a singular, hardened autocrat overseeing an economy growing at only 6 percent.
As the Chinese economy slows down, it is morphing into a more mature system featuring a highly skilled workforce. New middle classes tend to be both nationalistic and hard to satisfy, as they hold government to a higher standard of performance. And Chinese President Xi Jinping is preparing this middle class for world power status, characterized by a command of ports and trade routes stretching across Eurasia, by stoking nationalism and pursuing economic reform. But he is also employing an unprecedented array of technology—including facial scans—to monitor his people’s behavior.
Xi knows he needs to be the opposite of Soviet General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev—tightening political control instead of loosening it—to reform his over-leveraged, export-driven economy while keeping his country politically intact.
Xi’s new China is deploying its rapidly expanding navy throughout the Asian sea lanes, something that will transform the U.S. unipolar maritime security order of the past 75 years in Asia into a multipolar and therefore less stable one. A unipolar naval order had been an implicit key to Spykman’s vision of a U.S.-Japanese alliance. But the change to multipolarity is well on its way.
To wit, many observers have had a tendency to view China’s naval aggression in the South China Sea and East China Sea as individual developments, to be reported on separately, when in fact they are having an effect on U.S. sea control throughout the Western Pacific.
China’s latest port development projects in Darwin in northern Australia and near Sihanoukville in Cambodia demonstrate how China is filling up the maritime space at the junction of the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean, where it already has a network of ports going back to the previous decade. But it is only in the last few years that China’s new maritime empire has come sharply into focus. The Indo-Pacific is no longer a U.S. naval lake. China’s increasing naval activities in both the South and East China seas also serve a larger purpose: They allow China to further threaten Taiwan, which separates the two bodies of water.
The foreign policy of any country is an outgrowth of its domestic conditions. Long-simmering cultural and economic changes in U.S. society have produced the Trump presidency. And as a great power, the United States’ domestic situation ultimately affects the whole world, just as China’s domestic situation does. That is to say, only China can defeat China. If Xi’s repressive internal policies, aided by technology, fail to prevent a middle-class revolt sometime in the next decade or so, then much of what China has initiated abroad might conceivably be put in question.
But that is still an unlikely scenario!
More likely is that China continues to expand both its military reach and domestic market across the Indo-Pacific and Eurasia, while the American people’s emotional commitment to their post-World War II alliances continues to fade. In Asia, that translates into Finlandization—an undeclared movement in the direction of the proximate great power!
From Japan south to Australia, America’s Asian allies may gradually move into the orbit of China the way Finland grew closer to the Soviet Union during the Cold War. U.S. allies have no choice but to make their peace with a China that is the geographic, demographic, and economic organizing principle of the Western Pacific.
Robert D. Kaplan is a managing director of global macro at Eurasia Group. He is the author, most recently, of The Return of Marco Polo’s World: War, Strategy, and American Interests in the Twenty-first Century.