China Couldn’t Dominate Asia if It Wanted to
There are plenty of reasons Asia has been multipolar for almost all of recorded history, and Beijing understands them all.
It is now widely accepted that China aspires to displace the United States as the world’s sole superpower by 2049, the 100th anniversary of its modern founding. Amid a trade war and military escalations, an atmosphere many describe as “Cold War 2.0” has set in. But whatever happens between the United States and China, the outcome will not be a unipolar world, neither under American or Chinese tutelage.
The United States neither wants nor can afford to re-extend itself globally—nor do most countries want a return to American hegemony. The same applies to China. In fact, far from displacing the United States globally, it is not even likely that China will unilaterally dominate its own region of Asia.
To understand why, we need to quickly examine a pair of interrelated theoretical and historical falsehoods. A highly selective reading of the past two centuries leads many analysts to view geopolitics as a contest between the two most powerful states in the system at any given time. It is as if the planet is a frictionless table on which the United States and China alone are playing a game of Risk. But the global system as a whole bears no little resemblance to the narrow European historical template on which this power transition theory is based. Europe is composed of societies that share a small region and have common culture and religion, with each fearing conquest by a neighbor.
But to understand Asia, it makes more sense to look at Asia’s geography and history. In the West, “Asia” has become shorthand for East Asia or Greater China. In reality, Asia’s vast landscape stretches from the Mediterranean to the Sea of Japan, a diffuse constellation of unique civilizations centered on fertile regions such as the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers, the Indus Valley, the Gangetic Plain, the Yangtze and Yellow Rivers, and the greater Mekong region. Unlike a Risk board, Asia is not flat but extremely bumpy. The Tibetan Plateau and Himalayan Mountains, Taklamakan Desert, and other harsh terrain are among the major natural barriers to power projection across Asia.
With geographies so distant and cultures so distinct, Asia has remained multipolar for almost all of recorded history, with Mongol suzerainty in the 13th century the sole exception (for the Mongols were themselves nomadic rather than sedentary people). Rather than seeking far-reaching conquest, Asians’ attitude has generally been to live and let live. Over centuries of Silk Road interaction, commerce and cultural exchange are far more the norm than conquest. Even the Mongols ruled by way of adopting local religions and languages. A proper appraisal of Asian geography and history thus reminds us that Asia is not a set of dominoes that will fall before an expansionist China. China may be as nationalistic as ever, but the Chinese are not the new Mongols.
Understanding the patterns of centuries past helps us forecast the evolution of China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which President Xi Jinping himself proclaimed as “the project of the century” at its first convening in 2017. Even though the Belt and Road Initiative is an informal coalition with the sensible aim of coordinating trillions of dollars of desperately needed infrastructure investment across more than 60 countries, a narrative has taken hold in Washington that Belt and Road is a nefarious plot aimed at neocolonial hegemony through debt traps that result in militarized extraterritorial ports and control over foreign economies. Reality veers between both versions of this story. Importantly, consistent with Asian history, China alone does not determine the outcome as much as the rest of Asia’s powers, which have thus far been neglected in geopolitical conversations.
For those uninitiated in China’s nearly three decades of sustained infrastructure investment in its periphery dating to the collapse of the Soviet Union, China’s grand strategic motivation for the Belt and Road Initiative is as much defensive as offensive. Over this period, China has become the world’s largest commodities importer as well as largest exporter of finished goods, heightening its exposure to the so-called Malacca trap by which its physical trade depends on the narrow chokepoint of the Strait of Malacca passing between Singapore and Indonesia over which it has no control. Its aggressive maneuvers in the South China Sea are an effort to at least secure the waters on the eastern side of the strait, as it cannot control the Indian Ocean—which Belt and Road projects in Myanmar, Bangladesh, and Pakistan are meant to enable overland access to. And as China’s trade rapidly expands with the European Union (with whom China trades $500 billion more per year than it does with the United States) and the Arab world, it’s only logical that it would seek overland corridors toward Europe and the Gulf region of West Asia, too.
However, commentators who portray China as having a thousand-year vision and presume an unwavering path to its achievement both overstate China’s wisdom and underestimate that of its neighbors, who have thousands of years of historical engagement with China. China today seems an unstoppable force—but Asia is full of immovable objects in the form of civilizational states such as Russia, Iran, and India, whose ancient histories allow them to stand up to China whenever it suits their interest to do so. China dares not trespass on Russian soil even as the two increasingly coordinate their military exercises, and Iran has shown little remorse in canceling Chinese oil contracts despite its dependence on China to withstand Western sanctions. The 2017 Doklam Plateau standoff between India and China was similarly instructive, for it was China that blinked first, withdrawing its army and suspending some of its controversial road construction activities in disputed Himalayan terrain. China is known to play the long game—now so, too, is everyone else.
China bears the additional burden of having to juggle a bewilderingly complex 360 degree array of neighbors all at the same time. China shares borders with 14 countries, a reminder that throughout history, it has far more often been invaded than been the invader. China has not been immune to defeat at the hands of Arabs, Turks, Japanese, and Europeans, and been forced to stalemate by Russia and Vietnam. Today it is all too keenly aware that even if its high-tech but untested and inexperienced military were to swiftly defeat a neighbor, the cost in terms of diplomatic blowback from other neighbors would be severe.
This is a reminder that even with all of China’s investments in military modernization, there it is little reason to believe it will purchase any more political leverage beyond its immediate periphery than America’s mighty forces have in Iraq and Afghanistan. From the South China Sea to the Indian Ocean, China’s naval footholds, access points, and probing have awakened multidirectional countermeasures in the form of new coalitions such as the Quad (made up of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia) and smaller powers they now back such as Vietnam and Indonesia. Littoral powers are thus crowding in across the Indo-Pacific to make clear that none should dominate. Even if China builds the modern military equivalent of the its fabled 15th-century Treasure Fleet, it will never dominate maritime Asia. A much talked about restoration of the Ming-Qing tributary system is not Asia’s most likely scenario.
In defiance of superficial colonial analogies used to describe China’s behavior, today’s world features deterrence and sovereignty, democracy and transparency, instruments and forces that severely restrict China’s ability to dictate affairs. Consider again the Indian Ocean, where China has made significant commercial and diplomatic inroads from Sri Lanka and the Maldives to Pakistan and Kenya. In Sri Lanka, a near-default situation led to China taking control of the Hambantota Port that China itself built on a 99-year lease. The issue has become so central to the country’s politics that no leader, not even Chinese-backed former Prime Minister Mahinda Rajapaksa—now opposition leader after a failed attempt to unconstitutionally depose the government in December—could conceivably bow any further to China if he eventually returns to power.
The same is true in the Maldives and Pakistan, which has actively scaled back by half the value of projects associated with the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor. The new government of Imran Khan ran on a campaign of learning from China’s development, not mortgaging its future to China. In Kenya, President Uhuru Kenyatta has also praised the China model, but this past December he had to actively combat a rumor that his government had taken on so much debt from China that it would have to give up ownership of Mombasa’s port. Public opinion, media scrutiny, and democratic politics were not features of the European colonial world. Today, they are an effective bulwark against excessive foreign influence, either overt or covert.
Geopolitics is nonlinear. The Hambantota scandal in Sri Lanka has been portrayed by the “China threat” school as the first of many debt-for-equity swaps to come. Instead, it was an immediate wake-up call for even the poorest and most corrupt states dealing with China to use legal and commercial tools to better manage their China exposure to avoid becoming the next Sri Lanka. Much as China has exercised caution in militarily overstepping terrestrial borders, so too has it accepted numerous unilateral debt write-downs and contract terminations in Nepal, Myanmar, and Malaysia. Though all are relatively weak, China fears the backlash that would ensue if it does not show generosity toward them. Unlike in colonial times, even poor client states can effectively say no.
Thanks to modern sovereignty, China is being forced to learn in three years of Belt and Road what European empires took 300 years to accept. What China’s behavior does have in common with analogies to the British East India Company and imperial history generally is that by investing in and elevating their colonies, empires actually empower the very forces that resist them. The British united India, built its railways, and gave it the English language and a vast administrative apparatus—all of which proved very useful in eventually ending British rule. This cycle, not eternal hegemony, is the reliable pattern of history.
Furthermore, today’s world is neither unipolar nor bipolar but a geopolitical marketplace of powers competing to provide services to potential allies and partners. China is therefore not the only option—especially after the first phase of Belt and Road investments. Some credit is due to China for catalyzing a worldwide recognition of the importance of infrastructure finance, particularly in a post-financial crisis world in which some Western leaders wrongly preached austerity rather than stimulus. Furthermore, there is no question that greater trade with and investment from China has contributed to Pakistan, Ethiopia, Uzbekistan, Myanmar, and other former basket case economies now delivering among the world’s fastest growth rates. (Chinese companies even invest nearly twice as much in rival India as in client Pakistan.)
The more this growth helps smaller countries achieve sovereign credit ratings and visibility among investors, the more they can issue bonds bought by an international array of public and private creditors and attract foreign direct investment from beyond China, eventually diluting China’s economic sway. Today most Asian countries are wisely using China to get themselves on the map, and if they play their cards right, they may well hand the next set of contracts to Indians, Turks, or Germans. Remember that China’s popularity is often lowest where it invests the most. It is precisely in Mongolia, Kazakhstan, and Myanmar where one hears the acronym “ABC”: anyone but China. China’s largesse has made it the going concern across Asia, but it is also learning that Asia can’t be bought.
China has had first-mover advantage in many Belt and Road member countries that had fallen off the post-Cold War map, but it is too soon to predict the outcome of Beijing’s overtures in any of them. Chinese diplomats and businesspeople often learn languages but not anthropology; the observe national conditions but don’t embed in local cultures. In some countries, they buy allies; in others, debts are renegotiated; elsewhere, there is backlash. All three can occur at the same time, and China doesn’t know or control the outcome in any country. If the United States, Europe, Japan, India, and other powers don’t want to see the developing world fall into Chinese debt traps, they simply have to put their money where their mouth is.
Indeed, China has inspired an infrastructure arms race across Asia by which many countries and institutions including Japan, the Asian Development Bank, the World Bank, and the new U.S. International Finance and Development Corporation are competing to expand their lending and investment portfolios in strategic and fast-growing Asian nations. Unlike in a traditional arms race, however, in an infrastructure arms race efforts are more complementary than conflictual. Rather than competing with the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, existing multilateral bodies are co-investing with it, resulting in reduced lending rates as well as more diversified and higher-quality projects.
The more the Belt and Road Initiative becomes a multilateral exercise, the more it connects not just Asian countries to China but also all Asians to each other. From Russia and Turkey to Iran and Iran to Myanmar and Thailand, the resurrection of multidirectional Silk Roads with no dominant power symbolizes the return of Asia’s past, one characterized by deference, not dominance. Asia has nearly 5 billion people, about 3.5 billion of whom are not Chinese. Asians aspire to live in an Asian world order, not a Chinese one. The Belt and Road Initiative will thus not play out like a Chinese steamroller flattening its way across Eurasia. Rather, it will resemble a tug-of-war over lucrative infrastructure projects and trade routes. Tug-of-war is an arduous contest, featuring many heaves and hos, backs and forths. Like Asian history itself, it is an interminable “great game” full of shifts in momentum and requiring great patience. The very reason the great game continues to this day is that Asia is ultimately too big a field for any single power to control.
This essay is adapted from Parag Khanna’s forthcoming book, The Future is Asian: Commerce, Conflict, and Culture in the 21st Century.