Now that China, according to some recent, imperfect guesstimates, is the world’s largest economy, it’s time to pop open the baijiu and usher in a new world order, right? But if the history of great power politics is any indication – and Chinese leadership does show an acute appreciation of deeper historical trends – ascendant China’s foreign policy will mirror that of another rising power a 100 years ago: the United States.
The U.S. became the world’s largest economy sometime in the late 19th century after perfecting nearly every groundbreaking economic trick and trading infringement in the book. Between casual copyright infringement and market protectionism, the U.S. suffered jibes and accusations from the globe-spanning British, just as China does now from the U.S. But the most telling aspect of the rise of the U.S. was the way the country exercised its newfound heft on the world’s stage or, rather, how it didn’t.
Aside from the controversial and blatantly imperialistic Spanish-American War of 1898, rising America’s foreign policy was (compared to its European counterparts, such as Germany) relatively benign. America’s first priority was to secure its "near-abroad," corralling the Caribbean into a manifestation of the Monroe Doctrine. The U.S. military was seldom exercised to exert any overt foreign pressure.
It took an unlikely and possibly never-to-be-repeated series of events and catastrophes for a new power to assert and dominate in the way the U.S. did: two world wars, the utter destruction and impoverishment of all its global allies and rivals, and an unprecedented power vacuum.
That is the takeaway lesson for any would-be global leader in Beijing (or for that matter, Delhi, Jakarta, or Brasilia): it takes an amazing set of coincidences to turn sudden economic might into political strength and influence.
And China, as a state with a seemingly historical institutional memory, seems to have similar foreign policy goals to those of the U.S. during its ascent to power. China is proactively securing its near-abroad (the South China Sea) while flexing its long-range capabilities (the ‘string of pearls’ being the new Great White Fleet). But as for any other ambitions – there won’t be a Bretton-Woods II in Beijing anytime soon – China is content to ride out the ebbs and flows of the present global system.
Why would China want to assume the poisoned chalice of global leadership if everyone will start to place blame on any global action or inaction that it takes. The U.S.let a declining Britain act as the guarantor of global security during the interbellum, just as China is more than willing to watch America rush ‘military advisors’ to trouble spots. It’s a traditional freeloader problem where the burden collective good, “global security,” is carried on one nation’s shoulders, but massive dividends are provided for all.
America was only capable of establishing the core institution of its global power – the primacy of the U.S. dollar – after a cataclysmic change in the world order:utter destruction of Western and Eastern Europe, and Japan-cataclysmic. This current financial meltdown has not, and will not, reach the utter devastation of a world war.
The recent history of ascents to power shows that a changing of the guard is slow and only reluctantly taken on by the next hegemon. It will still be an American world for the near future, even if it’s Chinese yuan priming the pumps.