Fifteen years ago, while sitting in a windowless cubicle in a Washington, DC think-tank, I took out my writing pad and drew a long line down the middle.
The so-called Axis of Evil topped the list, of course: Iraq, Iran, and North Korea. There was also Syria, Libya, Venezuela, Cuba, Myanmar, Sudan, and several others.
In the right column, I set out to list every country to which China was providing military, diplomatic, or commercial aids, or other lifelines. I didn’t need to write anything down. It was a mirror image of the left column.
Drawing a line
The US-China trade war has put the two superpowers’ bilateral tension in the spotlight. But like most competitions among great powers on opposite sides of the world, the crux of the opposition is indirect. In the Cold War, it was Eastern Europe, the Middle East, and Indochina. By the mid-2000s, China was already stretching its neo-mercantile and strategically opportunistic tentacles into every corner of the world, well before it was widely acknowledged to be a genuine global superpower.
As I explored in my 2008 book The Second World: Empires and Influence in the New Global Order, China’s focus on trade complementarity and non-interference in domestic affairs even allowed it to maintain positive relations simultaneously with rival countries such as Saudi Arabia and Iran, India and Pakistan, Brazil and Venezuela, and Kazakhstan and Uzbekistan.
And yet, there are many reasons why we are not in a new Cold War, nor in the midst of a new neo-colonial era.
The most important reason is that those chapters of history already occurred, and their lessons have been learned. History may rhyme, but it is certainly not repeating itself.
If fact, as the rest of the world gains its own voice, its echoes grow fainter.
During the Cold War, most countries were pressured to choose sides between the US and the USSR (other than members of the so-called Non-Aligned Movement, but that’s another story). But likely cognizant of Cold War history—it was not so long ago, after all—even influential countries today are practicing a much more self-serving multi-alignment.
Why choose sides?
The countries are more likely to maintain constructive ties with both the US (often their primary military partner) and with China (often their largest trading partner). In Asia, key American allies such as South Korea, the Philippines, and Australia are deeply intertwined with China (and with each other) on trade and also seek some degree of strategic autonomy from the US. Most Asian states are wavering—or ignoring—American admonitions to ban Huawei’s 5G networks and to not join China’s Belt and Road Initiative that serve to boost the state’s infrastructure links. We see this in Europe, where countries including Italy, Turkey, and Greece are all NATO members, and are also all Belt and Road member states.
The Obama administration actively sought to dissuade European allies from joining China’s Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank. They did it anyway. More broadly, American allies from the UK to the United Arab Emirates have been the prime beneficiaries of China reducing its investment in the US from a peak of $100 billion to nearly zero, and redirecting it to friendlier regions.
Does this mean China is replacing America as a global hegemony? Not at all.
The new world order is mutual suspicion
These very same countries areas deeply suspicious of China as they are of the US. Several countries have demanded that Huawei share its source code with their intelligence agencies. Many continue to conduct joint military exercises with the US, and offer the Pentagon basing rights. And in Asia in particular, countries urge Washington to rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership which the Obama administration architected before Trump withdrew America from it..
Survey after survey makes clear that America remains more popular than China around the world. But this does not mean anyone wants to return to a unipolar world. We may feel tempted to paint countries either blue or red. But most of the world actually resolutely prefers purple.
From Saudi Arabia to Kazakhstan, smart countries therefore don’t choose sides, but choose to play all sides. From the standpoint of the dozens of countries on the seams of Eurasia and the Indian Ocean, this strategy is the natural outgrowth of having experienced both colonialism and the Cold War.
In a world where most people trust neither America nor China, this is both the most likely and most desirable outcome: The world needs more self-sufficiency in strategic regions and less artificial dependence on an American crutch that the US can no longer afford to provide and doesn’t know how to competently wield.
In the 18th century, imperial Britain was able to practice gunboat diplomacy across Africa and the Indian subcontinent, taking direct administrative control of vast swaths of the world.
Imagine if China tried to do the same. Chinese president Xi Jinping touts the Belt and Road Initiative as China’s gift to the world, but when Sri Lanka ceded control over its Hambantota Port to China two years ago, it sparked a simultaneous vigilance.
Countries across the region began to cancel China-backed projects, renegotiate terms, and write down debts to China. From Pakistan to Myanmar, in almost all cases, China has backed down rather than assert its leverage.
The country is being forced to learn in three years what it took Britain 300 to experience: That locals can say no.
Geopolitics is non-linear
There are important lessons to take away from observing these differences between today’s geopolitical dynamics and those of previous eras.
Unlike the colonial period or Cold War clientelism, we live in a world of sovereign states, most of which are democratic.
Across Africa and Asia, vibrant media and civil society constantly scrutinize their governments’ decisions and meticulously monitor and publicize Chinese activities, from the number of Chinese workers within their borders to the volume of outstanding debt.
Newspapers and TV shows debate these daily, from Kenya to Malaysia. China is an election issue everywhere—not just in America.
When I explain to leaders in Beijing the need to appreciate postcolonial psychology, they appear quite perplexed. Quite often, they haven’t put themselves in the shoes of their junior partners any better than US leaders have.
The US and China are not, however, in geographically equivalent positions in their quest for global primacy.
Whereas the US is an unfettered two-ocean superpower, China borders 14 states, more than any other save for (and including) Russia—most of whom are deeply suspicious of its intentions.
Consider the border standoff between China and India in the Doklam Plateau high in the Himalayas in 2017. China could have delivered a swift beating to Indian forces, as it did in 1962, but chose to back down instead. The episode is mostly forgotten in Western capitals, but it’s highly instructive in understanding Chinese thinking.
China needs to gauge not only what it can achieve versus one adversary, but the reaction that will evoke among a dozen other neighbors. Were China to humiliate India and seize disputed territory, for example, Kazakhstan and Mongolia (and others) would have good reason to renege on Chinese energy and transport projects in their countries for fear of what might come next.
China, then, faces a bewilderingly complex, 360-degree set of calculations on a daily basis. Whereas Sri Lanka’s Hambantota Port episode has taught countries to be wary of falling into excessive debt to China, the Doklam Plateau stand-off has also become a case study for how to stand up to China and thwart its ambitions.
The paradox of China’s growing power is that while it suggests China is on an inexorable path to global hegemony, the manner in which it is exercised inspires significant counter-reactions. The most significant may just have begun with Japan, India, Europe, Australia, the US and other powers all launching competitive initiatives to China’s Belt and Road, aimed at providing lower interest-rate and higher-quality project oversight for developing nations across Asia.
The winners in this infrastructure arms race won’t be China or America. Rather, the real winners are the countries that will be better able to invest in their own growth and diminish their dependence on any one power. As in chess, the reaction is as important as the first move.
Geopolitics is non-linear. When the US invaded Iraq in 2003, talk of American “hyperpower” was ubiquitous. Within five years, “imperial overstretch” became a more apt description of America’s global military posture.
The ultimately law of geopolitics is not the succession of hegemony from one superpower to another, but entropy: the diffusion of power among an ever-growing number of confident power centers.
Outside of the US and China, the lessons of colonialism and the Cold War have been learned.
The question is when today’s superpowers will learn them.