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This post was edited by Prometheus2 at 2013-4-1 15:04|
China’s Glass Ceiling
Sure, the Middle Kingdom is becoming a superpower, but it's always going to be No. 2.
BY GEOFF DYER |MARCH 28, 2013
"It's over for America," a Chinese academic told me in late 2008, two days after Goldman Sachs turned itself into a commercial bank in order to fend off possible collapse. "From here on, it's all downhill." Sitting in Beijing as American capitalism seemed to be hanging by a thread, it was easy to believe that one era was ending and another beginning.
The past half-decade should have been the glory years for the spread of Chinese influence around the world. After China's ravishing 2008 Beijing Summer Olympics, and its startling recovery from the financial crisis, it had a platform to push for a bigger voice in international affairs. At a time when the United States has been navel-gazing on its own deficiencies and beset by dysfunction and infighting in Congress, China has quickly become the main trading partner for a long list of countries, not just in Asia, which should give it all sorts of sway. And at the very least, many Chinese assume, the country should start to resume its role as the natural leader in Asia.
Yet the years since the crisis have demonstrated something very different. Rather than usher in a new era of Chinese influence, Beijing's missteps have shown why it is unlikely to become the world's leading power. Even if it overtakes the United States to have the biggest economy in the world, which many economists believe could happen over the next decade, China will not dislodge Washington from its central position in global affairs for decades to come.
China is certainly not lacking in ambition, even if many of its final goals are not clearly articulated. It is implementing plans which challenge U.S. military, economic, and even political supremacy. But on each front, the last few years have demonstrated China's limitations, not the inevitability of its rise.
China's effort to gradually squeeze the U.S. Navy out of the Western Pacific did not start with the financial crisis in 2008. The financial crisis did, however, coincide with a new aggressiveness in the way China has pushed its territorial claims in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. Beijing has scored at least one victory, securing control of the Scarborough Shoal, a group of small islands in the South China Sea, from the Philippines in 2012.
But among these tactical successes, China has been sowing the seeds of a strategic defeat. China's assertiveness is generating intense suspicion, if not outright enmity, among its neighbors. Its "peaceful rise" is not taking place in isolation. There may be echoes in today's Asia of the late-nineteenth century in Europe and North America, but this is the one critical difference. The United States came into its own as a great power without any major challenge from its neighbors, while Germany's ascent was aided by the collapsing Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman empires and Russian monarchy on its frontiers. China, on the other hand, is surrounded by vibrant countries with fast-growing economies, from South Korea to India to Vietnam, who all believe that this is their time, as well. Even Japan, after two decades of stagnation, still has one of the most formidable navies in the world, as well as the world's third largest economy. China's strategic misfortune is to be bordered by robust and proud nation-states which expect their own stake in the modern world.
The last few years have shown that these countries have no desire to return to a Sinocentric Asia, as existed before the arrival of Western powers in the late-fifteenth century, and one where China is the undisputed leader. All the talk about the Obama administration's "pivot" to Asia has obscured the much bigger shift that has taken place in the region since the crisis -- almost all of China's neighbors are now deeply anxious about what a powerful, expansionist leadership in Beijing portends for their future. They still want to trade with China, but they also want protection from Beijing's bullying.