The rise of China has become the most important strategic challenge to the United States in the early 21st century. Buoyed by the world’s second largest economy, an increasingly capable military, and a renewed sense of national pride, China is not only challenging the established global order, but striving to become the hegemon of the western Pacific.
For students of East Asia geopolitics, military officers, or anyone seeking to understand why China is behaving in an increasingly assertive and almost jingoistic manner, this impressive new book describes how history, geography, economics, and politics all intermix to create an extremely precarious situation in the waters of the East and South China Seas, likely flashpoints between China and its regional neighbors.
Mr. French does a masterful job of describing how the need for natural resources, increasing Chinese national pride, and a Communist regime seeking to justify its legitimacy mix with a storied history to create modern China, a country now seeking to recover its past glory and position as a world power.
The description of history and China’s view of itself as a once great power humbled by outside countries is the most interesting part of the book and Mr. French seamlessly traces many of China’s current political and strategic policies to how China views itself from a historical perspective. The discussion of China’s use of the “Nine Dash Line” to provide historical justification of its claim to nearly all the South China Sea is an excellent primer for anyone wanting to understand how China seeks to use its spin on history to justify its expansionist actions in international law.
However, beyond history and restoring its lost prestige, the book clearly lays out how basic economics is the driving factor in much of China’s behavior toward its neighbors. The need to continue growing the Chinese economy in the face of structural issues such as a rapidly aging population and high levels of institutional debt is foremost on the agenda of the ruling Communist Party. Coupled with this is a need for key resources such as petro carbons and fisheries, both found in abundance in the waters off China.
The often provocative acts conducted by China in the last five or six years have occasionally produced a backlash of nationalist zeal among the Chinese citizenry that the ruling party may have trouble controlling. In one potential scenario described in eerie detail, an accidental clash in the disputed Senkaku Islands between Japan and China could easily erupt into a global crisis through miscalculation and rapid escalation.
Strikingly, the author does not end on an optimistic note. The social and economic issues China is likely to face through mid-century are expected to increase, not decrease, instability within the country as the leadership faces a rapidly aging population requiring extensive social services that detract from the country’s economic growth. This may put continued pressure on the regime to justify its legitimacy and claim to power, making the potential for continued hegemonic acts to distract from internal social strains more possible.
Well laid out and sourced and very readable for the newcomer to this geopolitical situation, this book is an excellent introduction to the complex issues of East Asia and the potential for conflict in this critical region of the world.
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