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Jeffrey Gillespie: What China wants

In his 2011 nonfiction book on China, Henry Kissinger, the opaque former Secretary of State and adviser to myriad presidents past and present, gave a compelling insight into the desires of the country on which he has long been an expert. China, he says, operates under the assumption that it is the world’s long-term hyperpower. Since the emergence of its first dynasties as far back as 2100 BCE, there is certainly a solid argument for that assumption. In the culture of the Mandarin elite in Beijing, the school of thought is and has been that any superpower that overtakes China is simply an interim one — a sort of Dmitry Medvedev in the form of a state actor.

In recent years, however, the PRC has been growing impatient with the stubborn persistence of the United States as the pre-eminent world superpower. After the fall of the Soviet Union in 1991, it saw the communist ideal put to bed in ways that defied the imagination of most any member of the Politburo. That, combined with continued strained relations around trade prices, the debts owed to China by the U.S., and the ongoing territorial skirmishes concerning Taiwan, has led to an impasse in the relationship between China and the U.S. that is not receiving the sort of coverage that it should be, here at home.

After his recent visit to Asia, Defense Secretary Ash Carter (a longtime Democrat and far less hawkish than any of his recent predecessors) expressed grave concern about Chinese activity in the region. There is specific concern about a long-term strategic dialogue between China and Russia, which Carter implied might actually lead the the potential for a hot war; it was clear, although couched in diplomatic language, that Carter views Vladimir Putin’s Russia as desperate enough to allow itself to become a proxy state in a battle between China and the United States. Ironically, the country that was the USSR could be willing to bend a knee to the new communist top dog in order to start a fresher version of the Cold War in its quest to establish a viable counterbalance to American hyperpower.

Interestingly, in giving his comments about the two countries, Carter studiously avoided calling out China. His scorn was reserved almost exclusively for the Russians. That would indicate that America takes China as a serious enough threat that we will not (or perhaps cannot) be vocal about their intentions in the same way that we can be with countries that do not pose a real threat to us. Russia, for all of its decaying nuclear stockpiles, could not mount a serious threat to the combined strength of NATO and the Pentagon. China, on the other hand, may have quietly gotten to a point where, through a combination of financial, strategic and literal warfare, it could do serious damage. The fact that China is able to use Russia as a pawn in their strategy gives us some clue as to how powerful Beijing may have become.

China’s island-building spree in the Spratly Islands area of the South China Sea has been particularly alarming. The islands, which are entirely artificially constructed and are home primarily to air bases and military installations, have begun to reshape the geopolitical culture of the entire region. They are seen by China as a sly compromise; a deterrent mechanism for the ages. China has done on water what Israel has done in Palestine; redrawn borders with chunks of concrete, one bag at a time. There is every possibility that vast deposits of oil and natural gas exist in the area; China can also patrol air and sea from the islands.

China is going slowly, building strategically and waiting for a day when it can once again relive what it considers to be its birthright as the true pinnacle of world power. Compared to a 4,000-year-old civilization, the nascent period of time that began at the end of World War II and gave the U.S. its supposed Pax Americana ad infinitum, is but a blip. The dynastic dreams of the Manchu emperors — while perhaps temporarily on hold — could ultimately have final say in the years and decades to come.

Ashland resident Jeffrey Gillespie is a Tidings columnist and freelance writer. Email him at gillespie.jeffrey@gmail.com.