China’s Narrow Path to 21st Century Dominance

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China’s Narrow Path to 21st Century Dominance

In nearly every area ranging from defense to technology to trade, China is working to dominate the global system.  And the resulting disruptions will shape the world in which we live for generations.  Yet, contrary to what we are led to believe, China is poorly positioned to achieve global dominance.

As Gordon Chang and others explain, China’s distorted economy, collapsing demography, and political fragility preordains that Beijing’s challenge to American preeminence, its own geographical constraints and to the international system will almost surely fall short.

And ironically, the imperial-era notions of China’s current ruler, Xi Jinping, will cut-short the rise of the Chinese nation rather than extending it. 

Why?

Today’s popular conception of China rests on a gross misreading of the past.  Contrary to revisionist history, China has never been dominant on “the world stage.”   As Arthur Waldron of the University of Pennsylvania explains, “The idea that China was somehow a great Asian hegemon at some point in the past, so that all she is doing now is resuming her traditional position, is a total misunderstanding of how nations in pre-modern Asia interacted.”  In reality, China “avoided contact lest that lead to disorder, as globalization is doing in China today.”

Chinese emperors were powerful only within their domains.  Moreover, that was true of other East Asian societies:  China’s geliguojia or “separated country” system was matched by Japan’s sakoku system, which literally means “shackled country,” and Korea’s swaegug identity as “the hermit kingdom.” 

As Waldron also points out, “Asians did not engage in foreign relations, they avoided them.”  Multinational empires like Rome, Greece and Persia were alien to east Asia with the brief exception of the Mongol Empire.

The recent rise of China, therefore, is not the story of a “return” to glory, but more of an emergence from millennia of self-imposed isolation.  The Qing dynasty first tried to fend off foreigners and eventually came to terms with modern ways.  Its successor, the Republic of China under Sun Yat-sen and Chiang Kai-shek, was fatally weakened by an existential struggle with Japan, an Asian society that had embraced western doctrines earlier and more enthusiastically than imperial Chinese rulers had seen fit.

On one level, Mao Zedong, who chased Chiang off the mainland of Asia to Taiwan, embraced Western ideas with a rhetorical acceptance of Marxism.  But he quickly closed off his People’s Republic from outside influence...

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