The American Interest

Dealing With China

A country’s rising economic strength tends to be reflected in her geopolitical clout.  In the late 1880’s the United States overtook Great Britain as the world’s largest economy; a decade later, having defeated Spain, America took over the remnants of her empire.  During the same period Germany’s massive economic growth enabled her to establish colonies in Africa and to build an oceangoing navy.  Even the tiny Netherlands, having grown rich in the 1600’s, proceeded to establish a commercially oriented empire in the East Indies, the Cape, and the Caribbean.

China’s economy is now equal in size to that of the United States, and Beijing is seeking geopolitical adjustments to reflect that reality.  Its grand strategy is focused on securing supply chains, however, and not on acquiring legal title to faraway lands or showing the flag for reasons of prestige.  The program of building islands in the disputed areas of the South China Sea and militarizing them looks expansionist.  But it may also be a strategically defensive move to secure the vital node of China’s maritime supply chains in uncertain times, a reflection of the Confucian striving for stability rather than an audacious bid to establish regional hegemony.

The Trump administration seems to have decided to treat it as a threat.  During his nomination hearing on January 11, secretary of state...

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