America is now staring at a fast re-arranging world, with many of the pieces outside its grasp. Foreign policy analysts call it a ‘multipolar’ world, which has been radically rearranged from the bipolar one that existed during the Cold War. Then it used to be a simple, straight fight between the American alliance and the Soviet bloc. America knew how to deal with that world of intrigue, force, power and naked military play. Today that black-and-white edifice has crumbled. The bad guys have gone, and the Soviet Union is no more.
Today’s equations are far more complex, and still evolving. By far the most important equation is the one being crafted between America and China. “Our future history will be more determined by our position on the Pacific facing China than by our position on the Atlantic facing Europe,” said Theodore Roosevelt almost a century ago. Somewhat later, the prediction is finally ringing true. British Historian Niall Ferguson calls it Chimerica, a new ‘nation’ that was born after the end of the Cold War. “For a time it seemed like a marriage made in heaven,” Ferguson wrote in The Ascent of Money. “The East Chimericans did the saving, the West Chimericans did the spending”. China grew furiously, and Americans gorged on low interest rates and inflation.
America has often leaned on China to play the good cop in North Korea. Since China supplies Pyongyang with almost all its oil, it enjoys some persuasive powers over Kim Jong-Il. America has often called in those favours, and China has obliged; in 2003, it even cut off fuel supplies to North Korea for a few days.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton wants to use ‘smart power’ — a clever potion of military might, economic clout and cultural influence, a mix of the traditional strategies of hard and soft power — to deal with China. She believes that the 21st century should be a ‘multi-partner’, not a ‘multipolar’ world. Other advisers in President Barack Obama’s administration would like to replace the earlier ‘engage-and-hedge’ approach with one that ‘maximises opportunity but also manages risk’. The phrase in vogue is ‘strategic reassurance’. Whichever words are used to dress it up, the strategy has to be a 21st century variant of the ‘carrot and stick’.
Happily for now, an asymmetric dynamic drives the relationship between China and America. China exported over $350 billion worth of goods to America, and lent $800 billion by buying American treasuries in 2009. Just as China needs America’s markets, the US needs Chinese debt. Even a slight wobble in this equilibrium could throw millions of Chinese workers out of jobs, and push American interest rates high. Lawrence Summers has called it the ‘balance of financial terror’. But Americans can take comfort in their unquestionable military superiority over China. The economic might of the two may be converging. But the military equation is loaded in America’s favour.
Yet, China is a difficult country to fathom, and that troubles many Americans. Very little is known about China’s nuclear alert systems, or how close it is to mounting its America-range nuclear missiles on submarines. The Pentagon hasn’t been able to persuade the Chinese to send their chief of strategic nuclear forces to Washington; indeed, no American official has been allowed into the headquarters of the Chinese armed forces. The sophisticated Chinese war machine on display at the 60th anniversary parade created disquiet in the western world. It was mentally contrasted with the Soviet Union of yore, which was a weak economic power that tried to sustain a disproportionately large army, and eventually lost the plot. China, on the other hand, is first building a strong economy.
American policymakers dread the day that China is forced to ‘go it alone and create international organisations that fundamentally clash with US interests... which could make the future very uncomfortable for the United States’. They speculate on what would happen after China’s economy becomes larger than America’s. Once its military might is comparable, will China continue to be a good guy? Will its ambitions change once it has put a man on the moon (targeted for 2020), and mounted several America-range nuclear missiles on submarines lurking in the Pacific? Will a century-old history of humiliations and suffering under western powers uncoil into a primeval desire for retribution and dominance? Will China remain happy playing second fiddle to America, or will it carve its own spheres of influence, at least as an equal?
Raghav Bahl is founder and editor of Network18 and author of Superpower: The Amazing Race Between China’s Hare and India’s Tortoise (Penguin Allen Lane) The views expressed by the author are personal.