Robert Kaplan: Don't Panic About China

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[Robert D. Kaplan is a national correspondent for The Atlantic and a senior fellow at the Center for a New American Security, in Washington, D.C.]

China is unnerving a lot of people. Its hackers have been launching cyber-attacks on companies, institutions, and web sites. It is refusing to be a responsible stakeholder in the international political system, cultivating, as it has been, good relations with some of the world’s most odious regimes. And, as I have been reporting for several years now, its military—particularly its navy—has been growing by leaps and bounds. Should we be worried about China?

We should be concerned, but not hysterical.

China is rising as a great power, that’s for sure. I see China’s rise as similar to that of the United States after the Civil War. From the end of the Civil War to the outbreak of World War I, the U.S. economy (under forgettable presidents – Hayes, Garfield, Arthur…) expanded steadily, with high growth rates for decades. We closed the frontier and would eventually build the Panama Canal. And as our power grew, we developed interests around the world that we never previously had, and that led to Navy and Marine landings in South and Central America, and in the Pacific, as we became a two-ocean Navy. We didn’t explicitly seek power so much as we naturally followed our interests. We rose legitimately, in other words. And China is doing likewise....

A case in point, which may indicate the kind of military power China will turn out to be in the 21st century, involves its recent commemoration of Zheng He, the early-Ming Dynasty explorer. Zheng He sailed his treasure fleet through the Strait of Malacca and out across the Indian Ocean as far as the Horn of Africa, stopping in Ceylon, the Indian Subcontinent, and the Arabian Peninsula along the way. Zheng He’s naval fleet brought trade and prosperity and suppressed piracy, and his commemoration is a way for China to indicate two points: that it intends eventually, if all goes well, to build a two-ocean navy – covering the Western Pacific and the Indian Ocean (a development that would signal China’s rise as a great military power to go along with its economic clout); and that it intends this projection of power to be benign....

In The Grand Chessboard (1997), Zbigniew Brzezinski presents a map of what Greater Chinese influence is likely to look like in the future, and shows it extending through parts of the Indian Ocean, all of Southeast Asia and the Indonesian archipelago, and the First Pacific Island Chain. But he also suggests that, in keeping with Chinese imperial history, Beijing will seek to apply its influence very indirectly.

According to that vision, the navies and air forces of America, China, India, Japan, and other powers would patrol the seas and air spaces in concert, defending the global commons against pirates and other marauders. That is the future we should strive to achieve. Just as celebrating Zheng He was one signal sent out by China, its dispatch of ships to the Horn of Africa both to fight piracy and to assert its presence in the Indian Ocean was another. Rather than fret over China’s rise we should embrace it, and seek to manage it through robust relationships with democratic countries like India, Japan, South Korea, Indonesia, and others....
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