As the COVID-19 crisis has unfolded, it has opened our eyes to China’s rapidly expanding role in the international order and global economy. Beijing’s outsize role in the World Health Organization has come under attack, as has the muscular diplomacy used by China’s foreign ministry in responding to criticism.
Three decades of American global hegemony after the Cold War led to complacency about the growing role of China. But changes to the U.S. National Defense Strategy in 2018 signaled a new willingness to confront China and Russia, shifting the focus from the Global War on Terror.
China’s current role has historic parallels that may be closer to home than is often realized. At the start of the 20th century, the United States had emerged from a civil war and a period of rapid industrialization to become a global power almost overnight. By 1920, the country was beginning to chart a path similar to China’s today.
Comparing China’s rise in this century to that of the U.S. between 1920 and 1945 can provide us with clues to what’s coming next in international affairs. Today China is on the verge of being able to challenge the U.S. military in the Pacific. President Donald Trump has spoken of a new “super duper” missile that will help Washington keep up with the threat.
Like the U.S., China has undergone a transformation from isolationism to a role of central involvement in international affairs. As Max Edling has written, America was a kind of “Hercules in the cradle” in the 19th century. During the era of the Monroe Doctrine, Washington sought to project power only in the Americas; by the late 19th century, the U.S. naval strategist Alfred Thayer Mahan was prophesying that the U.S. would become an international sea power.
As a sign of American power, Teddy Roosevelt, known for his aphorism “speak softly and carry a big stick,” sent a fleet of battleships around the world in 1907. Similarly, as China grew more powerful in the 1990s, Deng Xiaoping’s motto was “hide your strength, bide time.” Last year, China showcased its massive new strength in a military parade brimming with stealth drones, missiles, and other technologies.
China is pursuing its Belt and Road Initiative to connect itself through Central Asia and the Middle East to Europe and increase its role in Africa. It has run up against some Western resistance, including concerns over Huawei’s 5G technology. This desire to use trade as a marker of power looks a lot like a darker version of Woodrow Wilson’s push for free trade and “making the world safe for democracy.” China’s model is to work with Russia and other authoritarian powers to build a multipolar world, thus reducing the U.S. role.
Salvador Dalí’s 1943 painting Geopoliticus Child Watching the Birth of the New Man shows a man being born by emerging from the North American continent on an egg-like world, as a child clinging to an adult figure watches apprehensively or excitedly. Painted during World War II, while the artist was living in America, the work evokes a sense of anxiety over what role the U.S. would take on in the postwar world.
Today, as the world is confronted with the rise of a more assertive China, as in its threat to boycott Australia over criticism of its management of the coronavirus outbreak, Dalí’s painting has a new resonance — what are we watching emerge in Asia? China has been biding its time, but it has now become evident that its push for an expanded international role is barreling forward. Its imposition of a security law on Hong Kong last week, as the COVID-19 crisis continued, illustrated that the status quo is changing.
The pandemic looks set to accelerate China’s changing role. Much as the U.S. came to dominate the world relatively quickly, becoming one of the world’s two superpowers in the aftermath of the Great Depression and the devastation of world war, economic upheaval today could enhance China’s position.
The pandemic may set in motion a series of events, over a much briefer period than U.S. strategists are prepared for, that ends with China atop the world order. If the U.S. or its allies are serious about preserving the liberal world order, they need to move quickly. Otherwise we may see in the next quarter century the rapid changes that took place 100 years ago, only this time they won’t end with U.S. dominance: They will end with China, along with Russia and Iran, in the driver’s seat.