“When China awakes,” Napoleon is said to have warned, “the world will tremble.” For more than a century and a half after his time, that prospect seemed remote.
The ancient civilization became a byword for isolation and stagnation. China’s decadent emperors were immured behind the Great Wall and inside the Forbidden City. Its vaunted invention of gunpowder had spluttered into firecrackers. Its art of printing had withered into the production of stereotyped editions of Confucius. Its navy was antediluvian: mandarins tried to emulate Western paddle-steamers with junks propelled by coolies turning treadmills.
China was devastated by flood, famine, rebellion, warlordism, invasion, civil strife and, finally, a Communist dictatorship. It’s all the more of a shock, then, that the sleeping dragon has now awoken with a vengeance.
As the media have breathlessly reported, China has just overtaken Japan as the world’s second largest economy, and bids fair to knock the United States from the top spot within 20 years. Ever since Deng Xiaoping embarked on his “second revolution” in 1978, introducing free market reforms and opening up to the outside world, China’s economy has grown by almost 10 percent a year — one of the most sustained expansions in history.
Deng retained socialist control while permitting capitalist enterprise, a well-nigh miraculous achievement that resulted in the creation of another workshop of the world. The crucial question is: how will China use its new-found wealth?
The traditional answer is that rich countries tend to equip themselves with the sinews of war in order to enhance their position at the expense of rivals. According to the dominant economic philosophy of the 18th century — mercantilism — wealth and power are interchangeable, each helping in the acquisition of the other.
Thus Britain used its economic predominance after the Industrial Revolution to establish global hegemony. Protected by the fleet, its multiplying colonies supplied the mother country with raw materials and bought her manufactured goods. But by 1914 Germany was easily out-producing Britain, and Kaiser Wilhelm’s challenge to the Royal Navy’s supremacy did much to precipitate the First World War.
However, history does offer alternative answers — and the case of America is particularly pertinent. The economy of the United States overtook that of Britain in the 1870s, and by 1914 it was nearly three times as large. A small island making steam engines by hand inevitably fell behind a bountiful continent that mass-produced motor cars on assembly lines.
It also seemed inevitable that the United States, particularly under the internationalist leadership of Presidents William McKinley and Theodore Roosevelt, would mount its own challenge to the British Empire by translating its economic strength into military might. Uncle Sam did arm, of course, during the conflict with Spain and World War I, creating an outstanding Navy.
But for the most part, the nation’s business was business. In the 1890s it was suggested that the State Department should close down because it had so little to do. And during the isolationist period between the two world wars, when at its peak America was responsible for nearly 40 percent of the world’s manufacturing output, the United States Army was around the 17th-largest on the planet.
In other words, the military of the world’s richest nation amounted to hardly more than a border constabulary armed with obsolete equipment like 1903 Springfield rifles. During the Depression, cash was so tight that its best officer, a bald-headed major named Dwight D. Eisenhower, had to make a requisition for his streetcar fare between the War Department building and the Capitol.
Needless to say, Axis aggression transformed the United States into a military-industrial colossus. It so galvanized a depressed economy that the historian Niall Ferguson of Harvard has been moved to dwell on “the benefits of militarism.” Indeed, in his 2001 book “The Cash Nexus,” Mr. Ferguson argued that the “imperial America” should devote “a larger percentage of its vast resources to making the world safe for capitalism and democracy.” He regretted, however, that the United States was unlikely to impose “the rule of law in countries like Iraq,” partly because of “a pusillanimous fear of military casualties.”
Historians get many things wrong when they interpret the past and most things wrong when they forecast the future. So Niall Ferguson may also be mistaken when he dismisses as hopelessly unrealistic the view of Adam Smith and his disciples that peace promotes prosperity, and vice versa, through the operation of free trade. Market forces act in the moral world, said the 19th-century British politician Richard Cobden, like “the principle of gravitation in the universe — drawing men together and thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language.” Certainly this is an ideal to which China has at least paid lip service since the end of the cold war, asserting that globalization fosters international cooperation.
Recall that at the start of the new millennium, a consensus existed among China-watchers that the Red Menace was as much of a mare’s-nest as the Yellow Peril. Like the United States before Pearl Harbor, China would concentrate on butter not guns, harmonizing its interests with those of its competitors through the peaceful mechanism of the open market. There was much talk of an entente between China and Japan, even of a Chinese-American alliance to maintain stability, fight poverty, tackle global warming and so on.
No doubt much of this was wishful thinking. Indeed, such soft soap may well have been part of a charm offensive by China, culminating in the Beijing Olympics of 2008, designed to mask the true character of a monstrous tyranny that was made manifest on Tiananmen Square in 1989.
Whatever the truth, informed opinion is now divided about Chinese intentions. Some pundits maintain that the fundamental assumption of China’s leaders is that conflict is part of the human condition, the only way of resolving differences in a perilous world. A recent comprehensive survey of Chinese authors revealed that most anticipate a repeat of the “warring states era in Chinese history.” Is not hostility toward “foreign barbarians” China’s default state?
There are, at any rate, obvious signs that the awakened dragon is flexing its muscles. China’s defense budget rose to be the second highest in the world in 2008, and its naval (particularly submarine) buildup has, in the opinion of the American journalist Robert D. Kaplan, caused “the loss of the Pacific Ocean as an American lake.” In search of markets and natural resources, China is expanding its influence aggressively in Asia, the Middle East, Africa and South America.
On the other hand, China’s 6.6 percent share of global expenditure on arms is dwarfed by America’s 46.5 percent. And, like the United States during and after the reconstruction era, modern China is preoccupied by the problems associated with rapid growth: pollution, corruption, rural poverty, urban overcrowding and troubled labor relations. Above all, its leaders have to keep the lid on the simmering political and ethnic cauldron, while at the same time preventing the economic bubble from bursting — as Japan’s did.
China may well keep its promise, for the moment at least, to follow the path of peaceful development. We can’t know, of course. But doom-merchants predicting that China will topple America from its pre-eminence should recognize that history is not necessarily on their side.
Piers Brendon, a fellow of Churchill College, Cambridge University and the author of The Decline and Fall of the British Empire.