February 23, 2015

Pax Sinica

In a recent Spengler column David Goldman foresees an ascendent China, but not on purpose.

China is not planning to take over the world. It doesn't want the world. It doesn't like the world--that is, the world outside of China. Unlike Greeks, Romans, Muslims, and European imperialists, it does not want to plant its flag outside its borders, send its young men to conquer and defend new territories, or subject other peoples to colonial rule. Nonetheless, it may inherit the world, reluctantly and by default.

This is a good description of Japan's foreign policy as well. In its 1500 years of documented history, the final decade of the 16th century (two pointless invasions of Korea in 1592 and 1597) and the half-century of military adventurism from 1894 to 1945 were the disastrous anomalies.

Emerging from its self-imposed isolationism in 1868, Japan found itself surrounded by paper tigers. Flailing about for a raison d'ĂȘtre, it seized once again (after almost 300 years) on Oda Nobunaga's dream of a Pax Japonica in Northeast Asia.

It took Japan another fifty years after that to figure out it was really bad at European-style colonialism.

The problem was, in the short turn, the Japanese navy in particular proved itself quite capable at winning individual battles. But the government had no idea how to rule what its soldiers and sailors conquered. The era of European colonialism was almost over. Japan came to the imperialism party a century too late.

Even so, by the end of the Russo-Japanese War in 1905, Japan did rule over an honest-to-goodness island empire stretching from Sakhalin down to Taiwan.

Japan would negotiate away Sakhalin (it was too big, too underpopulated, and too far away), and it would have eventually had to give up Korea (as England was to Ireland and Scotland, Japan was to Korea and Taiwan). But an empire it was, giving Japan complete control of the sea lanes across Northeast Asia.

Ah, if only Japan had stopped there. The Chinese Communists would never have come to power: a Japan not at war with China would have happily helped Chiang Kai-Shek exterminate them. Alas, Japan couldn't let go of the dice and inevitably rolled snake eyes a hundred times in a row.

After the Occupation, the Japanese went back to being Japanese. For a while on the global stage, it looked like it might win economically what it had lost militarily. But then the economy crapped out too. With a collective shrug, the Japanese went back to being Japanese.

The 250 years of the isolationist Edo period define the national character far more definitively than the hundred years after. Those were the good old days.

Likewise with China. The lesson of the Yuan Dynasty (1271-1368) was that any interlopers would be assimilated. The collapse of the far-flung Mongol Empire proved the point. Its sabre-rattling notwithstanding, China will ultimately settle for outwaiting Taiwan, just as it is absorbing its other "lost" provinces.

Despite its Security Council posturing, China greatly benefits from the current status quo. The U.S. (and its ostensible allies) kick the hive while China collects the honey. But the status quo isn't going to last.

More fracking and more pipelines (one way or another) will leave the U.S. even less dependent on oil imports from outside the Americas. The burden of securing the flow of Mideast oil will increasingly fall on China, arousing the radical elements in the Mideast to start playing chicken with the Far East.

That should be interesting.

China has an additional motivation here: to keep Japan from seriously rearming. To do that, it will have to pick up where the U.S. military leaves off. Except Goldman is right: that's the last thing China wants to do.

China leaders are bemused by America's sudden and unexpected withdrawal from strategic responsibility, for example, in the Persian Gulf, and are struggling to devise a response that would ensure the security of oil supplies without entangling alliances and risky military commitments. It is a comedy of errors rather than a conspiracy.

But to keep its economy going and the Mandate of Heaven secure, China won't have a choice. Well, as Uncle Ben could tell them: "With great power comes great responsibility."

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