What makes China so relevant in the global politics of this day and age is that it is rapidly reaching for peer status with the United States. But how can one validly identify the drivers behind China’s behavior on the international stage? In the Cold War era, George Kennan tried to both clarify Soviet and Russian intentions and he attempted to shed light on where Russia came from both culturally and psychologically. But despite the information age and the wide reach of the globalization phenomenon, it is still quite difficult to understand and verify China’s intentions in the way Kennan seemed to have understood the Russians.
However, one can offer a hypothesis in terms of what a Chinese psychological profile would look like. To understand China, one would have to first understand the concept of “Tao”, which is derived from the teachings of a Chinese prophet and philosopher named Lao Tzu. And to understand Tao, one would have to understand “external affairs.” For the Chinese, what goes on outside is more important than what happens internally, and that is because outside influences are what shape the internal makeup and condition of an individual or a nation, based on classic Chinese thought.
For the most part, the Chinese deal with external affairs in two ways. First of all, in terms of strategy, the Chinese employ what is known as wei qi, and it was Henry Kissinger who emphasized this about Chinese general strategy in a book titled On China. What wei qi dictates primarily is avoidance and also going around an impediment imposed by an adversary. Whereas Western strategy calls for dealing with an adversary head on, the Chinese call for passive and adroit avoidance of confrontation through the employment of wei qi.
Second, the physical and militaristic manifestation of Tao comes in the form of what is known as Tai Chi. Conventionally, Tai Chi is considered a form of martial arts. Actually, Tai Chi transcends the limitations of an art form. In the realm of external affairs, Tai Chi dictates a three-step process in both politics and warfare. First and foremost, an individual or nation must yield and absorb an attack by the adversary. What this enables is the second step, which is neutralization of the attack. Neutralization leads to the third and final step, which is the initiation of a counterattack. This three-step process outlined by the general philosophical underpinnings of Tai Chi calls for a defensive posture at all times, as opposed to the “offensive realism” of the West developed in modern times by John Mearsheimer, a professor of politics and international relations at the University of Chicago. The “offensive realism” of the Western world in essence negates the strategic patience that guides the mainly defensive posture dictating Chinese strategy.
The completion of the three-step process by the Chinese is now manifesting in both a military and economic strategy. The military strategy employed by the Chinese is known as the Chinese “String of Pearls.” Not only do Chinese military installations along the “String of Pearls” avoid U.S. global installations, but they encompass them as well, which is exactly what wei qi dictates. The economic strategy employed by the Chinese is known as the “One Belt, One Road” Initiative, otherwise known as the “Silk Road” Initiative. The Chinese have essentially put a down payment of about 1 trillion U.S. dollars in the development of this economic initiative, which connects the eastern coastal region of China to the port of Rotterdam in the Netherlands through an infrastructure plan. It is important to note that the “Silk Road” Initiative currently bypasses Afghanistan by going through Central Asia, and thus Afghanistan will not reap the benefits of this Chinese economic initiative anytime soon. The Chinese are avoiding Afghanistan in their “Silk Road” Initiative mainly because of the U.S. presence there, and thus the Chinese are compelled to curve their “Silk Road” Initiative around Afghanistan and through Central Asia. It is also important to note that the main drivers of U.S. foreign policy ever since the beginning of the Cold War has been to prevent Russia from seizing Europe and preventing China from seizing Asia. The way in which to render those outcomes is to maintain a significant U.S. presence in Germany and also in Afghanistan.
Currently, there are three major powers that have not signed onto the “Silk Road” Initiative: The United States, India, and Japan. Much of the rationale behind the U.S. abstention from the Chinese-led “Silk Road” Initiative is that this economic project gives China the potential to convert economic growth into political and social clout that will ultimately undermine the position of the United States globally. The chokepoint that would induce the collapse of the Chinese “Silk Road” Initiative is either Iran or Afghanistan. The Chinese can easily bring Afghanistan under its grip either surreptitiously or overtly with the help of Pakistan, a long-time friend and ally of the Chinese. Iran, on the other hand, is where the odds of Chinese success fluctuate, given that the United States neutralized Iran through the signing and implementation of the 2015 Lausanne deal. Before 2015, Iran was a rogue regime from a U.S. perspective, and Iran was an active member of what is known as the “BRICS” Organization that is led by both China and Russia. Now, Iran is on the fence as to whether improve ties with the West or to maintain its status quo of resisting what it sees as Western machinations towards Iran.
After 2015, Iran became split between continued engagement with the United States and alignment with China. On the other hand, Iran’s revolutionary posture in the Middle East since the beginning of the 2011 Arab Spring has rendered a sectarian backlash by the Sunni majority in the Muslim World. Thus, while the 2015 deal between the United States and Iran offered the subtle benefit of slightly pulling Iran out of China’s full grip, the downside of the Iran deal was chaos and bloodshed that the Muslim World has probably never seen in its entire history. The United States under the Obama Administration ignored the brutality of the Assad regime in Syria in order to sway the Iranians into making a deal. If the Trump Administration is serious about undoing the effects of what some perceive to be a failed Iran deal, the United States will have to take a holistic global approach to Iran with the help of China and Russia. There is reason to believe that Russia will abandon Iran for a deal with the United States. In fact, Russia nearly cancelled a major weapons deal with Iran but was later transacted when the United States confronted Russia in Ukraine. But Iran can also be strategically important for the United States. If Pakistan’s involvement with international terrorism persists and it continues to be a state sponsor of terrorism, the newly developed Chahbahar port in Iran can serve as an alternative supply route and line of communication for Americans who are based in Afghanistan for the prosecution of the Global War on Terror (GWOT). Thus, while pressuring Iran to withdraw from its nuclear program and improve ties with Israel, the United States should also consider Iran’s strategic importance in the long run, knowing full well that the Global War on Terror will mean taking Pakistan head on when dealing with the issue of international terrorism.
In the bigger scheme of things, a partnership with the United States is more important for China than a “Silk Road” that may not render sustainable results for China in the long run. It was Mao who said that once the “dialectic” is reconciled, you have essentially solved everything. In a global political and social context, the dialectic that Mao invoked translates into the United States that represents the West and a China that represents the East, both of whom are gradually developing parallel global governments and global orders. To avoid a clash, policymakers in both the West and the East need to seriously consider taking actions to improve the relationship between the United States and China in order to solve the plethora of problems and dilemmas plaguing the international community.