China has constructed an entire village within the territory of the tiny Himalayan kingdom of Bhutan, according to satellite images obtained by The New York Times. “A hundred people moved into two dozen new homes beside the Torsa River and celebrated the holiday by raising China’s flag and singing the national anthem,” the Times reported, adding that this is the same tactic China has used in the South China Sea to force acceptance of unilateral territorial changes.
This is not new. In recent days, the idea of forced changes in territory has returned as the established order crumbled. Russia annexed parts of Georgia in 2008, of Crimea in 2014, and has de facto control over half of Syria and Ukraine. With the help of Turkey, Azerbaijan “reclaimed” a large chunk of land that was part of Armenia since the collapse of the USSR. Turkey has active designs in the Aegean.
But all of these pale in comparison to Chinese imperial ascension. China has bought ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, crippled several African countries with debt, fought a short border conflict with India in the Himalayas, established martial law in Hong Kong, and changed the geography of the South China Sea with new artificial islands that can host Chinese fighters. If other countries have revanchist ambitions in their former spheres of influence, Chinese ambition is global, matching its capability, reach, and intention.
This of course brings into question two fundamental assumptions. One, what is the character of the modern Chinese state; and two, how, if at all, is it possible to stop or reverse this expansion while avoiding a nuclear war with China.
Now, China is arguably an empire. An empire need not necessarily have an emperor, like the Romans or the British did. Republican France was imperial, as was the Soviet Union. In fact, some scholars argued that the major clashes and conflicts of history are often between imperial great powers, whether between the Nazi empire and the British, or the Cold War between the United States and the Soviet Union.
In post-Cold War triumphalism, the idea increasingly entrenched in the foreign policy community was a sort of soft-liberal providentialism. To put it simply, the notion is that the Soviet Union was bound to collapse due to its internal contradictions and totalitarian ideology. It is simply not true.
The Soviet Union didn’t just collapse because of some massive win in ideas, but because it bankrupted itself in an arms race, and overstretched and bled dry in savage territories far in the outer rims of the empire. Without the Afghanistan war, where the Soviets lost 15,000 men and had millions crippled and maimed, the USSR would probably have carried on for a while more, before changing its model to Chinese-style state capitalism. It was warfare that led to the Soviet collapse, a hard lesson often lost in arguments of economic determinism.
In that way, it was similar to the collapse of every empire in history. As historical research repeatedly suggests, from Rome to Britain, the fundamental cause of an empire’s collapse, whether by violence or in implosion, is overstretching. Empires simply get bogged down, shed blood and treasure, and either implode or retreat. There are no other options.
For all its republican tradition, the United States is similarly feeling the pangs of imperial overstretch, with the loss of blood and treasure in the Middle East and Afghanistan. So naturally, prioritizing is the choice that looms.
More importantly, if that is indeed the historic norm, China isn’t going to collapse suddenly because a bunch of people will feel enlightened about totalitarianism. China isn’t the USSR and has thrice the manpower, technological advantages, social cohesion, and homogeneity.
It also isn’t an autarkic power and has a global market. It is building an empire, standing on the shoulders of the West providing global security. In a curious reversal of the Cold War, as western countries (especially the United States) lose blood and treasure in securing Middle Eastern peace and ensuring a balance of power between warlords, ethnostates, and theocrats, China is building an empire without any challenge.
There has so far been no cost to the Chinese imperium. Even in a multipolar world, the burden of global security has always been on American taxpayers.
This will be the key challenge in front of any future American presidential administration. Unipolarity is over. In the coming days, China will continue to expand its influence. The choice then comes to this: either stop China or let China expand and overstretch.
If history is of any guidance, the coming Chinese imperium will not be stopped without China overstretching and bleeding itself dry. In this hysteric media environment, detached and amoral realpolitik is increasingly difficult to pursue. But it remains the only way.
The temptation would be to fall back to singing glorious paeans to the liberal order and trying to solve all the problems in the world. That would be a mistake, as some regions are not at all important to American security. Instead of stopping the Chinese advance, we should therefore welcome a more martial and imperial China, and seek to impose a cost for every Chinese misadventure.
If China wants to invade Taiwan or resort to a border conflict with India, the United States needs to ensure that India and Taiwan get the bulk of its military assistance, to take on China themselves. In that way, the risk of a direct war between the United States and China remains minimal, while the chances of Chinese attrition increase.
Likewise, in Africa, an expanded Chinese presence would result in more Chinese expenditure to keep peace in a volatile neighborhood. The United States needs to get back to its realist roots, and prudently let China overstretch and, if possible, engage in fruitless and attritional armed conflict. The imperial advance as always will sow the seeds of its own implosion.