A long-view look at events that are making China’s neighbors—and much of the world beyond—very nervous indeed.
To understand the present, interrogate the past: it’s always a good habit for those seeking to play power politics on the world stage. In the case of China, by journalist/historian French’s (China's Second Continent: How a Million Migrants Are Building a New Empire in Africa, 2014, etc.) account, the past is never far from view. One element of it is the Pax Sinica that reigned in the 19th century, when China’s rulers were able to extend Chinese influence over a broad geographical area—particularly far out into the Pacific—by making a calculated trade: “Accept our superiority and we will confer upon you political legitimacy, develop a trade partnership, and provide a range of what are known in the language of modern international affairs as public goods.” The resulting tribute system cost China, in terms of sheer treasure, but provided stability and other rewards. Through a combination of hard and soft power, China is seeking to re-establish something of that regional dominance, coming up against its longtime rival, Japan, but also the United States. That rivalry is playing out in trade disputes, the construction of miniature settlements and even a “prefectural-level city” atop remote coral atolls, and an increased naval presence on the high seas. In that long view, stretching back thousands of years and to more recent moments such as China’s war on Japanese pirates working the waters off Taiwan, these recent developments are of a piece. French does yeomanlike work with these historical patterns, but the more valuable part of his book lies in his deductions of what they mean for future international relations, for those patterns point to a better geopolitical position for the U.S. than other analysts have projected—and all because of demographics and not necessarily any military edge either nation might hold.
A lucid if stolid overview of regional history, useful for students of Pacific affairs in playing out scenarios of what might happen next.