For much of the twentieth century, the Pacific Ocean was an American lake. After emerging triumphant from its struggle for dominance with the Soviet Union, the US went on to shape the geopolitics of the Far East with its alliances and enmities, through its projection of economic and military power. From China’s perspective, the country was hung out to dry in the aftermath of the Second World War; South Korea and Japan were propped up with US support instead. Although a US ally during the war, and having paid an awful human price for resisting Japanese imperial expansion, China was excluded from many of the agreements which forged the post-war order. However, the status quo is being challenged by a newly assertive China. Having kept control of its currency, banks, and national industries, China now has the world’s second largest economy. This is in spite, or possibly because, of stubbornly resisting pressure to conform to the neo-liberal economic consensus. The former East Asian powerhouses of Japan and South Korea find themselves once more in the shadow of a giant. China’s momentum has also been matched by a recent surge in ambition. President Xi Jinping’s ‘China Dream’ strapline seems to suggest an alternative to the American Dream, which speaks volumes on how the architects of China’s rise see its trajectory.
The dream is already on the cusp of challenging US hegemony. It may not usher in a new PostWest world, but it will certainly be a different world. Xi’s pitch to developing countries provides a good example: China will assist with infrastructure and trade, but without the ideological agenda which often comes bundled with US aid. For Muslim-majority countries in particular, partnership with China may prove to be more palatable in the long run. Where the US remains a strong ally of Israel, in defiance of almost the entire UN General Assembly, China supports an independent Palestinian state. With its ‘no enemies’ policy, there is neither partisan alignment nor rhetoric claiming knowledge of how other states should best organise themselves. But there is a new belligerence as well. China is showing its muscle by claiming disputed maritime territory, worrying US-aligned countries like Japan and the Philippines. However, at the same time it is reaching out to neighbours like Kazakhstan, offering expertise and foreign investment where these were previously sought from the West. The toxicity of the US brand for Muslim countries can only help China’s cause, and with an estimated 23 million Muslim citizens, China surely has an asset in building fraternal ties with its Middle-Eastern partners. Indeed, in all the punditry about the rise of China, not enough attention has been paid to China’s management of its Muslim minorities and whether this has any bearing on its international outlook.