China expert sees a nation at the 'shadow-line'

Across the Globe
By PETER VOSKAMP  |  March 17, 2010

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WORLD VIEW Wilson.

Joseph Conrad wrote of a "shadow-line," an indistinct boundary between youth and adulthood that adolescents awkwardly straddle; one moment there is impressive poise and maturity, and the next, a slip into past boorish, immature behavior.

China is by no means a youth — it is one of the oldest civilizations on earth — but its seemingly ambivalent embrace of an international leadership role has the hallmarks of a similar transition, says Andrew Wilson, professor of strategy and policy at the Naval War College in Newport.

Wilson is an expert on Chinese history and culture. He was recently featured in the History Channel's program on legendary Chinese military tactician Sun Tzu, author of The Art of War.

When he isn't providing instruction to all five branches of the military and the CIA, the East Greenwich resident consults around the world.

Wilson says China's immature moments are rooted in its historical hangover from a "century of humiliation," when imperial powers operated within Chinese borders at will.

Now that the country is challenging the United States as the world's foremost economic power, it once again finds foreign powers trying to meddle in its affairs. And it is uncomfortable.

Take China's sharp reaction when the US announced its $6.4 billion arms sale to Taiwan. Wilson says the deal was really no surprise. It was first put on the table by the Bush administration in 2001 as a vastly larger $16 billion package. And both President Obama and John McCain voiced support for a scaled down version during the 2008 election.

China's instinct to "punish" the US for the sale — by ending military exchanges and imposing sanctions on US arms manufacturers — was an example of immaturity, Wilson says.

Then there are the perpetual dust-ups over the Dalai Lama. The world's third largest economy doesn't look particularly grown up, Wilson suggests, when it publicly bickers with Sharon Stone or Richard Gere about Tibet.

On the flipside, Wilson says, China has demonstrated maturity by joining anti-piracy efforts in the Gulf of Aden and supplying more peacekeeping troops to the United Nations than any other country.

And China demonstrated unusual confidence in Copenhagen with its calculated play — "planned long in advance," Wilson says — to thwart any binding climate change agreements.

A shadow-line is by definition hazy, but Wilson suggests that the Chinese have little interest in projecting military power beyond a regional sphere; given the imperial subjugation they endured in the past, they don't seek hegemony.

The US, according to Wilson, is "still very much in the driver's seat, no matter what the pundits say."

  Topics: This Just In , Barack Obama, Politics, Joseph Conrad,  More more >
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