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  • China and World Order:Mutual Gain or Exploitation?
  • Walter C. Clemens Jr. (bio)
Peter Frankopan The New Silk Roads: The Present and Future of the World (New York: Knopf, 2019).
Tran Truong Thuy, John B. Welfield, and Le Thuy Trang, eds., Building a Normative Order in the South China Sea: Evolving Disputes, Expanding Options (Cheltenham, UK: Edgar Elgar, 2019).
Matthieu Burnay, Chinese Perspectives on the International Rule of Law: Law and Politics in the One-Party State (Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2018).

Will the rise of China be "harmonious"—cooperative for mutual gain with other actors—or imperious, bullying others to get Beijing's way? There is evidence to support each interpretation, but the signs are that an assertive realpolitik is China's leitmotif. Frankopan's New Silk Roads lays out the wide scope of China's ambitions and hints at some of their genuinely internationalist dimensions, but it also documents the case for viewing China's role as a wolf in sheep's clothing—at least as rapacious as European and other imperialists in previous centuries. The latter view is supported by Burnay's Chinese Perspectives on the International Rule of Law and the anthology Building a Normative Order in the South China Sea. Still other studies show that China's cyber networks are establishing foundations for Chinese dominion over foreign resources and potential dependencies that, in time, can be pressured to do more than kowtow. [End Page 743]

Present and Future Dimensions of China's Belt and Road Initiative

The New Silk Roads updates in a concise and reader-friendly manner the author's previous, much longer, but well-received The Silk Roads: A New World History (2015). But the intellectual and historical origins of each book go back much further in space and time. The author's The First Crusade: The Call from the East (2012) demonstrated his ability to think big as he studies and analyzes the ties that joined and divided the many cultures and nations that lined the ancient and recent versions of the East-West corridor known as the "silk road." A professor of global history at Oxford University, Frankopan cites a huge range of recent documents and writings in a wide selection of languages to marshal his analysis of recent and prospective actions in pursuit of what China has called its Belt and Road Initiative (BRI).

China, Frankopan writes, has not just one Silk Road strategy, but many—and all lead from and to Beijing. China's interests and investments dot the traditional Silk Road, from Xi'an and Kyrgyzstan to Turkey. But they also reach into Europe, Latin America, and Africa. They follow land routes, like ancient camel trains, but also water routes, constructing bases from Sri Lanka and Pakistan to Djibouti (which nearly abuts an existing US military base). Brashly, Chinese builders dredge sand to erect bases on rocky outcroppings in the South China Sea, in the process defying a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague. Frankopan details each of these actions, noting their scale and costs, as well as their resemblance to policies earlier pursued by Great Britain and other imperial powers.

Not only does Frankopan use a wide and rich amalgam of sources, he also lays out what can be seen as both the positive and negative facets of Chinese policy. Yes, the South China Sea, East China Sea, and parts of the Indian Ocean may be vital to China's imports of oil and other goods. But China's claim on all the South China waters within a "nine-dash" perimeter robs other littoral nations of their sovereign rights and menaces international transit rights. The American and UK navies challenge China's claims, but—as Frankopan details—Beijing has already constructed the beginnings of a naval, air, and missile force able to confront US vessels and planes.

In short, Frankopan is able to describe, explain, and—to some degree—forecast future Chinese behavior and suggest what could be appropriate responses by Washington and its partners. Based at Oxford, Frankopan is also mindful of Western weaknesses typified by what he [End Page 744] calls the "Brexit circus," turmoil in the EU, and...


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