Global Bite

The Chinese Colossus, Really?

Can China displace the United States as a military colossus in command of global affairs? Does it want to do so?

PLA 1st Amphibious Mechanized Infantry Division, July 2011. (Credit: U.S. Dept. of Defense via Wikimedia)


  • Chinese history has made Chinese leaders risk-averse. They cannot afford errors at home or abroad.
  • The Chinese see "foreignness" as the natural condition of foreigners. It's not worth it to change them.

China’s human and natural history as well as its geography make its leaders risk-averse. They are conservative and cautious in their management of their country and its foreign affairs.

Even if China had an ideology or political-economic system it could export (which it doesn’t), its leadership would still be very conscious that it cannot afford to make mistakes at home or abroad.

China’s multiple past wounds and present vulnerabilities are about as solid a guarantee as one could hope for that it will continue to be interested mainly in its own domestic tranquility and prosperity.

The Chinese see “foreignness” as the natural, if deplorable, condition of foreigners. They are flattered when non-Chinese seek to improve themselves by becoming more like the Chinese.

But the Chinese have never thought it worth the effort to go forth to civilize those afflicted by “foreignness” by teaching them to become something other than what they are. China has no messianic impulse.

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About Chas W. Freeman

Chas Freeman was the main interpreter for U.S. President Richard Nixon in his 1972 visit to China and was the U.S. Ambassador to Saudi Arabia from 1989 to 1992. He is currently Senior Fellow at Brown University's Watson Institute for International and Public Affairs.

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