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The Sciences

The past and the future

Gene ExpressionBy Razib KhanSeptember 12, 2007 1:16 PM

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A comment on another weblog asked why the United States might have a confrontation with China at some point in the future. They pointed out, correctly, that Chinese imperialism has been weak tea in comparison to the world-striding European form. That is, the Middle Kingdom asserted a pretense of being the universal empire, but engaged in little projection of imperialism outside of its traditional sphere of influence (e.g., Korea, Vietnam and the Tarim Basin). That is the past, and it should inform our perception of the course of the future. But prior information needs to be updated with current conditions, which may change the parameters. The China of the past was a subsistence economy which produced the vast majority of its goods and services in its own enormous internal market. In fact a common Chinese conceit, quite often justified, was that there was truly nothing that the outside world could offer in trade aside from currency or vice (i.e., opium). This is not the contemporary situation; modern China is a growing consumer society with an insatiable appetite for raw materials and food. There is no feasible way that China can sustain itself without the rest of the world, so it seems entirely likely that the Chinese state of the 21st century will involve itself in overseas affairs. That being said, the past is likely a guide that the Chinese imperialism of the 21st century will not take the form of massed invasions and conquests, but rather client-patron relationships which reinforce the rise of a new hegemon.

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