China is not the challenge we face: rather, the challenge is the new Chinese empire. It is an empire that stretches from the arable cradle of the ethnic Han core westward across Muslim China and Central Asia to Iran; and from the South China Sea, across the Indian Ocean, up the Suez Canal, to the eastern Mediterranean and the Adriatic Sea. It is an empire based on roads, railways, energy pipelines and container ports whose pathways by land echo those of the Tang and Yuan dynasties of the Middle Ages, and by sea echo the Ming dynasty of the late Middle Ages and early-modern period. Because China is in the process of building the greatest land-based navy in history, the heart of this new empire will be the Indian Ocean, which is the global energy interstate, connecting the hydrocarbon fields of the Middle East with the middle-class conurbations of East Asia.
This new Indian Ocean empire has to be seen to be believed. A decade ago, I spent several years visiting these Chinese ports in the making, at a time when few in the West were paying attention. I traveled to Gwadar in the bleak desert of Baluchistan, technically part of Pakistan but close to the Persian Gulf. There, I saw a state-of-the-art port complex rising sheer above a traditional village. (The Chinese are now contemplating a naval base in nearby Jawani, which would allow them to overwatch the Strait of Hormuz.) In Hambantota, in Sri Lanka, I witnessed hundreds of Chinese laborers literally moving the coast itself further inland, as armies of dump trucks carried soil away. While America’s bridges and railways languish, it is a great moment in history to be a Chinese civil engineer. China has gone from building these ports, to having others manage them, and then finally to managing them themselves. It has all been part of a process that recalls the early days of the British and Dutch East India companies in the same waters.