“Let China sleep, for when she wakes, she will shake the world,” Napoleon Bonaparte had allegedly said. It has been quite a while since Austerlitz and Waterloo, but the former French emperor and military genius seems to have hit the nail right on the head. Long forgotten are Mao’s economic and social experiments, namely, the “great leap forward” and the “cultural revolution” that killed millions and left the country destitute. Since the late 1970s, China has been nudging and turning. And now, it seems, she is wide awake.
China has one of the fastest-growing economies in the world. In the last decade, the Chinese economy has been soaring in terms of GDP. She is the largest importer of oil in the world and the second-largest consumer behind the United States. She has overtaken the U.S. in global car production, and her booming manufacturing sector is building everything, everywhere. Her military is modernizing. Fast. She already has two aircraft carriers and, allegedly, an additional one is on the planning board. Her cyber-warfare capabilities are some of the best in the world. “Hegemony or militarism is not in the genes of the Chinese,” proclaims President Xi Jinping. But China’s actions on the international chessboard sing another tune.
In 2017, China opened a military base in Djibouti (the first such overseas presence since withdrawing her forces from North Korea in 1958), and has promised military aid and training to the Assad regime — although this has more the feeling of a revenge slap to the U.S. for its South China Sea policy rather than a committed interest in the Middle East.
However, as ambitious preying nations have understood ever since the Romans felt that Carthaginian figs were sour and decided to go to war over it, without a strong economy, nothing can be achieved. Yet an economy needs fuel. And an economy the size of China’s needs a lot of fuel. So, how can a country with somewhat limited domestic resources (excluding coal, of which China is the largest producer and consumer) feed its furnaces and its geopolitical ambition?