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Channeling China’s Aspirations

CAMBRIDGE – China has begun to stretch its economic and military muscles in recent years. In the South China Sea, it has built a series of quasi-military bases on the tiny Spratly Islands and deployed warships to defend them. Meanwhile, it is sponsoring the new Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) – an international institution that threatens to rival the World Bank in Asia – and has persuaded countries like the United Kingdom, Germany, and France to join, over the vocal objections of the United States.

It is easy to conflate China’s saber-rattling with its economic and diplomatic initiatives such as the AIIB, as some US officials seem to have done. But, while China’s rise does merit some caution, it does not make sense to resist the country at every turn; sometimes, it is wiser to leave well enough alone.

While China’s military and economic actions are interlinked, those links provide an opening for the latter to mitigate the former. Indeed, a more supple American policy would seek to play these two aspects of Chinese policy against each other.

The US, however, has attempted to hamper China’s economic and diplomatic rise. In 2010, long before the AIIB was introduced, the International Monetary Fund agreed to give China and other rapidly growing countries more financial responsibility and a greater say over important decisions. China’s IMF “quota” – established when it was a far smaller economy – gave it only 4% of the votes and financial responsibility; but China is now four times as important for the world’s economy.