New Delhi: Rather than try to make a grab for the surrounding seas that can only fail, China should simmer down and secure its rise by doing nothing more to anger the world. Nothing is got from angering the world. From his grave, Deng Xiaoping should be saying the same thing. Great Power history also teaches you when to call it quits.

Great Powers have overstretched themselves one time or another in their separate and particular histories. To prevent overstretching, they have employed several means in the past, one of them being balance-of-power strategies. After the end of the Napoleonic Wars, Britain employed balance-of-power politics to control the fractional states of Europe whilst preserving and expanding the Empire. Gaining from experience and successes, it became the foremost naval power of the time while keeping a proportionally small expeditionary army. It beat overstretch in that manner.

The two world wars proved too much even for Britain. In both, it applied for United States’ intervention. The US intervention in the Second World War was more decisive. The moment Winston Churchill beseeched America for help, he ceded Britain’s Great Power leadership to the United States. Britain was overstretched.

Without being adept at balance-of-power politics like Britain, the Soviet Union got its comeuppance far earlier for a Great Power. Its intervention in Afghanistan was more than its economy could stand. It went down. The United States has survived as a Great Power for a more expansive set of reasons, several of which are irrelevant for this piece.

The relevant ones are as follows. There is something about America as an idea that will not die. The idea of America is greater than its parts. It exceeds its stature as a military hyper-power, an economic giant, the technology leader of the world, the planet’s oldest democracy, and so on. It is not like Britain. When the Empire finished, Britain finished. The United States is in relative decline because other countries are rising, including China and India, but it is still made of Teflon.

The imperishability of the American idea also owes to Europe. Europe has several declined Great Powers. Not counting the former Soviet Union, there is Germany, Austria and Hungary, Turkey (the dwindled successor state of the Ottoman Empire), France and Britain. As former Great Powers, they understand the values of peace and stability, even though they are too exhausted to regain these for themselves. They have (with the exception of Russia and France in the middle years) banded together in NATO and are quite happy for the US to lead them. This is also what helps the US to be a perpetual Great Power.

These singular advantages are denied to China. China stands forlorn and at a critical crossroads today. It can take the route of failed Great Powers and overstretch itself. Or it can keep its winnings by making peace with the world in the South and East China Seas. This writer thinks Deng Xiaoping would have embraced the second option.

China faces serious headwinds. The Chinese economy is in precipitate decline. George Soros speaks of a “hard landing”. He cannot be ignored. China’s tragedy is that it is not a market economy. Chinese economic data are unbelievable and forestall genuine modelling of recovery, if any. Fruits of an export-driven economy have not spread evenly within China. The export economy is not what it was.

China needs to focus on balancing and consolidating the economy by spurring domestic consumption. It is not the time to provoke nationalistic wars over seas. The world will unite against China. The outcome cannot be happy for the country.

China has been lucky so far. The 1949 Revolution came after the Japanese collapse. China chose a good time in 1950 to oppose the US in the Korean War. It rattled Josef Stalin. It played its cards handsomely in the Vietnam War, benefiting with closer ties to the US, which turned to transformative economic relations under a succession of American Presidents for more than a third of a century.

China is tempting fate now. It will go down like the other Great Powers if it privileges militarism over economic consolidation and growth. The history of Japan post the Meiji Restoration and between the two world wars provides stark reminders of the terrible extortions of imperialism.