BRANDON J. WEICHERT | THE WEICHERT REPORT
The People’s Republic of China is the largest economy in the world, in terms of Purchasing Power Parity (PPP). In GDP terms, it is the second-largest economy, that is inching ever closer to displacing the United States as the world’s largest economy in GDP terms. Much of the Developing World depends on demand from China for their raw minerals. And, with China’s average 7 percent economic growth (down from its high of 10 percent, which is still far higher than the United States’ 2 percent growth), its 1.2 billion people–an increasing number of whom are moving into the middle class–there is plenty of demand in China (despite a period of slowdown last year). Essentially, China is a giant.
Yet, China’s immense size and reach is not only in the all-important economic domain. Its military is expanding in terms of capabilities, funding, and reach. Meanwhile, its technological prowess is increasing, thanks to a combination of decades-long investment into nurturing a robust Science Technology Engineering and Math capacity among its population (human capital), as well as an insidious commitment to cyber and industrial espionage at historic levels. Today, there is no Western corporation, academic institution, or government that is protected from Chinese cyberattack and espionage.
As Oded Shenkar has noted previously in regards to corporations (which I also believe applies to countries): those who imitate eventually will start innovating. So, while many Western engineers, scholars, and policymakers soothe themselves that China is not really a threat because it can only rip-off American and Western technologies, in ripping off those technologies, eventually the Chinese will develop the means and knowledge base on how to not only perfect that stolen technology, but also to begin innovating on their own. Given China’s immense (and constantly growing) base of highly skilled STEM workers, as well as their immense ability to mass produce (and to throw state capital into any project they desire), it is only a matter of time before China starts beating the United States at the innovation game.
All of this is important because it points to intentions. In the classic threat assessment formula, one must take a potential adversary’s capability then add intentions to determine the threat level (if any). This is where culture, history, and government type come into play (which is where most official American government documents fear to tread). In terms of history, China has existed as a once-great historical empire “laid low” (according to Chinese government teachings) by greedy Western imperialists. As Robert Bickers elucidates in “Out of China: How the Chinese Ended the Era of Western Domination,” China was not colonized in a conventional sense, but that colony was run by multiple foreign powers simultaneously (making its colonization highly unconventional); from 1840, various European powers (and then Japan beginning in 1890) used force or the threat of force to exact territorial and trade concessions from the Chinese.
Thus, the Chinese government retained a degree of control over their land, but it was far from total. The great Chinese rebel leader of the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries, Sun Yat-Sen routinely complained about China’s “semi-colonization.” According Sun Yat-Sen, being in the category below full colonization–being a sub-colony to many foreign powers as opposed to a full colony of a single power that would be theoretically responsible for China–created conditions in China where “all took and none gave.” Indeed, according to Bickers, “China played host to a cosmopolitan foreign establishment lodged in towns and cities and along railway and steamship lines from the borders with Burma and French Indochina in the southwest to the fast-developing Manchurian provinces in the northeast.” In any event, the Chinese government was constantly having to balance the often contradictory needs and whims of the foreigners lest those foreigners got violent with the Chinese over some perceived sleight.
This, in turn, caused the rise of Chinese nationalism that came about in full force during the Interwar Years. While the Communists under Mao ultimately defeated the Chinese Nationalists under Chiang Kai-Shek during the brutal Chinese Civil War in 1949, nationalism remained a unifying force in China. Indeed, after Mao’s death, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) began disseminating greater amounts of nationalistic propaganda in order to tie the Chinese people to the Chinese Communist Party. This was especially so following the years after the Tiananmen Square protests, which saw thousands of young people take to the streets in China, demanding democratization. The CCP was never closer to destruction than during those fateful summer days in 1991. Ultimately, the CCP used military force to squelch the uprising and then intensified its appeals to nationalist sentiment, as Zheng Wang documents in “Never Forget National Humiliation: Historical Memory in Chinese Politics and Foreign Relations.”
The opaque and oppressive nature of China’s political system also comes into play, as it fundamentally complicates American attempts to ascertain Chinese strategic intentions. But, suffice to say, their intentions cannot be all that peaceful toward the United States–not when leading Chinese military scholars, such as Liu Mingfu, publish a book calling for the competition with, and eventual defeat of the United States–either through non-combat competition (such as in global economics) or eventually in combat. The now-retired Colonel Mingfu believes that a Chinese defeat of the United States “would be good for humanity.” The great Singaporean statesmen, Lee Kuan Yew, once lamented the fact that for the last 30 years the Chinese people have been raised on the “wolf’s milk of nationalism.” With the elevation of people like Liu Mingfu and President Xi Jinping–the most militaristic leader China has had since Mao–it’s clear that the repressive nature of China’s political system, its propaganda, and the way that it views the outside world (as informed by its tumultuous history), indicate clear threat.
Actually, how it views the world is typically Confucian, in spite of China’s recent history of being under Communist rule (Communism being a wholly Western ideology). Yet, as Eamonn Fingleton in his fabulous book, “In the Jaws of the Dragon,” elaborates there is much similarity between Confucianism and Communism in terms of their outlook. For Confucianism, much like Communism, values a strict hierarchy in terms of political order but claims to serve the collective good ahead of individual interests. Academicians and pundits can quibble over the real-world merits of this definition, but this is precisely how and why an ideology founded by a disgruntled German intellectual (Karl Marx and Engels) found a home in China–and why the Chinese ruling political party will not simply abandon its label as a “Communist Party,” in favor of a less divisive term.
Then, of course, there is China’s recent actions on the world stage. Analysts focus on China’s recent buildup in the South China Sea. To be sure, this buildup is hugely threatening to the American-led world order. Yet, it points to a larger strategic intention of irredentism on the part of China’s leadership. It also points to how Chinese nationalism and historicism influence Chinese foreign policy. China lays claim to the seemingly worthless rocks and patches of distant sea not only because of the geostrategic positioning it allows the Chinese military (units can be permanently placed near vital shipping lanes); or because most of these areas sit atop vast quantities of mostly-untapped natural gas and oil (or vital fishing areas), but also because China is using pre-European colonial-era maps to buttress their otherwise-unlawful claims. The Chinese are invoking the “crime” of European colonization (which crushed the once-mighty Chinese Empire) to claim that, when decolonization occurred in the mid-twentieth century, the Chinese were entitled to reclaim territories that had been “stolen” from them by those now declining Western powers.
It is a convenient trope to try to win friends and influence people, but it has fallen on deaf ears in the International community, as evidenced by last summer’s arbitration decision in Brussels which found the bulk of China’s claims in the South China Sea unlawful. Of course, by that point, the Chinese had already began reinforcing their position in those disputed areas with island-building and increase military presence. They were daring the West to challenge them militarily, making the safe assumption that, for all of its bluster, the West would do little to risk an armed confrontation.
This is a snapshot of things to come for all of China’s neighbors. It isn’t just the Japanese, Vietnamese, Taiwanese, or the Philippines that must worry about Chinese revanchism. It is also their land-based neighbors, such as India and even Russia, who must worry. For decades, the Chinese and Indians have disputed each other over a strip of rugged, mountainous terrain near Tibet. Recently, the Chinese initiated limited military hostilities against Indian forces operating on the Indian side of the border. The situation has escalated and seems as though it might actually totally go out of control. At its core, the issue is that China believes it is entitled to the territory that has been under Indian control for a long time. But, since China does not recognize the international ruling granting India control over this territory, in much the same way they dispute the legal claims of the maritime Asian powers in the South China Sea, the Chinese are resorting to force to take what they want (or, rather, to bully their neighbors into giving China what it wants).
It’s very telling that Chinese Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi openly stated to the representatives of the Asian states with whom China is quarreling over the South China Sea territories that, “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
India is one of the world’s fastest growing, most powerful economies. It is a democratic state with nearly one billion people. Like China, India has made copious investments over the decades in its own STEM education programs and has developed itself into a major strut in the global Knowledge Economy. Because of its rising wealth and growing prestige, India’s military–particularly its navy–is a threat to China. Like China, also, India is a major nuclear power. The fact that it is on the underside of China means that India could do a disproportionate amount of damage to China in the event of a nuclear exchange, since China is so close, and either side’s nuclear arms would have less distance (and therefore a shorter amount of time) to travel in order to reach their undefended targets. Moreover, both countries do an immense amount of trade with each other. One would think that China would ignore the little things and focus on its big picture: enriching itself to continue to pay for its meteoric rise. However, the human foibles of self-interest, honor, and ambition are clearly playing into China’s strategy of forcefully going after proverbial low-hanging fruit.
The wolf’s milk of nationalism has made China drunk with rage and historical resentment.
If China is willing to pick a fight with the rising power of India, what makes Vladimir Putin and his siloviki in Moscow disbelieve that resource-starved, irredentist China will not make a play for their Far East? After all, the Russians acquired the bulk of its resource-rich (yet sparsely populated) Far East from China in 1689, with the Treaty of Nerchinsk. Further, the Russians were one of the many foreign powers that had exacted onerous concessions from the ailing Qing Dynasty in China during the nineteenth century. What’s more, since 2000, Vladimir Putin has made it clear that he desires to rapidly develop the Russian Far East to prevent it from being quietly annexed by the Chinese (which it is currently in danger of suffering, since the Chinese population of the Russian Far East is growing whereas the native Russian population is precipitously declining–and has been for decades).
Of course, the Chinese very much desire Russia’s Far East (as well as nearby Siberia). These regions are believed to be rich in natural gas and other mineral deposits (as well as oil). China is starved for these kinds of natural resources. Right now, over 70 percent of China’s trade is conducted over sea lanes that are highly vulnerable to the United States Navy. In order to mitigate this potential threat, the Chinese have assiduously built-up the land-based “One Belt-One Road” initiative, aimed at increasing the connectivity of all of Eurasia through the revitalization of ancient land-based trade routes. Such routes would be easier for the historically land-based military power of China to dominate, secure, and control. Even still, the fact that China must rely on foreign countries to sell it things like natural gas and oil–vital energy resources needed to literally fuel China’s economic growth (which buttresses the Communist Party’s power)–is a danger that most Chinese strategists seek to avoid in the long-term. Thus, slowly gobbling up an increasingly empty Russian Far East is not outside of the bounds of reality for the Chinese. Particularly, given the terrible fertility rates and population numbers in Russia’s Far East.
A silent invasion is likely underway. In all things, China fears actual military confrontation with its neighbors–especially states with robust military capabilities, such as neighboring Russia and distant America. They prefer to embrace the old Sun Tzu method of winning wars without actually having to fight them; they seek to use “All Measures Short of War.” Despite their bluster with countries like rising India or even tiny-but-strong Japan, the Chinese prefer verbal belligerence and implied threats rather than actual belligerence. In the case of Russia, it is likely that China is keenly aware of the fact that Moscow would likely never be able to reclaim control over its Far Eastern territories at this point. And, Russia without Siberia and the Far East is not Russia as we understand it at all; it’s just Moscow, really. The Russians would fight fiercely to defend it. Indeed, in 2010 the Russians engaged in their largest military exercise not along their border with NATO-dominated Europe, but in their Far East. It was a clear signal to the Chinese. So, rather than provoke a Russian military response, the Chinese send love notes to Putin’s regime in Moscow, encouraging him to continue saber-rattling with the West, while China slowly invades the Russian Far East with greater shares of illegal (and legal) immigrants.
Despite Putin’s professed belief that China is Russia’s friend (and despite reaffirming remarks by the Chinese leadership), China is not Russia’s friend. They are simply managing Russia’s perceived inexorable decline. China is a deeply revanchist state which aims to not only reclaim resource-rich territory from former tributary states, such as Japan and Vietnam, but to also take territory it believes it is entitled to from India. Soon, it will also seek territorial concessions from the Russians, who the Chinese have long believed “stole” the Russian Far East from the Chinese Empire. The solution in this case is for Russia to take a critical assessment of what’s going on in their territory and realize that China has no intention of creating a Chinese-Russian alliance–Chussia, as Peter Navarro dubbed it not long ago. They merely want to placate the Russians long enough until the Russians are simply too weak to resist Chinese revanchism in the Russian Far East.
Russia should stop playing footsie with a weakened Europe over peripheral issues, such as Crimea; they should stop antagonizing a United States looking for the exits on Syria, instead the Russians should settle the long-standing disputes with the West and focus on protecting their Far Eastern holdings from Chinese irredentism. Unless Putin is fine being nothing more than a glorified vassal of growing China. Somehow I doubt that such a reality would sit well with Putin’s own national-imperialist worldview.
If I were Russia, I’d be far more concerned about my Chinese neighbors than my Western ones. Russia should fear an increasingly hostile China, not embrace them. In this case, the enemy of my enemy is not my friend. China and the United States are on the long road to strategic competition, saddling up to China will not make Russia a great player on the world stage; it will make Russia just another tributary state in the growing Neo-Chinese Empire. Instead, Russia should seek to embrace the West, in order to better defend against their restless Chinese neighbors. They should make common cause also with those states most threatened by Chinese territorial aggrandizement. Whether this will occur or not is the great question of our time. If it doesn’t China will be made unstoppable, as it comes to dominate a huge chunk of Eurasia.