NOTES ON CHINA, 2019
Chinese foreign policy is the product not of foreign developments, but of internal Chinese politics. This fact must be borne in mind as we contemplate China’s massive military buildup, her seizures of territory from her neighbors and threats to them, as well as the vitriolic current anti-American propaganda films of Korean War vintage.
We are Americans. Instinctively we assume things happen elsewhere because of us. As too do the Chinese who are blaming the massive popular uprising in Hong Kong (June 09) not on misgovernment but rather “foreign forces” unspecified. Mountains of research and publication here, nevertheless, continue to search for the missing car key under the traffic light, in Washington. Naturally, perhaps instinctively, they look for our omission or provocation that has mysteriously thrown the controlled, cold-as-ice-water Chinese, into a tantrum. This is a futile approach.
We must learn, when examining China, to observe the policy but then trace it back to its true roots, within the disordered, vicious, mafia-like world of Chinese politics. Who? Whom?” кто? Кого? As V. I Lenin (1870-1924) would ask.
In China we now face perhaps the most tense internal situation since the death of Mao Zedong 毛澤東 (1893-1976) coupled with China’s most hostile face to us and the outside world since the 1950s. Now they are rich, too, and far better armed in certain crucial respects (anti-ship missiles, for example) than we are. This development has shocked us, since the unspoken assumption of diplomacy since the 1970s, has been that China would be reliably friendly.
What follows is my attempt broadly to make sense of these developments.
A dramatic change in direction of Chinese foreign policy has taken place. We are now her arch-enemy. When did this turning occur? Examination of changes in official rhetoric indicates that the change antedates Xi Jinping 習 近平 （1953- ）, sin though it was put in place conclusively on his watch, 2013-. The change was clearly adumbrated in 1995 when Mischief Reef was seized from the Philippines, but seems then mostly gestating internally.
In 2015 China attempted an international debut of sorts, by claiming as sovereign territory the entire South Sea 南洋 . One may speculate that elements in the leadership decided to consolidate their internal power while winning the population by nationalistic triumphs. They expected that their neighbors would defer, bowing and tugging their forelocks, as China rose to hegemonic status—and the United States inexplicably left the stage. The International Court of Arbitration, in the Hague found China’s actions completely illegal on 12 July 2016.
Two points to note: First, the Philippines did not bow, they sued. Second, although China has attempted to ignore this decision, though she accepts the Court’s jurisdiction, an approach that places deeply in question her standing in the international community and the reliability of her promises, signatures, etc. This problem will persist indefinitely, nor will China find a way to carve out an exception for herself. As Napoleon (1769-1821)) said of Spain “it is an ulcer.”
This bodes ill for China, for as political scientists tell us, confronted with a rising power, the other states will either “bandwagon” with the newcomer, or form “a countervailing coalition”. The academics cannot predict the choice. Now, however, three years after the flouted court decision, the choice of the countervailing coalition is very clear. An economic dimensions has also joined the military and political.
Before proceeding to examine the current situation, permit the insertion of a few thoughts about China’s rise. A recent Chinese newspaper head line announced that next year (2020) she would surpass US GDP and become world economic hegemon ba 霸. A few points: First, China is an immense country, slightly smaller than Canada, but not a rich one. Her per capita GDP is about half that of Uruguay, though ahead of Paraguay. In other words, she is no economic miracle.
Chinese leaders, however, are remarkably ignorant of economics. Most are unaware of the Wirtschaftswunder or of Japan’s astonishing recovery, not to mention such other examples as South Korea, or Singapore, or Taiwan. So with reason they rub their eyes at how much better their diet etc. is than under Mao. It seems a miracle but it is not: had Mao not destroyed what growth there was in 1950 and instead let it continue, China would now rival Japan in quality of economy. China’s economic rise, then, impresses the Chinese, quite understandably, as well as superficial visitors, but few professional economics. Ironically perhaps 1,000 world class economists work within 100 miles of Xi’s office. He does not consult them but rather has his own ideas, derived one supposes from Beijing High School 101 of which he is a graduate (the rest of his education was under Mao and immediately after. Tsinghua, a great university, is on his resumé, but it was a kindergarten when he attended. His thesis is generally assumed to have been ghostwritten. The sad result is that his economic policies, even as spelled out on paper, are full of self-contradictions. An economic crisis lies in the future, for the fundamental structure—the one in the steel girders—is still as dysfunctional as the Soviet on which it was modeled.
Militarily, however, China is going all-out to build the biggest military in the world. This, at a time we should note, when basic problems of housing, health, food, and even clothing (an archaeologist who works in remote Shensi 陕西 states that many rural inhabitants are in fact naked). She is doing impressively well, though her generation five fighter (the J-20, intended to match the F-35) has been plagued by engine problems. So the question arises, are we thus on the road to a war of Chinese aggression?
Yes is the answer if we consider territorial aggrandizement—recalling that the South Sea is half again bigger than the Mediterranean. China intends to secure control over her, her sea lanes, and small features such as islands therein. No is the answer if we mean will she intentionally go to war with the US or Japan or India or Vietnam, four out of her fourteen land neighbors, but not including Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines, Indonesia, or some others nearby but not sharing a border. The Germans never managed to win a two front war. The idea that China could win from Korea to the Himalayas, against some nuclear powers, is absurd. Though caution: accidental war could break out from an accident or mistake or a miscalculation, escalate into general conflict, leaving mostly cinders.
The reasonable explanation is that China wants respect, of which she feels deprived internationally for reasons she doesn’t quite understand, and fearsomeness. This second concept wei 威 “awesomeness” is fundamental. The Chinese are status obsessed, domestically and now internationally. They think of the United States (!) as number one, overlooking that we are rated a few notches below Taiwan for freedom (Freedom House), in the forties for press freedom (Journalists Without Frontiers), third in economic productivity (after Singapore and Hong Kong), have a poorly educated population notable for widespread innumeracy, as well as much illiteracy (the author is a resident of Philadelphia, where best and worst are located conveniently near to one another), and so forth. Withal this is a good place to live, as many Chinese agree, but how do you measure “top country?” The most H-bombs? This is nonsense. China’s purpose is to be so strong that no one can constrain her: not the World Court, not NATO, nobody. She will sail where she pleases, disregarding the rules, but cautiously.
II. Current Risks
To recapitulate we have asserted that PR China’s foreign policy is determined by internal drivers, and not by external ambitions or interests. In fact she has everything she needs. No objective reasons exists that she should not be a good friend of the United States, as was the case until 1950, when she changed for ideological, not well-considered reasons of self-interest. Therefore, the challenges we face with China must first be sought internally.
First, we must recognize that China is a polity that for all her great size, lacks both a rule-following political system, and a rule-following economic system. How leaders are chosen is an enigma. Why certain economic policies are followed is puzzling to put it mildly. But recall, China has had one man-rule (if we exclude the formidable Empress Wu (624-705) for all her history, except the period 1912-1928 when a sincere attempt was made at parliamentary rule, which failed (as did similar attempts in Russia, Persia, the Ottoman Empire, and other contemporary states). China has never even reached the stage of rechtsstaat.
In other words, China, never feudal after 221 B.C., never passed through the steps required to modernize a true monarchy (consider France). A great mistake of the Henry Kissinger (1923-) China policy was an assumption that under all the red bunting and Marxist jargon, would be found a modernized state, capable of sailing the great sea of international relations without problems. In fact, as we now discover, China has never thus modernized. Her currency would likely collapse if made convertible; her state owned enterprises, 40-50% of her economy would be bankrupted by international competition. Hence her need to protection, expressed in her military. Here we should add that China’s domestic finances are both utterly opaque and very weak, with mountains of debt that are unmeasurable but growing, and a level of productivity of energy that is among the world’s lowest (India is twice as efficient as China; Japan more than five times).
Quite likely this great empire, basted together as it has been repeatedly over the millennia, will soon begin to fray.
Beijing faces above all the fact of its illegitimate rule. This was bad enough when Mao turned his face to Stalin (1878-1953) and his back on democratic promises believed by no less than General George Marshall (1880-1959) as well as many well-educated Chinese.
In the past week (June 3, 2019) the low-market tabloid 環球時報 Global Times, devoted a full page to the Tiananmen Massacre (3-4 June 1989), hitherto absolutely verboten. The topic was hitherto entirely verboten. Xi judged that it should be addressed and justified. Yes a disturbance occurred. Had it not been suppressed, however, “the country would have collapsed.” Little detail was provided about just how and where the suppression had taken place. That means more questions.
As for the justification, had the state been in genuine danger the military would undoubtedly supported whatever measures were required. It did not. Troops willing to sack Beijing were hard to find. Seven commanders sent a letter opposing; one did the standard Chinese thing and checked into a hospital. Most tellingly to this author, his now dead acquaintance, a Marshal of the PLA who had fought with extraordinary bravery, made it clear to him how vociferously he (and other Marshals) had opposed the plan. With reasons: Had Deng Xiaoping (1904-19970 simply smoked and played bridge, the legitimate premier Zhao Ziyang 趙紫陽 （1919-2005）and his colleagues would almost certainly found a non-sanguinary exit. What the military resented was being ordered around by a bunch, not of soliders, but of party commissars and other hacks, who created a needless catastrophe out of ignorance, a crisis that sent China on an even more perilous course.
Given that rule is illegitimate (and widely recognized as such: would a real steely dictator, widely feared, ban Winnie the Pooh because of his perceived resemblance to that fine bear of very little brain?) then we may expect internal change without warning. I refrain from Sinological prognostication, happy in my twentieth century burrow, but am confident that many Chinese high in the party resent their leader, feel he is not so qualified as they, and is making mistakes, not least his cult of personality—which is enforced by electronic monitoring of how much of his oeuvre one devours daily. It is said that his colleagues on the Standing Committee cannot all sit down with him. So we may have a succession crisis, or an assassination, or a coup—who knows? But all are quite possible and would lead to grave consequences. A failure of the Party of the Party to maintain some sort of unity would break up the polity like a jigsaw puzzle, So too would a major disagreement with the military or the mass of people, who terrify the government as his troops terrified Wellington, We know from the EP3 downing of 2001 that the central government was powerless to negotiate over this. Only talks with the PLA led to a rather poor outcome,
Certainly it is not out of the question that the PR of China will collapse, as her model did, for comparable reasons, on 25 December 1991. As we did not then, the US would have to act very intelligently to help –help—clear a path.
First, our current posture is rather good, when all is considered. We have finally adopted a policy toward China that treats her simply as another country, in violation of international law and trading practice, and articulately hostile to us and our allies.
We must maintain a policy that integrates economic problems, the military threat, and the interests of the group of allies of which we are but one part. China will then be forced actually to yield, instead of promising sincerity but delivering no signatures, for what they might be worth.
Doing this will require slowing down our politics. Thus we must recognize that no solution short of reconstructing the Chinese domestic system exists to economic problems, not to mention the dangers posed by unexpected, discontinuous, problems (The State Department has always thought using concepts of gradual change, curves, etc. Understandable but at terrible error) China is no more going to evolve than the USSR did. Absent change, we will have to scale down our expectations for China, to something more like our long, relatively peaceful coexistence with the Soviet Union.
The geopolitical pattern will feature an increasingly overstretched and stressed China surrounded by hostile powers (I rate the Russian relationship as likely to be brief. Will Moscow tolerate Chinese control of the high seas around Vladivostok and Kamchatka? Answer: No.) Japan—never forget Japan!—will be militarily the most powerful state. We must avoid our errors of the 1920s, 1930s, and the period from 1970 or so to near the present, when we were very much behind the curve on Japan. This with the exception of Ronald Reagan (1911-2004) whose visit and address to the Diet were a triumph of competent diplomac,y. She is after all a threshold nuclear power, that will eventually possess more than 100 F-35s, has the world’s finest AIP submarines, as well as a gift for deployment and preparation that greatly worries Beijing. My own belief is that Shinzō Abe’s (1954) re-election on October 27, 2017 is what has kept the peace so far. Say what they will, the Chinese are deeply fearful of Japan—for good reason.
A brief digression. If war is to be deterred as much as is possible, we must consider systematic, defensive and systematic, proliferation of nuclear weapons to our allies. For as long as this author can remember, nuclear non-proliferation has been a granitic American policy. We turned down the British, after all, in a dramatic incident. We have been quiet about Israel uncharacteristically doing nothing. Usually we have gone after countries seeking such weapons hammer and tongs. Now India has made herself a nuclear power, appalling Washington, but for very good reasons. As this author was told by Minister George Fernandes (1930-2019) at Pokhran II (1998) the blasts, the thermonuclear blast in particular, were a strong signal to China, ultimately the result of China’s myopic policy toward India, notably in 1962. This statement was authorized by the Prime Minister, as Washington was trying to attribute it all to Pakistan.
Today other countries are in the same position as India was then: facing a potential aggressor amply supplied with nuclear weapons, but having none herself. To maintain peace by deterrence—the best and only way—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan all require nuclear weapons. Vietnam would too and like the others, is closer than one thinks (Taiwan, which we have shut down forcibly twice, is nine months away according to their most brilliant general). Rather than play an absurd cat and mouse game in which we struggle to prevent our close allies from being able to defend themselves, why not form a group in Asia that will share nuclear weapons, at a minimal level, along the model of Britain and France? One British Vanguard nuclear submarine is always underway, undiscoverable in the trackless seas., with eight Trident missiles, each with eight independently targetable thermonuclear weapons. Britain is safe, but she cannot start a war with one such submarine. Japan Korea and Taiwan should all have the same capacity. Why not make this eminently sensible move to preserve peace openly and systematically. Explain it and do it. Thus nuclear weapons could be controlled, their coverage extended to other states, abuses prevented, and above all, China placed in a position in which she would understand nuclear war as she should: suicidal.
The above is my strongest recommendation, perhaps original, but in any case the product of years of meditation, sometimes at Hiroshima ground zero, and consideration not of how to wage war but rather how to keep peace. The alternative is a dangerous game of secrecy, surprises and sudden actions. Let us smooth at least this curve so all can make sense of it.
Along with this suggestion goes the need to form a genuine alliance system in East Asia, to take the place of the bilateral arrangements we have, or with India and Taiwan, nothing at all. This would permit long term consultation and coordination, and as with NATO, make clear that war on one is war on all. These measures would form a robust concrete wall against the possibility of large scale war with China. Smaller scale incidents will occur, China has many matches, passed out to all sorts and conditions of soldiers, and some are bound to light in a parched field. We must maintain the tactical capacity to snuff such a fire out immediately. It may be unintentional, It may be intentional, as the much mooted attack on Taiwan. Here we had to make clear that yes we will defend the island (as Japan will even if we do not). China’s weakest point is securing a lodgment on Taiwan, with a hundred plus mile long supply line supporting it. Destroying such a lodgment and supply chain would not be hard. It would also nip war in the bud. To have this capacity we require more platforms, smaller and dispersed, as well as a higher operational tempo, of which we are incapable at present. The entry of England, France, and Germany into the picture is most welcome.
Above all, we must remember that a general war in the Indo-Pacific would be destructive beyond all imagining, utterly mad except as a way of eliminating human life and civilization. Someone always thinks they have an “assassin’s mace” shashoujian 殺手賤 that will deliver instant victory (compare vergeltungswaffen or wunderwaffen) – but these ideas are poisonous dreams. The correspond to no reality except that of death, for tens of millions. Dispersed nuclear weapons will also diffuse such dangerous fantasies.
ANW 10 vi 2019
（This paper was written on 12 June.）