Cold war hots up
As the US and Britain set about arming Australia with nuclear-powered subs and Indian troops dig in at high altitude, Chinese warplanes prod and probe Taiwan’s air defences. Eddie Ford warns that a shooting war is far from impossible
There has been a series of recent events that might appear disconnected, but if you draw the threads together they create an alarming picture. Last week Wang Yi, former Chinese ambassador to the UN, spoke to a China Arms Control and Disarmament Association meeting - a semi-official body. There he suggested the idea of China dropping its ‘no first use of nuclear weapons’ policy. A suggestion obviously made in light of the Aukus agreement to provide Australia with nuclear-powered submarines - a symbolic US-UK gesture clearly designed to up the pressure on China in the so-called Indo-Pacific region.
We have also had the latest meeting of the Quad alliance between the US, India, Japan and Australia, along with the announcement that Taiwan was eager to be a partner. According to western propaganda, China considers “democratic” Taiwan to be a “breakaway province”. But that, of course, is exactly what it is. Meanwhile Chinese J-16 fighter jets and H-6 bombers prod and probe Taiwanese airspace, presumably in an attempt to test Taiwan’s defences to the point of exhaustion and display Chinese military power.
All this shows - despite the release of Meng Wanzhou, the princess of Huawei - that US-China tensions are spiralling. Yes, Joe Biden may have rung president Xi Jinping, saying that things need to be ratcheted down, but economic sanctions and potentially overwhelming anti-Chinese military alliances indicate otherwise.
A related propaganda development is the BBC series of programmes on China, including: ‘Changing China: Xi Jinping’s effort to return to socialism’. This was essentially about the ‘common prosperity’ line that Xi is now promoting (but I am not suggesting for a moment that China is or has been socialist in any proletarian sense).
Something is clearly going on, especially if you take into account the speculation that the Chinese state might buy out, or take over, Evergrande, the second largest real estate operator in the country - a giant Ponzi scheme that is edging towards total bankruptcy. This should be viewed in the context of a clampdown on Chinese internet companies and the banning of cryptocurrencies. (You could argue that is a good thing, as cryptocurrencies are obviously mad and a bubble waiting to burst.)
We also had the life sentence handed down on Yuan Renguo, former head of Chinese liquor firm Kweichow Moutai, responsible for the 35% and 60% proof fire-water, baijiu - Mao’s favourite drink that is ubiquitous at weddings, banquets and business meetings in the country. It was worth $506 billion - bigger than Coca-Cola.
Furthermore, since the 18th Congress of the Communist Party of China in November 2012, the Central Commission for Discipline Inspection - under the aegis of president Xi himself - has investigated over four million ‘tigers and the flies’, including the families of those under suspicion, with more than 100,000 indicted for corruption1. That is, high-level officials and local civil servants alike. A mathematically tiny proportion of the CPC’s 90 million-plus members, true, but some of those fingered are at the very top of the pyramid - including a dozen military men and five national leaders.
It is instructive, in this context, to look at an interesting recent article in Foreign Policy, co-authored by high-ranking academics Hal Brands and Michael Beckley: ‘China is a declining power - and that’s the problem’ (September 24).2 Their work clearly intersects with the US State Department at all manner of different levels.
Their central thesis is this: China is now at its peak - as opposed to the idea, very popular in various left and right circles, that you can put a straight line against China’s 14% GDP growth rate in the 2000s and then project it into the immediate and far-off future. Frankly, that is like projecting levels of horseshit in 1890s London.
In a similar manner, if the Soviet Union’s growth rates had continued as they were in the 1930s, it would quickly have caught up with the capitalist west and, in no time at all, left it far behind. That was the basic assumption with Nikita Khrushchev and the 1961 third programme of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union: in 1970 the USSR would overtake the US and by 1980, or so we were told, it would be taking real, material steps towards communism. Things didn’t quite work out like that, did they?
Anyhow, according to Brands and Beckley, we should expect China to stagnate … and thereby become ever more dangerous. This thesis is based on a reverse reading of the classic text of Thucydides, The history of the Peloponnesian war - an account of the conflict between the Peloponnesian League led by Sparta and the Delian League led by Athens (431-404 BC). Athens was the rising power, but Sparta was the established power - and in ancient Greek terms it had an unbeatable army. Modern scholarship on international relations talks about the ‘Thucydides trap’ - or moment - when a rising power is driven to prematurely challenge the established power. As we know, the Athenians eventually came to grief, suffering a humiliating defeat at the Battle of Aegospotami that obliterated the Athenian navy and forced upon it a treaty that saw the stationing of Spartan troops and the vital walls to its port of Piraeus being pulled down. Athens was reduced to a second-rate power.
By contrast, Brands and Beckley argue that it is not when you have a rising power that things become unstable and warlike. Rather, it is when the challenging power has peaked and consequently starts to decline relative to the established hegemonic power - hence the title of the article. Tellingly, they use the example of Germany. After its 1871 unification, imperial Germany was a rising power with the potential to dominate Europe. But Britain, the global hegemon, responded quickly, first of all by aligning with its old enemy, France, and then with Russia - forming the Triple Alliance. Germany was surrounded. We know the result - a crushing defeat and a cruel victor’s peace. Germany was stripped of its colonies, reduced territorially and had its army and navy massively cut down in size and capability.
High-command German generals knew that the odds were massively stacked against them, yet they went ahead with war anyway: in the east against Russia, in the west against France. Doubtless they felt left with no choice. Hence the precarious moment is when the rising power starts to lose steam and is trapped by the hegemonic power - which is blocking, surrounding, threatening it in all manner of ways - into resorting to other, violent, methods.
In trying to understand the remarkable economic success of China, it is a mistake to focus attention exclusively on internal factors. Yes, that is important, but it is not the brilliance of the CPC leadership that has resulted in China’s historically unprecedented surge of growth and its becoming the world’s second largest economic power. Instead, it is a combination of the internal regime and - crucially - the Americans thinking they could incorporate China as some sort of neocolony under their hegemony. The origin of this grand strategy lies in the well-prepared historic meeting between Nixon and Mao in 1972. In return for the UN security council seat - previously occupied by Taipei China - Beijing China indicated its willingness to dovetail with US foreign policy. Thus China’s justifications for general Pinochet’s 1973 coup in Chile, along with sordid US-sponsored contra wars in Africa, central America and south-east Asia.
More importantly, in terms of its economic miracle, China was allowed to join the World Trade Organisation in 2001. The belief was that the country’s lucrative companies and banks would be gobbled up by western capitalists - first and foremost by those located in America. Entry into the WTO gave access to global markets and China boomed spectacularly. But it reneged upon its agreement to fully open up its economy and thereby became a competitor power to the US hegemon - very off-script.
Another argument deployed by Brands and Beckley is that one of the big advantages of the Chinese economy is fast coming to an end - a surplus rural population that could be absorbed into urban industry. What China faces over the next 30 years is a drop in population equivalent to the loss of 200 million economically active adults - a population the size of Nigeria. The relaxation of the two-child policy will make no difference. Each society has its own population laws. We should expect, therefore, for reasons that will go unexplored here, that one child will remain the family norm. This means that China’s population will become on average far older and therefore that the country will need to devote more of its GDP to social security.
Is China running out of economic steam? It was seemingly unaffected by the near financial meltdown of 2008. On the other hand, we have also seen the Covid-19 pandemic that began in China and, even though Beijing handled it much better than many countries in the west, at the end of the day it is still dependent on the world market - which basically means the advanced capitalist countries. Any US economic downturn, whether due to Covid or any other reason, will have an impact on China. We have had the official downgrading of Chinese growth forecasts from 14% to 6%, while some estimate that in reality it will be more like 2%. In other words, China might face an economic downturn in the near future despite the power of the state.
If that happens, it will inevitably affect China’s external political approach - so argue Brands and Beckley: China will make its bid for hegemonic status before it no longer has the chance. But try looking at the question from a different angle. In World War I, who was the real aggressor? The answer is surely Britain, in alliance with France and Russia, who manoeuvred Germany into a war that its generals knew that they could not win.
It is the US which is attempting to choke off China’s economic growth with sanctions and trade barriers, it is the US which is pumping out rubbish propaganda about China’s supposed genocide against its Uyghur population, it is the US which is singling out China over greenhouse gas emissions and it the US which is attempting to strategically encircle China.
We already have Indian troops digging in on the disputed high altitude border with China, Australia incorporated as a giant unsinkable aircraft carrier, and Taiwan turned into a front-line state guarded by western fleets, and so on and so forth.
Brands and Beckley assume a limited war which China quickly loses. But do we really believe that such a war can be confined to the Taiwanese air defence identification zone alone and not trigger wars on other fronts, perhaps even including the threat or actual use of first-strike nuclear weapons?
Sounds to me too much like August 1914 assurances that the war will be over by Christmas.
Read the full article at globalsentinelng.com/2021/09/25/china-is-a-declining-power-and-thats-the-problem.↩︎