War With China

"China - the sleeping giant - has awoken." - Favourite cliche of journalists in the 1990s

"Yeah, but unfortunately it got up on the wrong side of the bed and is grumpy at having missed breakfast." — Philip Cassini, professional cynic

Neon Twilight may be a fictional world, but it's firmly grounded in current details, which is why analysing the actions that the People's Republic of China will take in the next century are crucial to what the world will look like in 2037. Many pundits , businessmen, and journalists were engulfed by the self-perpetuating hype surrounding China's spectacular growth during the 1980s and most of the 1990s. The fabled '1.2 billion market' that so many corporations drooled over was an incredible temptation and the primary reason why Foreign Direct Investment flows into China trebled in the 1990s. However, economic development always diverges from political development, and the naive assumption that trade would 'open up' China to Western standards of political diversity and human rights were misfounded, and lead to continual disappointment in diplomatic circles. What the politicians and diplomants failed to grasp was that the Chinese method of thinking was so fundamentally different from the Western liberal tradition that any expectations borne of past experiences in Europe and the Americas were bound to fail in China. China is on a collision course with the West in a much more subtle, but ultimately more dangerous, fashion than Nazi Germany or the Soviet Union ever were.

The whole problem lies in the vast gulf between Chinese and Western perceptions of the world. Westerners, and especially Americans, nowadays see the world as a vast global network of economies, each crucially interlinked with each other in a growing web of prosperity and cooperation. The Cold War has been won, and the West is now gently persuading the remaining nations that the liberal-capitalist mode of production and democratic institutions are the most efficient way of building a modern nation-state. Note the word efficiency. The morality of democracy has been subsumed into the efficiency argument, and this leaves it wide open to attack from dictatorial governments — such as Singapore and Malaysia — who can provide great efficiency while stifling creativity and political expression. Nevertheless, the economic imperative in the West (after the shock of the 1990 recession) has supplanted all geostrategic considerations in a warm-fuzzy feeling that strong commercial ties make war impossible. After all, Taiwan is the biggest investor in China, so why would China ever invade?

The key point to remember is that war is irrational, not based on logical calculations of commercial costs and benefits. War is an emotional experience caused by human nature, as the Europeans found out in the Great War. In 1914 all experts and diplomats thought that war was impossible because European economies were so tightly intertwined and there were so many 'co-operative' agreements and protocols. Yet the unthinkable happened because each country was in a paranoid arms race and felt threatened by the others. Commercial interests were blown away by the winds of war.

Europeans, who have less to fear from a belligerent China than Americans, continually send trade delegations that promote 'peace through trade' and sincerely believe that if economies are tightly linked then conflict can be resolved on amicable terms through negotiations, resolution groups, and presidential meetings.

Contrast this with the Chinese worldview. The Chinese believe that America is a global hegemon whose decadence and lack of ambition make it weak, and who will eventually be replaced by a Greater China, first in the Pacific, and then globally. The Chinese openly nurture ancient wounds inflicted by the Americans and Europeans and indoctrinate their children to believe that CHina has always been victimized by vicious foreigners and greedy white merchants. On a geostrategic level the Chinese plan to eventually overtake America's GDP (at least in Purchasing-Power Parity) and are modernizing their military while vehemently denying any such thing. China believes in the old Asian adage that 'a strong economy makes for a strong military'. After all, finance is the sinews of war, and historically all economically-powerful nations have had powerful militaries. The lone exception is, of course, Japan because it remains under the military shield of the United States and continues to benefit from this arrangement.

Only two months ago the Chinese and Russians issued a statement that surprised everyone except traditional geostrategists and political scientists. They stated that both countries opposed 'the domination of the world by any one power [meaning the USA, of course] and both would work together to achieve a global balance'. This is a predictable statement made by a weaker coalition made against a hegemon in classical Balance-of-Power theory. What they mean by 'balance' is that they would like to replace America as the world's superpowers. China will now be looking for allies to 'balance overbearing American power' or some such contrivance. The Chinese still see the world in traditional (some would say Cold War, but the idea predates that conflict) terms in which nation-states compete against each other to secure self-interest, no matter the commercial, diplomatic or economic costs. That last point is crucial, and highlights the difference between China and the West. The Chinese would go to war even if their economy suffered greatly, while the West is loth to start any conflict that might mean even the slightest amount of pain in commercial or military terms. This is a natural product of a democracy's aversion to anything that harms the polity, but it makes power projection extremely difficult. Would anyone really believe the Americans if they said they would defend Taiwan to the end?

The Europeans are even worse. Anything that smacks even slightly of political or military risk is completely off-limits unless organized by the Americans. Even sententious initiatives such as censuring China in the UN for human rights violations meets incredible resistance in European political circles, each nation afraid that it might offend China and lose access to a 'huge' market. What makes this stance even more ridiculous is that the 'giant' Chinese market is smaller than Italy's, and that the corruption and statism rampant in China makes profits by multinationals nearly impossible. Everyone trumpets how they have operations (or a 'presence') in China, but no multinational corporation will admit that they're almost all losing money. Yes, three-quarters of international ventures in China are losing money, and the only reason they stay is in the hope that some day the profits will magically appear. Meanwhile the Chinese government sucks up their money and secret technology, local politicians plunder their assets and Chinese bureaucrats make fools of them by changing the law (what little exists) every month. China's 'opening-up' is nothing more than a ploy to garner Western technology and make stupid foreigners pay for modernizing China's antique factories and infrastructure. China promises new investors high returns on every project, then cuts those returns when the project is finished by introducing new 'financial regulations'. It would not be surprising to see China nationalizing all those shiny new VW and Ford factories once the foreigners' usefulness has expired. And yet despite all this the American government is happily promoting the export of critical high technology such as nuclear reactors, semiconductors, airplane engines and avionics.

The only thing that China currently lacks is access to a stable supply of energy. Projects such as the Three Gorges Dam notwithstanding, China's energy needs will soon outstrip even its capacity to mine polluting coal. The safest energy routes lead through Central Asia towards the giant Tergiz oil field in the Caspian, as well as several other sites in Turkmenistan and Uzbekistan. Siberia (or rather Sakha/Yakutia) and Sakhalin offer the other alternative, but this is Russian territory, and although China has plans to annex this region, it would be folly to expose such ambitions at a time when Russia's nuclear arsenal outnumbers the Chinese one by 100:1. So the great game will be played in Central Asia between competing Russian, American and Chinese interests, each eager to secure the volatile region's wealth. In the case of America, it will try to keep the region open, while China will attempt to gain exclusive rights over whatever it can. It is this region that could spark the next war, if a resurgent Russia decided to reinvade those countries that once comprised its empire and cut off China's crucial oil supplies at a time when tensions with America were high. The Chinese would feel the same pressure that the Japanese felt in 1939 when its oil supplies were endangered by a looming American embargo. If such a situation were to occur, the Chinese would naturally choose to fight the weaker opponent, Russia, but it couldn't possibly win a short war if its vital coastal regions were threatened by 'belligerent' American allies such as Taiwan and (united) Korea. In Chinese eyes, the only solution would be to capture a 'defensive line' of islands which would act as a buffer against invasion for the Chinese mainland. This buffer naturally includes Taiwan, Senkakus, Spratlys and possibly the Philippines. As China's might grows in the early New Century, it will grow weary of Taiwan's stalling tactics and will probably declare a fixed timetable for unification, say about 2020. Failure to apply the schedule would be a sufficient excuse for invasion under a planned Grand Reunification strategy relying on Chinese nationalism and sense of pride to reclaim 'The Homeland'.

If 'forced' to fight Russia and American protectorates in the Pacific, China would doubtless employ the 'terror' option. The strategy is simple but very effective in some situations: China would completely destroy a single chosen opponent with conventional or possibly ABC weapons to show an example to the West that if it fought with China they would suffer horrendous casualties. At the same time Chinese diplomats would try to persuade Western governments that its quarrel wasn't with them but with these 'upstart' and insignificant countries such as Taiwan or Kirgystan. The lesson would be clear: fight China and plunge the world into horrible war; let China create a buffer zone and things will return to normal and peace will prevail. Many weak-willed Western governments will doubtless be persuaded to follow this pattern in the hope of avoiding a costly global war. The result will be disastrous; China would be poised to capture the Central Asian oil fields in a surprise attack on Russia while being relatively insulated from conventional attack on the Pacific side.

The powerful overseas Chinese would quickly convince their respective governments in Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam and Singapore that it is better to cooperate with China than face invasion or economic ruin during a regional war. So without great military sacrifice the Chinese will have effectively secured Asia as their playground. The only question is whether at this juncture Russia will decide to use nuclear weapons to win in Central Asia. At that time China may have reached nuclear parity with the ailing Russian Strategic Rocket Forces (if not with America), so the nuclear option would be less than useful to the Russians. Nevertheless, this is the great gamble in Central Asia, and China would probably win it. The other gamble is whether America would acquiesce to annexation of countries in the buffer zone once shown the 'great pain' lesson. This, of course, depends on America's mood during those years. America did not interfere in Japan's invasion of China during World War Two even though this threatened America's strategic position and British allied territories. Threats are usually not enough to spur America to fight, and China would be very careful not to provoke America excessively by attacking anything directly on American soil. A complete conquest of the Philippines might provoke America to declare war, but a partial invasion followed by a 'negotiated' withdrawal which insured Filipino 'neutrality' probably would not.

Following this Asian imbroglio the West would undoubtedly begin to seriously re-arm, but the chance to contain Chinese ambitions would have been lost. Each act of self-defence by the West would be called 'provocative' by China, and tensions would escalate. The use of nuclear weapons somewhere in Sakha or Central Asia might be the final straw in a world highly dependent on oil and plunged into recession by sky-rocketing oil prices. Once war is declared, the Chinese will quickly move against American naval units with missiles, destroying American power projection. Ships are extremely vulnerable to sophisticated missiles, and that's why the Chinese are today concentrating on this field instead of greatly expanding their blue-water navy. Draining excellent Russian technology in this field, the Chinese will have undoubtedly perfected ship-killing missiles by 2020. Once shipping in the Pacific is interdicted, Japan will beg for negotiations because it is highly-dependent on open lanes for crucial raw materials of all kinds. Thailand and Indonesia will be offered concessions by the Chinese, such as Australian territory or some such arrangement. The American coalition in the Pacific will collapse, and America will have to make a decision of fighting alone or agreeing to some sort of negotiated truce. The price would be American withdrawal from the Pacific, and the Chinese threat will be neverending war in the Pacific. American resolve might wither, especially if Europe refused to send combat troops to the Pacific to fight 'an American war'. NATO would be torn asunder (if it isn't sooner), and world opinion might favour a temporary peace rather than justice against China.