Parts I & II of "China's Grand Strategy", an essay I'm writing

Discussion in 'Strategic Defense' started by ZeEa5KPul, Feb 24, 2019.

  1. ZeEa5KPul
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    China’s Grand Strategy

    I’m quite taken with Halford Mackinder’s conception of Eurasia as the heartland of the World-Island (the geographic area comprising Eurasia, Africa, and Western Europe). In keeping with his thesis, I see the overwhelming focus of Chinese grand strategy until at least mid-century, and very probably beyond, to be the essential unification of the Eurasian heartland. This should not be taken to mean “unification” in a political sense – the populations of the region are far too culturally and linguistically distant for that to have a chance of success, as the Soviet Union painfully learned – or even a “soft” unification following the lines of the EU – as I shall argue later, I consider even monetary union a step too far (although, to be fair, only a step).

    In what sense, then, do I mean “unification”? I believe the best answer to this question would be to examine it along different dimensions: politically, strategically, economically, and culturally. But before I do that, let me first define what I mean by the term “Eurasia”.

    Exclusion of India:

    The natural definition would be the geographic region encompassing the continent of Asia and the European peninsula. This differs somewhat for how I wish to use the term. First, it is often considered – and rightly so – that India, as a large and populous nation in Asia, is a part of Eurasia. Here I argue that it should be excluded from this particular geopolitical analysis for the following reasons: First and foremost, it is difficult to connect economically to the rest of Eurasia (the geographical region) as the Himalayas and the Tibetan Plateau effectively separate it (observe a topographical map, the impression is striking in a way no 2D map can convey). Second, it has not shed the legacy of British colonialism, and so looks principally to the culture of its former conquerors for guidance and example. Third, unresolved hostilities with China disincline it from participating in any Eurasian integration project where China plays a leading, or even a prominent, role. It is for these reasons that I argue that India is best understood as a maritime state – similar to Japan or Australia – rather than a heartland one.

    One might object that Pakistan and other South Asian countries should also be excluded as – with the exception of the third point – they share these disqualifying characteristics with India. I shall attempt to argue the contrary using the example of Pakistan. Pakistan, as a geographically smaller and “narrower” state, can be economically connected to China by boring through the Himalayas (at some expense). To approach the same level of per-capita connectivity with India – if it were even willing to countenance such a thing – is a far more daunting prospect. The legacy of British colonialism scars Pakistan as it does India, but Pakistan is a far less populous country and has far warmer and closer relations to China; better yet, has had them for a long time. It is more conceivable that Pakistan would be far more amenable to Chinese cultural influence than India would be. Indeed, many Pakistanis have taken to studying Chinese to chase after opportunity; and 5,000 scholarships for Pakistani students to study at Chinese universities goes a lot farther in Pakistan than it would in India.

    In short, Pakistan’s smaller geographical size and population, along with its willingness to cooperate with China make the prospects for Sino-Pakistani connectivity and integration far brighter than they are for India.

    Exclusion of Western Europe:

    Similarly to India, I wish to argue for excluding Western Europe – which I shall define, without serious controversy, as the countries west of Germany (inclusive). The primary reason for this exclusion is not geographical as it is with India, but rather economic, cultural, and strategic.

    Let me begin by examining the economic reason for this exclusion. As fully-developed economies, the countries of Western Europe are primarily interested in preserving their monopoly on the commanding heights of technology, primarily against a committed effort by China to scale these heights and stake its claim to them. This struggle principally takes the form of exclusionary investment and trade regulations, closing of markets, as well as a concerted media campaign to paint Chinese technological advancement as illegitimate and underhanded. These states will certainly not willingly assist an effort by China to further its economic and strategic objectives.

    Aside from the direct threat these countries perceive to their economic well-being, there is also the consideration that once China has attained comprehensive technological equality with them, they will lose the leverage they enjoy over developing countries as exclusive technology and capital suppliers.

    The cultural and strategic reasons are equally important. All of these countries are security clients of the United States – and have been so for a long time – hence they have a strong interest in following (or at the very least not actively opposing) US strategic policy. It should be quite clear to any reader that the primary geopolitical opponent to the United States (which, culturally, must always have one) throughout the 21st century is China. Therefore, it takes no great wit to deduce that the countries of Western Europe will experience a great pressure to align their policies with that of their patron and take what steps they can to thwart China’s strategic designs.
     
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  2. ZeEa5KPul
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    ZeEa5KPul Junior Member
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    China’s present position and future prospects:

    According to the IMF, China has a $13.5 trillion nominal and $25.3 trillion purchasing power parity adjusted GDP as of 2018. It is the second-largest and largest economy in the world by those respective measures. Remarkably, given its vast populous, China’s nominal per-capita GDPs is $9,600, while its PPP-adjusted per-capita GDP is $18,100; the 71st and 78th largest in the world by those respective measures. This clearly shows that the low-hanging fruit of China’s development are far from exhausted and, despite economic headwinds, China can expect a prolonged period of very rapid growth.

    This comfortably places China as the largest national economy in Eurasia (by any conception of the term, since any sane conception excludes the United States). Despite its preponderant scale, China’s economy maintains distinctive characteristics of a developing economy: a large, low value-added manufacturing sector principally geared toward exporting low-cost goods, weak enforcement of intellectual property laws and an indigenous IP portfolio of dubious quality, a weak domestic welfare system, and a closed financial system with robust capital controls, among many others.

    China balances these shortcomings with a strong, centralized, and hyper-competent government capable of pursuing long-term industrialization plans, world-class infrastructure, high rates of government and private investment, high rates of research and development spending, and high national savings and foreign reserves.

    At present, China’s interaction with the other nations of Eurasia (and its periphery more generally) is almost entirely commercial. To take one example of this commercial hyper-focus, China has a mutual defense treaty with only one country: the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea); contrast this with the multiplicity of defense treaties of different types the United States has around the world. Although the United States is a historical anomaly in this regard, China’s dearth of allies is also historically peculiar and is not at all commensurate with a country of its present - let alone future - stature. Whether this is the correct strategic approach for China to take is something I will presently defer examining.

    The principal take-away here is that China is a country that straddles two worlds: the hyper-modern, cosmopolitan future typified by the glittering skyscrapers of its first-tier cities, and the backward, rural past typified by the poorest regions of its interior. For the immediate future, China’s highest national priority is to lift the foot mired in the past and plant it firmly in modernity. All of China’s foreign relations, including its relations with Eurasian states, must be understood through this overarching imperative.

    To attain the admittedly arbitrary development goal of a PPP adjusted per-capita GDP of between half and two-thirds that of the United States by 2050, assuming that the US per-capita growth rate of 1.0% and a Chinese population growth rate of 0.5%, China must grow at an average rate of between 3.25% and 4.25% per annum over 30 years. For comparison, China grew at an average annual rate of 6.9% over the past 5 years. Given how far China currently is from the technological frontier, such rates of growth over a prolonged period appear eminently achievable barring a catastrophic implosion of the Chinese state.

    If such growth is beyond China’s reach, that unhappy result must be the consequence of greatly diminished global growth. Needless to say, such massive economic turmoil will not leave the US unscathed – the US might even be the source of such contagion, as it was in the Great Recession of 2008 when its economy contracted as a result of the implosion of a severely over-leveraged housing bubble. For better or worse, globalization has tied together nations’ economic fates.

    As China develops and its per-capita GDP rises, pressures to reform its financial system gain impetus. As I noted previously, China maintains strict capital controls – indeed, it has recently introduced legislation that punishes operators of “underground banks” with jail time if they flout these controls. While this is absolutely necessary to protect China from the ravaging effects of international speculative capital (so-called “hot money”) and capital flight, one cannot escape the conclusion that such a choice effectively strangles any near-term prospects of significantly internationalizing the yuan.

    This is no mean issue. The overwhelming bulk of trade China conducts internationally is done in the national currency of what is most generously described as a geopolitical rival. Some modest efforts to internationalize the yuan, most notably the recent launching of an oil futures bourse in Shanghai, are promising; but they still confront the towering wall of capital controls.

    A notable “concession” China has offered in recent trade negotiations with the United States is the opening of its financial system to foreign competition. Whatever the short-term disruption this might have (and it is quite predictable that these foreign companies will take significant market share), the long-term benefits of sharpening and honing domestic financial firms through exposure to tough competition is wholly beneficial, and marks an important step in the maturation of the Chinese financial system. Of course, any such deal must be reciprocal, with Chinese firms having the freedom to operate in Western markets.

    Part II

    [The PLA’s Modernization and its Objectives]

    The People’s Liberation Army – the formal name of the Chinese armed forces – is in the midst of an epochal transformation; moving away from its origins as a massive, historically under-equipped and under-mechanized ground force bound to China toward a balanced military capable of fluently performing joint operations far from the homeland. The PLA is divided into five service branches: the Ground Force, Navy (encompassing a naval air arm and a marine corps), Air Force, Rocket Force (ground-launched ballistic and cruise missiles – both conventional and nuclear – play such a prominent role in Chinese military doctrine that an entire service branch has sprung up around them), and Strategic Support Force (the branch of the military concerned with space, cyberspace, and electronic warfare).

    The Chinese military envisions its reforms taking place in two phases – the first from the present up to 2035 when the PLA “completes modernization” and 2049 (the centenary of the foundation of the People’s Republic of China) when the PLA becomes a “world-class fighting force.” These pronouncements are vague (and quite probably understated, in keeping the “hide and bide” dictum of Deng Xiaoping), but their exact details are not terribly significant to this analysis. I hold that the primary role of the Chinese armed forces going forward is to bring about a posture of “global counter-intervention.” Simply stated, this is the expansion of China’s present regional counter-intervention (what is termed in the West as anti-access/area denial) - the ability to deter or defeat a military intervention by a rival power (usually the United States) in a specific geographic area - to China’s interests around the world. This should not be taken to imply that China seeks to blunt US intervention anywhere in the world; for instance, deterring America from intervening in the Caribbean is both prohibitively difficult and of dubious strategic value. Here “global” means not confined to a specific region. To be able to do this effectively, China will require a military with capabilities and tactics very similar to that of the American military – but with a very different strategic doctrine and purpose.

    I do not wish to burden this essay with a lot of technical detail regarding the PLA’s technological advancement, procurement, training, etc. as there are already several excellent sources that I would simply be regurgitating available to the interested reader. I shall state only that the modernization program proceeds apace and that the goals set before it are readily achievable. What I wish to examine is the strategic implications of China succeeding in so starkly shifting the military balance of power between it and the United States, first in East Asia and then farther afield.
     
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  3. ZeEa5KPul
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    [The Proximate Struggle]

    America, as a power very distant from the World-Island, relies critically on a network of alliances with weaker states to be able to maintain a military presence on the fringes of Eurasia. As such, it faces huge logistical challenges in sustaining this presence (the so-called “tyranny of distance”) and is never able to exert maximum power in one region, lest challengers in the other regions use this absence in ways America perceives as inimical. It is important to note here that this network of alliances is chiefly how America exercises political influence over its allies – its previously preponderant economic influence has already been eroded by China, as the vast majority of these countries trade more with China than they do with America; trade and investment that is still growing briskly. There is a limit to how much military protection America can withdraw from Europe without this influence declining precipitously, which in turn bounds the military resources America can dedicate to East Asia. China, free from these alliance obligations and calculations, faces no such demands on its armed forces – it can dedicate them in their entirety to the regional theater.

    The strategic calculations of America's Asian allies is thus a crucial determinant of the presence America can maintain in China’s region and the power it can project therein. Any ally, if it is capable of exercising sufficient sovereignty over affairs of national defense, will remain committed to the alliance only if it continues to perceive that America is an adequate security provider. America’s ability to be so is, put a bit crudely, a product of two factors: America’s capability and America’s resolve. The former factor is clearly in America’s favour – although I will note here that China’s military modernization and build-up is closing this gulf more quickly than most realize. It is the second factor that is deeply problematic for America, and that is what I will turn my attention to now.

    It has been noted by many geostrategic analysts that America’s geographic remove from the World-Island behind two vast oceans, and its two vastly weaker neighbours insulate it from military threats to such a degree that it is all but impossible to conquer or subdue by force. This is most certainly correct. However, what these analysts never consider is that this surfeit of safety, coupled with near-autarky, makes America a very unstable security guarantor. The reader might scoff at this assertion and retort, “How could that possibly be? America has remained steadfastly committed to its alliances since the end of World War II. Surely that argues for America’s stability as a security guarantor.” This is a prima facie strong objection, so it is worth examining carefully.

    [America Between Two Enemies]

    Consider the opponent America faced during the Cold War – the Soviet Union was a messianicly driven state that had as its raison d’être the wholesale transformation of the economic, political, social, even personal lives of every human being on Earth, and regularly reminded them of this. It occupied vast swathes of Europe, a region that is culturally resonant to Americans, who in turn felt that it was their blood-duty to liberate their brethren from the "Eastern barbarian hordes." Unhappily for the Soviet Union, its revolutionary zeal also extended to its commitment to a very specific, very inadequate form of economic management. Its ideology at once artificially boosted Americans’ resolve and prevented it from ever acquiring the capability to pose a potent threat. As has been wryly noted, the Soviet Union was never “the Soviet Union.”

    Contrast this with China today. China maintains, and mostly upholds, a commitment to non-interference in the internal affairs of other states. Indeed, it is the United States that suffers from a messianic obsession with changing China’s domestic politics. China neither occupies nor threatens regions of emotional significance to America; certainly the countries (and renegade provinces) of East and Southeast Asia do not hold the same cultural cachet in America as European - especially western and northern European - countries do. Anyone doubting this need only compare the depictions of the respective populations in American media, the attitude of Americans towards immigrants and tourists from these countries, and the conduct of American tourists in those countries. This lack of cultural affinity is also revealed by the absence of a NATO-like regional alliance network – America’s alliances are solely with countries it conquered, in the first or second degree, not kin. The reader might bemusedly remember that these allies have at least as many disputes among themselves as they do with China, further undermining the cohesion of any grouping. Most importantly, these allies do a whopping volume of business with China.

    At worst, all that China can inflict on America is the sting of losing distant (and seldom thought about) imperial possessions. All of this aligns America’s resolve with the prediction of abstract theory.

    Of course, I need not remind the reader that China is on a wholly different economic plane from the former Soviet Union. Where the Soviet Union maintained an ideological passion, China substitutes a studious pragmatism that suffuses all aspects of its worldview – including the management of its economic affairs. Whereas the Soviet Union proudly walled itself off from the world outside its clique, China found the humility to adopt economic principles and ways of doing business from historical enemies. This enthusiasm for foreign ideas has caused some chagrin among Western observers, who charge that it extends to intellectual property and trade secrets as well. The outcome of this economic prescience is the fact, noted previously, that China’s economy is now more than 25% larger than America’s when measured on a purchasing power parity basis. This is something the Soviet Union had never come close to achieving.

    I need not dwell overmuch on China’s resolve in East Asia. What are distant matters of normative principle and imperial self-conceit to America are very proximate matters of survival to China. That is all that need be said on this count.

    To summarize, America maintained enduring advantages over the Soviet Union, in both resolve and capability, that it does not and cannot hold against China. This should put paid to any comparison between China and the USSR as competitors to America. Crucially, these advantages America enjoyed allowed it to obfuscate the fundamental mercuriality of its security guarantees. China is America’s only opponent with which a contest of strength will be reduced to a contest of wills, and when will is the decisive test, America might be found wanting.

    Nothing I wrote above is news to these allies’ strategic analysts. This is the principal reason the American foreign policy establishment (unkindly, though not inaccurately, termed the “blob”) is so anxious to constantly, and very publicly, rhetorically remind its allies of its (purportedly) unwavering commitment to their security. Why it must formulate credulity-straining farces like the “domino theory.” Why it must always style itself as a defender of “human rights” and “democracy.” Why “isolationism” is such a heretical word, uttered in public only to be vehemently denounced. Why Donald Trump’s banal and mild criticisms of America’s foreign commitments rouses such a vitriolic reaction. It is America’s desperate charade to convince others, and itself most of all, that it is committed when it has no real reason to be.

    These observations do not entail a sudden realignment of America’s allies the moment China’s relative power passes some threshold. States are not rational actors constantly calculating power balances and seamlessly shifting allegiances like perfectly oiled weather vanes. There are costs to such shifts, reputational costs to being seen as perfidious, not to mention more tangible costs exacted by the jilted former security guarantor. There is also the simple inertia of the elites within a state, who are very comfortable with the present arrangements - thank you very much - and very willfully see no good reason to change them.

    But it does entail that crises have a far greater potential to cause enduring realignments in such situations than they would otherwise. Just as shifting tectonic plates might imperceptibly fracture a mountain that appears to all as sturdy and enduring as it ever did... until one pebble skitters down the mountain in just the right way to cause a landslide.

    [To be continued.]
     
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