Chinese President Xi Jinping. (Photo by Lintao Zhang/Getty Images)
Artillery Row Books

Is China heading for global empire or Soviet collapse?

Dan Blumenthal’s new book wants us to be pessimistic, realistic, and proactive

Academics, journalists, and policy wonks tend to be optimistic about China. For instance, back in 2016, Anja Manuel expected China to end up as large, long-lasting, and benign as the British Empire. Dan Blumenthal offers a useful corrective, rich in historical and geopolitical anchors, yet accessible. From the perspective of the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), China is restoring its ancient state, but Blumenthal considers both the precedent and the tribute act as illegitimate. China is an “empire pretending to be a nation-state.”

The pretence involves the suppression of Tibet, Xinjiang (the Uighur province), and Hong Kong. It involves religious persecution, and the censoring of Western content.

This too is historically anchored – and misrepresented. The empire was broken by a serious of rebellions from 1850 to 1873, coincident with Western and Japanese incursions. “Germane to China today is the fear that Western forces will work with internal Chinese rebels to bring down the CCP.” No surprise then that this is the storyline of “Wolf Warrior” (a Chinese movie released in 2015).

China’s leaders are historically conditioned to think that internal stability comes from unipolarity

China’s leaders are historically conditioned to think that internal stability comes from unipolarity. Confucian familial hierarchy is applied to international relations, with China as the patriarch. China “wants to carve out an authoritarian sphere of influence that it can control, making Asia repressive and closed.” And communism, let us not forget, aims to export revolution. Mao sponsored insurgencies in Thailand, Malaysia, South Vietnam, Indonesia, and the Philippines. Mao’s China fought with the Soviet Union, India, Vietnam, South Korea, and (in Korea) most of the Western states.

In 1979, China loosened its economy and seemed pro-Western. However, after Western criticism of its repression in Tiananmen Square (1989), and the collapse of the Soviet Union (1991), the US was left as China’s nemesis.

The China Nightmare: The Grand Ambitions of a Decaying State by Dan Blumenthal (American Enterprise Institute, November 2020) £14.95

Blumenthal admits that George H.W. Bush could have done more to push democratization. In most subsequent years, transnational progressives dominated Western governments, complacent that democratization would follow naturally from economic development. While they were distracted by Afghanistan, Iraq, and financial crisis, China expanded, particularly in the South China Sea, where the US has no bases. When Barack Obama visited in 2009, he was lectured and ignored.

China’s leader from 2002 to 2012 (Hu Jintao) had publicized an agenda towards “the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation,” but “hid his aggrandizing aims” behind an “unassuming persona”. China’s current leader, Xi Jinping, is blatant. At the time of his inauguration in November 2012, Xi promised “the great renewal of the Chinese nation”. The CCP, he said, could succeed where previous restorers had failed.

In 2013, he announced the “One Belt, One Road” strategy, which aimed for road and railway links from China to Europe, and soon added a global network of communications. In 2014, he told an audience in the Shanghai Expo Centre: “It is for the people of Asia to run the affairs of Asia, solve the problems of Asia, and uphold the security of Asia.” Blumenthal notes that this sounds like Imperial Japan’s “new order” and “co-prosperity” schemes of the 1930s. Another eerily familiar Chinese euphemism for imperialism is “community of common destiny”.

Blumenthal thinks China has peaked

In the mid-2010s, China expanded its territories in the South China Sea and the East China Sea. It persuaded almost every government, including the US, not to recognize Taiwan’s independence. It encroached on its border with India. It established economic and military privileges in Southeast Asia, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Middle East, East Africa, Latin America, and even European countries. It partnered with Russia to source energy and open an Arctic trade route to Europe. Its supplicants dominate the World Health Organization. The United Nations adjusts its language according to directives from Beijing.

In October 2017, Xi spoke to the Party Congress for 3.5 hours about China’s increased power. He broke with precedent by openly seeking to change the global system, not just the near-abroad. China offers “a new option for other countries,” he said, “and a Chinese approach to solving the problems facing mankind.” In June 2018, he told an internal conference on foreign affairs that China would “take an active part in leading the reform of the global governance system… [until it would be] favourable [towards] a great modern socialist country in all aspects”. For Blumental, the latter clause is a euphemism for “a dictatorship sitting atop a state-dominated economy that also allows for limited free markets”.

While this sounds inexorable, Blumenthal thinks China has peaked. The “rot” started in the 2000s, when Hu “moved from a growth-and-development-obsessed autocracy to an oppressive national security state focused heavily on maintaining stability.” China protected key industries, restricted foreign investment, increased its debt, consolidated public ownership, and stifled innovation (although it continued to steal technologies).

China has no real property rights, which, combined with severe environmental degradation, means that land is badly misused and does not generate significant economic growth. Moreover, because of the one-child policy, China will soon face a labour shortage that will worsen over time. The CCP also confronts enormous social costs related to its ageing population and the need to provide a social safety net. Inefficient state-owned enterprise and politically motivated state banks dominate the economy. Thus, unsurprisingly, capital is badly misallocated.

Xi centralized power to his own person, in contrast to the deliberative-consensus model established in the 1980s. He used his anti-corruption campaign to purge rivals. He cracked down on the media, schools, religious minorities, human rights groups, and non-profits.

Blumenthal’s titular ‘nightmare’ is that China’s internal reactionism will destabilize the world

In 2016, Anja Manuel had admitted China’s structural problems, such as public-ownership and retarded private consumption (in order to pay for care of the elderly), but expected reform of healthcare, pensions, and corporate debt to unstick everything. The Centre for Strategic and International Studies subsequently forecast rising financial risk, and recommended some decoupling, but expects no crisis for years. It expects the Biden administration to improve the situation in the short term, and expects China to muddle through in the long term. Other commentators foresee Biden’s foreign policy as more continuity than change.

Blumenthal is more pessimistic. He blames China’s ideational and structural flaws, which are hardly subject to Western leverage:

The theme of this book is that, while China is acting to further ever-grander ambitions, it is also facing profound internal problems and increasing rot in the party. This makes China even more dangerous than many assume… For a great authoritarian nation like China, frustration leads to lashing out. China is powerful enough to pose security threats yet weak, paranoid, and incompetent enough to turn a local epidemic into a plague on the world.

This paranoia and incompetence are crucial differentiation in Blumenthal’s theory. The Chinese government itself, and most Western academic specialists, argue that China will feel benignly secure once it has settled its ancient borders. Since Chinese leaders are historically anchored, this suggests stability. Why push beyond the limits of an empire than endured for nearly 5,000 years?

Blumenthal agrees that the current communist empire approaches the extent of Qing Empire, but notes that it falls short of Taiwan, Outer Mongolia, and parts of Russia and Kazakhstan. It already has land borders with 14 states.

According to Blumenthal, China doesn’t want war, but could over-reach, nonetheless. “Wolf warrior diplomacy” is termed after a movie in which the threats are inside China, but the diplomacy is directed outside. Blumenthal’s titular “nightmare” is that China’s internal reactionism will destabilize the world.

When might this risk peak? Blumenthal admits that prediction is difficult because of divergent outcomes from unpredictable events. For instance, Xi has appointed no successor, so his incapacitation would destabilize the CCP. But if he keeps going, so does his strategy. Like the Soviets, Chinese communists will follow the rules longer than they believe in the ideology.

The next CCP Congress isn’t due until 2022. At the 2017 Congress, Xi spoke about developing China’s economy and technology up to 2035, then developing China as a military great power by 2050. One Belt, One Road is due to complete in 2049.

Yet Xi seems to throw China’s weight around like it’s 2050 already: border incursions, espionage, disinformation, price dumping, intimidation of the Chinese diaspora abroad, leveraging Confucius Centres to influence academic comment, trade deals in return for foreign policy concessions.

The US needs to exploit China’s vulnerabilities politically

Xi pulled some states further into orbit, but repelled others. The year 2020 was pivotal. China’s dishonesty about Covid-19, its manipulation of the WHO, its demand for more favourable comment before exporting medical equipment, its spin of exports as aid – all these actions pushed a critical mass of Western politicians off the fence. For instance, Britain belatedly reversed Huawei’s dominance of national 5G infrastructure. Australia agitated for an international inquiry into China’s culpability in Covid. China retaliated with a trade war. Already China is short of coal (a major Australian export). But China is also planning to build a megacity on an island at the border between Australia and Papua New Guinea.

What should be done? Manuel’s recommendations had reduced to “engagement.” But as Blumenthal points out, engagement can’t reconcile incompatible interests. The doves think US withdrawal would lower tensions. Blumenthal admits the security dilemma but points out that US withdrawal would leave Asia insecure and damage US interests.

Still, Blumenthal faces the realist’s dilemma. As China becomes more powerful, other states have more justification to balance against it, but fewer options for doing so. The US is already forward deployed to keep the seas open and its allies free. South Korea and Japan permit major US Navy bases within striking range of China’s Eastern seaboard. Korea, Japan, Philippines, and Thailand are entreatied allies of the US. Singapore and Vietnam are naval partners. Nobody doubts whose side Taiwan is on. China genuinely feels threatened.

From 2014 to 2020, China launched more warships than Britain, Spain, Germany, India, and Taiwan combined. China’s maritime policing fleet, outside of the navy, will have 400 ships within a few years. Chinese warships routinely visit partner countries around the Indian Ocean and Gulf of Aden.

China can’t defeat the US Navy on the high seas, but it can hack its networks, pay agitators in the countries that host US ships, and launch anti-ship missiles from wheeled platforms and from copies of US F22 and F35 aircraft. The US Marine Corps is deleting its tanks in order to restructure to counter such missiles.

Blumenthal urges the US to be “confrontational”. The US needs to adapt militarily. More importantly it should exploit China’s vulnerabilities politically: unfriendly neighbours, unsettled borders, stagnating economy, divided elite, and popular dissatisfaction with repression. “While the US may have little ability to influence the outcomes of Chinese politics, Washington can force the CCP to spend more to defend its record on corruption, injustice, and gross abuses of human rights.”

This might be unwelcome advice to Joe Biden, who has said he will be tougher on China, but has yet to explain why his son Hunter was riding on Air Force 2, when Joe was Vice-President, to do business in China.

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