Monday 3 August 2020

Looks Like China Has Blown It

In the long run, not much can stop China becoming thoroughly pre-eminent  - if not necessarily the unchallenged global hegemon with complete freedom of action it aspires to be.  But in the short- to medium-term its progress could become a lot bumpier than the exceptionally smooth and untroubled run it has managed over the past two decades: and things might even go binary on China in a way it won't much enjoy.  

The acid test for Xi in my mind, and probably in his too, is Taiwan.  It's abundantly clear Xi wants his crowning glory to include the "re-integration" of Taiwan during his own regime, and has probably vowed to do this by whatever means.  But he'd doubtless consider the need to resort to violent re-annexation as very much second prize.  There must be many more examples of things he'd much rather didn't go wrong, along the way to the Chinese Dream being fulfilled.

Up until very recently, from the outset of the Chinese march towards their Authoritarian Capitalist successes, the Chinese have proceded emolliently, if not actually by stealth.  If Hong Kong had remained placid, one might have imagined this course would have been continued - just look at the gains they've made!  By all accounts they've pretty much annexed New Zealand as a mere commercial dependency, with Australia firmly in their sights and already well under the thumb.  In lockstep with the commercial hooks, the political grappling irons have also been steadily applied, along with bribery, corruption, and flooding with fee-paying students - little trojan horses by the tens of thousands.  There are any number of chilling accounts to be found, not least the way in which Chinese citizens abroad are monitored (and indeed directed) for their every action.  China does what it fancies with the Uighurs and narry a Moslem leader mutters a word.  We haven't even mentioned espionage, massive attempts to corner markets in raw materials, building artificial islands in the South China Sea, and implanting high-tech trojan horses in the UK's telecomms and electricity infrastructure.  But, for the most part, this has been achieved with only modest push-back, resistance, or even friction; and mostly (to be honest) grovelling, money-grubbing acquiescence.  (What an epic shit Osborne is.)

The sheer power amassed by Xi in every dimension is formidable indeed.  And with it, inevitably, grows the temptation to call a halt to the disciplined habit of swallowing pride, and turning the other cheek, when setbacks and annoyances occur, as China has chosen to do many, many times in the past**.  (Cultural obsession with maintaining "face" doesn't help much, either.)  So now Athens can no longer forbear from lording it over Sparta, and from forcing every other nation choose between the two++.

And look what's happening today.  The kow-towing era of Osborne / Cameron / May has come and gone.  The fates of Hong Kong and the Uighurs are a now serious issues around the (western) world, largely impotent even as we are.  Australia - yes, Australia, dependent as it is on exporting raw materials, is stirring against recent developments.  And there's talk in the air of Japan joining the Five-Eyes community.  That's of gigantic significance - Japan is as good an "unsinkable aircraft carrier" as the UK was vis-à-vis Russia, with a very desirable set of special capabilities.  Altogether a rather different turn of events in that neck of the woods than one might have anticipated a year ago, when much more likely seemed the expulsion of NZ for having been thoroughly subborned by China and no longer trustworthy (with Australia very much on notice).

What does China have to fear?  In the grand scheme of things: not much.  Trump could press the Red Button tomorrow: but the man holding the briefcase would smile and say, sorry Mr President, it doesn't seem to be working today.  Ain't nobody going down that path unless Xi does something unimagineably crass.  A few minor economic hiccups arising from unforced errors, perhaps (as opposed to the ones they are inevitably going to suffer along the way in any case). 

Most importantly, if Trump thinks the power of US sanctions will hurt China as fundamentally as they've hurt Iran, to the point where maybe he might dream of precipitating domestic unrest; well, I'd guess the CCP's web-enabled 100% Big Brother regime is more than capable of 'defusing' the social consequences even of some otherwise serious short-term economic setbacks.  Not many nations spontaneously combust during recessions anyway; and few have the kind of omnipresent, omnipotent fire brigade that Xi has at his disposal.

No: mostly it'll be delays to Xi's grand plans; infuriation as Taiwan shrinks ever further from contemplating a voluntary reunion;  plus, of course, Loss of Face as some of the global prestige Xi fondly hoped to deliver over the coming years evaporates.

That could be pretty bad for Xi personally - if only for his private equanimity: but he's just one man among a billion.  Objectively, the worst case for China is that the world polarises into camps, Cold-War style, for 50 years - instead of more-or-less peacefully slipping into his Belt-and-Road vision of China as Top Nation with Xi beaming benignly as every nation hastens to do his bidding, and China resumes its destiny as Centre of the World, and undisputed Greatest Culture On The Planet. 

So: today, I'd say that particular rosy-for-Xi outcome looks rather less likely than it might have done just 12 months ago.  Polarisation it is.  Tough titty, Xi - but you had it coming. 


** I always think of Libya 2011 and the casual overthrow by the western powers of Gaddafi, essentially a Chinese client at that stage 
++ And we know what happened then ...


andrew said...

I dont know
What happened then?

david morris said...

ND, were we at the same Chatham House conference last year ? This looks disturbing like an Alan Brooke world view summary...

Elby the Beserk said...

My old man. Late 60s.

"Two main dangers now. The Yellow Peril. And Wedgwood Benn".

I take my hat off to him

Anonymous said...

My father said similar around the same time.

If the Three Gorges dam fails it might cause them some problems.

Nick Drew said...

DM - no. And for my money, it didn't seem that way quite so much last year (hence my other stuff on China in recent months)

But the CH speaker is obviously much more far-sighted (or closer to the action)

Andrew - the Peloponnesian War! Athens, the up-and-coming superpower, fought Sparta, the declining superpower, over a protracted period: had some big initial successes: spurned the offer of a peace settlement: overreached itself arrogantly and badly ... and lost.

andrew said...

I thought you were going to say something about the rise of the roman empire

Anonymous said...

If we're going to continue echoing the Peloponnesian War, I could certainly see the Chinese repeat the Athenian trials post-Arginuse, and the current US treating its victorious allies as the Spartans did.

Who will playing the part of Alexander the Great further down the line? (Please not the EU)

E-K said...

The only way I think China has blown it is if economic depression hits the West so badly that all the hopes and dreams of people living under the CCP are so trashed that they turn against.

The CCP's Chernobyl moment.

Alas, our own moneyed elites are so in the CCP pockets and we so dependent on cheap tat (especially now) that our money (fwiw) will still be going their way - new markets in PPE ?

Our people have shown themselves to be utter pussies. The CCP has been watching.

Nick Drew said...

Who will playing the part of Alexander the Great further down the line?

Ahem: Putin has in mind that role for himself ...

(and is on a strict regime of monkey-glands to help him stay the course)

Roman Empire? there's maybe an apposite analogy to be had there, but to me the rise of Athens seems closer

Roderick said...

A clear advantage of a one-party state is that you don't have tiresome electoral cycles to worry about. The Chinese leadership can think long-term, as in, by the century. Relative trifles like Hong Kong, Taiwan, or the Uighurs will, they assume, soon be distant memories.

dearieme said...

"if Trump thinks the power of US sanctions will hurt China as fundamentally as they've hurt Iran, to the point where maybe he might dream of precipitating domestic unrest"

Ah, so it's the CCP that's been precipitating domestic unrest in the US. That makes sense. Good to know that the CIA and FBI are as much on the ball as usual.

Thud said...

Peak China was last year, now India,Vietnam and Japan are more aware than ever of what China intends and they are not going to play along. Those Japanese ' heli' carriers are upsetting the Chinese immensely, there are more on the way and the f35 fighters that'perhaps' can land on them.

E-K said...

All presuming this is the last (and worst) virus out of China - and not just biological.

tolkein said...

China demographics look horrible post One Child Policy, never mind the huge surplus of marriageable age men.
The trouble with authoritarian states is that people start lying about what they're doing/have done (overfulfillment of plans, etc)plus the corruption gets very oppressive. Who expects that the 3 Gorges Dam was built to spec?
Now that everybody is wary of China and starts pushing back in Asia, life will get harder for the leadership. What will Xi's successor look like?

Anonymous said...

David Morris - surely Alan Brooke has long left us, or have longevity/cloning advanced much more then I realised. He was Churchill's Chief Of Staff after all!

Makes me laugh, all this China stuff, as if the writing wasn't on the wall twenty years ago. I remember when the people I worked for were salivating about the Chinese market ("if we only get 2% market share that's 10m clients!") and some PRC bigwigs toured our offices with the directors doing everything but kow-tow.

I keep throwing Eamonn Fingleton at you all

More recent is Michael Lind, pointing out that Western companies and governments walked into this with eyes wide open.

Politicians pushing globalization like Clinton may have told the public that the purpose of NAFTA and of China’s admission to the World Trade Organization (WTO) was to open the closed markets of Mexico and China to “American products made on American soil, everything from corn to chemicals to computers.” But U.S. multinationals and their lobbyists 20 years ago knew that was not true. Their goal from the beginning was to transfer the production of many products from American soil to Mexican soil or Chinese soil, to take advantage of foreign low-wage, nonunion labor, and in some cases foreign government subsidies and other favors. Ross Perot was right about the motives of his fellow American corporate executives in supporting globalization.

The strategy of enacting trade treaties to make it easier for U.S. corporations to offshore industrial production to foreign cheap-labor pools was sold by Clinton and others to the American public on the basis of two implicit promises. First, it was assumed that the Western factory workers who would be replaced by poorly paid, unfree Chinese workers would find better-paying and more prestigious jobs in a new, postindustrial “knowledge economy.” Second, it was assumed that the Chinese regime would agree to the role assigned to it of low-value-added producer in a neocolonial global economic hierarchy led by the United States, European Union, and Japan. To put it another way, China had to consent to be a much bigger Mexico, rather than a much bigger Taiwan.

You see the same thing in miniature here. Heinz, now a private equity creature, moved production of Daddies sauce to Poland for the cheap people. They still want Brits to go out and buy the stuff (I doubt a Pole would touch it), they're just not prepared to pay them to make it. Same applies to pharmaceuticals, most of which come from India, with the chemical feedstock Chinese and a Brit or EU company fronting up over here. They want us (or the NHS) to buy the drugs, but not to make them.

Anonymous said...

link to Lind

Anonymous said...

Enjoy the contrasting recruitment videos for the British Army

and the PLA

Boggins said...

It's pronounced Chyna.

E-K said...

Anonymous - But the PLA will NEVER be as funny as our boys.

Anonymous said...

Yep, sending all our factories to China is looking like a mistake of fourth-century-Rome-letting-in-the-Goths importance.

But both the West and China are going to be hit hard by demographics over the next half-century. Both are contracepting and aborting themselves out of existence. China somewhat faster.