Will there be war?

At the heart of Cliff’s book is an assessment of who would win if a war broke out between the US and China in this region. The US has been a guarantor of Taiwan’s security for a long time, and has defence treaty obligations to Japan and the Philippines that Washington has been working to strengthen, under what the Obama administration has called a ‘rebalance’ of American strength towards Asia. Beijing has denounced these efforts, claiming they are aimed at containment of China. Cliff assumes, as the European analyst Jonathan Holslag does in China’s Coming War with Asia, that as China’s strength continues to grow, so does the possibility of conflict with the US, the dominant power in the Western Pacific since the Second World War.

Copyright The London Review of Books

A review of the following titles:

  • China and Global Nuclear Order: From Estrangement to Active Engagement by Nicola Horsburgh
    Oxford, 256 pp, £55.00, February 2015, ISBN 978 0 19 870611 3
  • BUYChina’s Military Power: Assessing Current and Future Capabilities byRoger Cliff
    Cambridge, 378 pp, £21.99, September 2015, ISBN 978 1 107 50295 6
  • BUYChina’s Coming War with Asia by Jonathan Holslag
    Polity, 176 pp, £14.99, March 2015, ISBN 978 0 7456 8825 1

On 1 October 1949, Mao Zedong stood on top of the Gate of Heavenly Peace to proclaim the victory of his revolution, and told the world that the long-suffering Chinese people had finally ‘stood up’. After decades of tremendous violence and turmoil, China was going to relaunch itself into the arduous and disorienting task of embracing modernity. This project had begun in the late 19th century, near the end of the thousands-year-long imperial era under the Qing dynasty, and continued at the start of the republican period in the early 20th century. But it was cut short by chaotic warlordism, followed by Japan’s vicious attempted conquest of China and finally by brutal infighting between Communists and Nationalists. It was Mao’s armies’ outmanoeuvring of the forces of his longtime rival, Chiang Kai-Shek, that landed him triumphantly in Tiananmen Square that day in 1949. What set China apart from almost every other people whose lands were subjugated by European imperialism, then thrown into chaos by the turmoil that followed its collapse, is that through all the violence the nation suffered, one ambition remained constant: to restore to China what those who aspired to lead it believed was its civilisational birthright and heritage – a position of pre-eminence in world affairs.

Self-belief of this sort has always been a feature of Chinese thinking. But during Mao’s early years in power, the notion that China could make progress only by adopting imported ideas was still a relatively new and radical concept. As recently as the late 18th century, China was still displaying utter disdain for the ideas and innovations coming from Europe. When George Macartney, Britain’s first envoy to China, arrived at the head of a delegation in 1793, the Qing Emperor Qianlong refused his request to establish a permanent embassy in Beijing. Qianlong also spurned Macartney’s gifts, which had been carefully selected to demonstrate British progress and greatness. ‘Our Celestial Empire possesses all things in prolific abundance and lacks no product within its borders,’ Qianlong wrote. ‘Therefore there is no need to import the manufactures of outside barbarians in exchange for our own produce.’ There are few better examples of how pride precedes a fall. Among Macartney’s gifts were several brass cannons capable of firing seven shots a minute – an astounding feat at that time. Britain even proposed to export them to China, but the Qing declined. A half-century later, Britain would return to the country with cannons blazing, humiliating China and its technologically backward armies in the first Opium War.

The country that Mao inherited was poor and economically devastated. Its situation compared to the major powers was arguably worse than it had been when the Europeans made their scramble for China a hundred years earlier. Mao knew this and had no intention of repeating the errors of Qianlong – this was no time for false pride. Beijing aligned itself closely with the USSR, believing that Marxism-Leninism offered the best chance of reordering Chinese society and allowing it rapidly to make up lost ground in economic and geopolitical power. Barely two months after taking power he made a pilgrimage by train to Moscow, spending two months holed up in a dacha awaiting infrequent audiences with Stalin in order to plead his case for assistance on an unheard-of scale. Mao asked for factories of all sorts to be dismantled and shipped off to China; he wanted the Soviets to accept huge numbers of Chinese students into their universities and technical institutes; and he requested that the Soviets send thousands of advisers to China to help oversee the country’s economic take-off.

From the outset, however, Mao had something more ambitious in mind than creating modern industries and generating economic growth. Having ‘liberated’ China at the beginning of the nuclear age, there was one Western gadget he coveted more than any other: the bomb. Though it conspicuously lacked this ultimate symbol of great power status, China fought the US to a standstill on the Korean peninsula and began to project its ambitions into other parts of the world. During this period, Mao publicly affected disdain for weapons of mass destruction, arguing that against the immensity of China they counted for little. ‘The atom bomb is a paper tiger … it looks terrible but in fact it is not … the outcome of war is decided by the people, not … weapons,’ he said in the late 1940s, as Nicola Horsburgh recounts in China and Global Nuclear Order. Privately, though, atomic weapons were an early obsession of his, so much so that his eagerness to acquire an arsenal of his own drove a wedge between Beijing and Moscow and was one of the factors that led to the termination of their alliance in the early 1960s. In 1949, Liu Shaoqi was sent to Moscow, where he sought and was denied access to Soviet nuclear facilities. By 1954, however, Moscow had acquiesced, enabling China rapidly to master the nuclear fuel cycle. The following year, the two countries signed the Sino-Soviet Atomic Co-operation Treaty, which led to the creation of 39 atomic research centres in China. But by 1957, there were signs of trouble in the relationship. A new technical accord signed that year seemed to promise that the USSR would supply China with a blueprint for an atomic weapon, or even a prototype – but in the end no device was provided. Horsburgh says that Moscow had demanded joint military control, a loss of sovereignty that Mao rejected as intolerable.

By the late 1950s, after several years of an unrestrained arms race, Moscow and Washington had begun to take their nuclear competition seriously. The US had installed tactical atomic weapons at bases in Taiwan, South Korea, Guam and Hawaii, and had hinted at the possibility of their use during crises in Indochina in 1954 and over Taiwan in 1955. When Mao confronted Taiwan over the small, Taiwanese-controlled islands of Quemoy and Matsu in 1958, risking war with the US, Moscow got spooked by its ally’s seeming recklessness – some in Moscow began asking whether Mao was crazy. Unlike the USSR, China also insisted on supporting wars of national liberation in other parts of the world – a principle that Mao regarded as sacrosanct.

China’s frustration at the Soviets’ foot-dragging over the sharing of atomic weapons technology, combined with Mao’s disapproval of Khrushchev’s posthumous attack on Stalin and his cult of personality in the secret speech of 1956, destroyed any remaining allegiance to the USSR. In Mao’s view, Khrushchev was legitimising challengers to his own rule. The Soviets were denounced as ‘revisionists’, which in this instance meant that they were willing to make accommodations with the US in order to avoid war. By the time of the Cuban Missile Crisis in 1962, which Beijing read as Soviet capitulation, this had become the mainstream view in China.

In June 1959, Khrushchev abrogated the USSR’s two-year-old treaty with Beijing, declaring that no nuclear weapon prototype would be provided to China after all because of his country’s commitment to the recently negotiated Partial Test Ban Treaty with the US. A year later, Moscow withdrew all of its nearly three thousand technical advisers from China. Until this point, Beijing had stuck closely to Moscow’s line on atomic weapons, endorsing Soviet calls for arms control, even disarmament. Speaking in Geneva in 1954, for example, Mao’s number two, Zhou Enlai, said: ‘The arms race must be halted, universal disarmament be carried out and atomic and hydrogen weapons and weapons of mass destruction be prohibited.’

When Soviet assistance was cut off, and the relationship between the two communist powers became increasingly hostile, China’s position on nuclear weapons changed. Mao’s administration took to arguing that arms control was a scam designed to perpetuate the global hegemony of the two rival superpowers, the US and the USSR. It also began to claim that the spread of nuclear weapons beyond this cartel could have a stabilising influence, and for a time promoted what it called ‘socialist proliferation’. Horsburgh quotes Zhou Enlai: ‘If all countries have nuclear weapons,’ he said in 1961, ‘the possibility of nuclear wars would decrease.’

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China’s Twilight Years: The country’s population is aging and shrinking. That means big consequences for its economy—and America’s global standing.

“It really doesn’t matter what happens now with the fertility rate,” a demographer at the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences told me. “The old people of tomorrow are already here.” She predicted that in another decade or two, the social and fiscal pressures created by aging in China will force what many Chinese find inconceivable for the world’s most populous nation: a mounting need to attract immigrants. “When China is old, though, all the countries we could import workers from will also be old,” she said. “Where are we to get them from? Africa would be the only place, and I can’t imagine that.”

Copyright The Atlantic – June 2016

On opposite sides of the globe, two debates that will profoundly affect the future of the United States, and indeed the world, are raging. One of them has become shrilly public, while the other remains almost secret. On the surface they might seem to have little to do with each other, but at bottom, they are inextricably linked.

The first debate, which is unfolding in America, concerns immigration. Republicans like Donald Trump and Ted Cruz have staked out some of the more radical positions in this debate, such as urging that the U.S. build a wall to keep out illegal immigrants and that it deport the millions who are already here. The other debate, which is playing out in Beijing, is about how big a navy China should build, and how much it should contest America’s primacy in the world’s oceans.

To a degree scarcely suspected by most people, both debates—and more generally, America’s chances of maintaining its standing in the world—are bound up in the two countries’ sharply contrasting population dynamics.

Under President Xi Jinping, China has until very recently appeared to be a global juggernaut—hugely expanding its economic and political relations with Africa; building artificial islands in the South China Sea, an immense body of water that it now proclaims almost entirely its own; launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, with ambitions to rival the World Bank. The new bank is expected to support a Chinese initiative called One Belt, One Road, a collection of rail, road, and port projects designed to lash China to the rest of Asia and even Europe. Projects like these aim not only to boost China’s already formidable commercial power but also to restore the global centrality that Chinese consider their birthright.

As if this were not enough to worry the U.S., China has also showed interest in moving into America’s backyard. Easily the most dramatic symbol of this appetite is a Chinese billionaire’s plan to build across Nicaragua a canal that would dwarf the American-built Panama Canal. But this project is stalled, an apparent victim of recent stock-market crashes in China.

Many economists believe that these market plunges are early manifestations of a historic slowdown in the Chinese economy, one that is bringing the country’s soaring growth rates down to earth after three decades of expansion. But the current slowdown pales in comparison with a looming societal crisis: In the years ahead, as China’s Baby Boomers reach retirement age, the country will transition from having a relatively youthful population, and an abundant workforce, to a population with far fewer people in their productive prime.

The frightening scope of this decline is best expressed in numbers. China today boasts roughly five workers for every retiree. By 2040, this highly desirable ratio will have collapsed to about 1.6 to 1. From the start of this century to its midway point, the median age in China will go from under 30 to about 46, making China one of the older societies in the world. At the same time, the number of Chinese older than 65 is expected to rise from roughly 100 million in 2005 to more than 329 million in 2050—more than the combined populations of Germany, Japan, France, and Britain.

The consequences for China’s finances are profound. With more people now exiting the workforce than entering it, many Chinese economists say that demographics are already becoming a drag on growth. More immediately alarming are the fiscal costs of having far more elderly people and far fewer young people, starting with the expense of creating the country’s first modern national pension system.

Unlike residents of China’s prosperous eastern cities, hundreds of millions of peasants and migrant laborers have scant personal savings and rudimentary retirement coverage, if any. “One goal is to extend pension coverage to everyone,” says an economist with the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, in Beijing. “But that will be very expensive, because most people haven’t paid anything into the system at all. Basically, what this means is a wealth transfer.” Providing health care to these same disadvantaged classes will also be vastly expensive.Mark L. Haas, a Duquesne University political scientist, has for some time warned of a looming contest between guns and canes—a variant on the old idea of guns versus butter—as the world’s major countries grapple with demographic change. “China’s political leaders beginning in roughly 2020 will be faced with a difficult choice: allow growing levels of poverty within an exploding elderly population, or provide the resources necessary to avoid this situation,” Haas writes in Political Demography. If China’s government decides in favor of the latter option, Haas argues, American power will benefit. More broadly, he foresees a coming “geriatric peace,” as nations around the world find themselves too burdened to challenge America’s military preeminence.

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