Saturday, November 19, 2005

The Question of China

China is rising but it has many potential problems that could trip it up or hem it in and keep China from acting like a global superpower. Let me post a copy of a post from my old site from June 2004:

The New China
We have been reminded about the growing Chinese military power with the latest installment of the DoD annual report on Chinese military power (see earlier post). We still don’t know whether China is developing into a strategic rival or friend. It could go either way. Much is up to them.

But as we consider the potential of a China as an enemy, it would be helpful to remember that China has not grown in power without a price. At one time, China was just a giant lump of proletarian fury. If we killed 100 million Chinese in a nuclear strike, they professed not to care since they’d have hundreds of millions left. If Russians invaded, the Chinese would fade into the countryside to wage guerrilla war and absorb the blow until Russia got tired. Tens of millions might die but the Chinese leaders said they would not be the ones to tire first. Chinas was self-reliant, if poor, and filled with ideological fury that motivated them to endure.

China is
different now. By 2007, China will import half of its oil. One fifth of all the world’s bulk freighters haul raw materials to China. Wal-Mart keeps us aware of China’s exports. Truly, China needs trade and has critical imports that cannot be interrupted if China is to keep moving forward and maintain social and political stability.

China’s growing power leads some to worry that China will use that power to guarantee access to vital raw materials and oil coming from overseas. This is certainly likely.

But let’s not forget the vulnerabilities that China has developed. Even if China develops oil in the contested Spratley Island region, this would still be vulnerable to hostile naval and air action. And if the Chinese have to get the oil from the Middle East, well that’s quite a gauntlet through the Indian Ocean, Indonesian waters, and the South China Sea in order to reach China. Indian and American forces aided by nations not too friendly to China all along that route could wreak havoc. Of course, pipelines through Central Asia might help but then American forces are there too after 9-11 and the Russians are
coming back a bit. Russia won’t appease China forever and in time the Russians will be more forceful with Peking. China would need quite the navy to protect a sea route and with Russia recovering, China will have land powers in Vietnam, India, South Korea, and Russia to worry about even as they try to build a blue water navy to protect their imports.

America and Britain could become global naval powers because we never had to simultaneously build large armies to protect our homelands. The Kaiser’s Germany and the Soviet Union could build up a navy to rival the best, but the demands of land defense crushed their attempts in time. China, too, will find itself caught between being a dominant land power and a dominant sea power. They will fail at one or both aims.

And with the one-child policy, how eager will Chinese parents be to send their only children to war?

Plus, the very progress that makes China more dangerous makes China more vulnerable. Precision weapons make this vulnerability of factories, ports, and infrastructure more acute. For a Chinese leadership used to thinking of themselves as just a devoted mass of people virtually invulnerable to even nuclear attack, this new vulnerability may not even be fully appreciated as they revel in their new emerging power to project military forces away from the mainland. Although America’s economy is far more advanced and complicated, and hence vulnerable, we defend far away from our homeland. Any attacks on our homeland from the Chinese will be difficult to engineer and sporadic. Unless China conquers Russia’s Far Eastern provinces, South Korea, Japan, the Philippines, Vietnam, Australia, and India, China will face the prospect of defending its homeland from direct land and air attack from day one of a war.

I would not want to trade strategic positions with China no matter how much talk there is of a rising China.

And we haven’t even discussed whether the Chinese can hold the lid on a population that might want political freedoms along with its economic freedoms. Political freedom might be nice to protect their only children, too.

Or maybe China will evolve into a friendly democracy. Stranger things have happened.

I'm not in the "sky is falling" camp about China. I doubt they will surpass America in power. And if they do, not only will it be quite a while before that time arrives, but they have a lot more to worry about than we do. But, as I've said many times, China does not have to reach rough parity with America to be a threat to us and challenge our allies and forces in China's backyard. Recall that Japan in 1941 had an economy that was a tenth of America's (I'm going on memory, so don't hold me to a hard number). Yes, we won by 1945. But Japan's determination to fight on let them punch above their weight and cost us dearly to beat them even if you can say it was an "inevitable" victory based on economic disparity.

So be wary of China. Yes, we are far mor powerful and if we apply our power we can win a fight with the PLA. But they do have the capability of beating us in localized conflicts, even today. No guarantees since I can't know how each side will fight, who will fight, where the fight will be, what the fight will be about, and how determined each side will be.

We need to make sure our power is strong enough to reassure allies to remain with us and to persuade others to join us. Reach out to allies and potential allies to cooperate. We aren't the only ones to worry about China's intentions and power. Japan draws closer. Australia, too. India sees advantage to joining us. Vietnam would like a friend, too. Singapore looks solid for us. I worry about South Korea but right now they are still with us. Even Russia, I think, will in time become strong enough to stop their junior appeasing partner mode. Moscow may have some vague hope that America and China will fight to bring us both down a notch compared to Russia; but in time Russia's fear of China will reassert itself. And Taiwan, too, will likely stick with us. The question is whether they will pay to defend themselves long enough to make that attitude matter. And the only situation where Taiwan might want to join China voluntarily is if China is a free democracy. Then we won't care.

But don't panic. Don't assume China will rise past us. They have lots of problems, too.