“Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”
Alphen, Netherlands. 6 March. Two things concern me about President Xi Jingping’s China this week and can best be summarised as a lot of rubber-stamping. First, at a meeting this week the rubber-stamp National People’s Congress is expected to scrap presidential term limits. Second, the Congress will further rubber-stamp the decision of President Xi to further increase the Chinese defence budget by 8.1% to an official $175 billion per annum. Whilst that figure pales alongside the $600 billion or so the US spends each year on defence, China’s actual defence expenditure is probably far higher than the official figure suggests, as many new defence projects are not included in the defence budget.
President Xi’s move to enshrine himself as President-for-Life at least has a greater ring of political honesty to it than the electoral manipulations of that other strategic autocrat-for-life Russia’s President Putin. Still, past experience in China and elsewhere suggests this landmark decision does not bode well for the Celestial Empire, the Asia-Pacific region, or the wider world. Indeed, President Xi’s consolidation of his personal power in the age-old name of ‘stability’ suggests not only the creation of a new power dynasty in China, but also hints at a return to the bad old days under Chairman Mao when de facto one man rule led to deadly extremes, such as the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution.
Political Legitimacy Chinese Style
Among contemporary China’s many achievements are its relative stability and growing prosperity. Since the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square the Chinese Communist Party has also enjoyed a strange (by Western standards) kind of political legitimacy. This was achieved by offering the burgeoning Chinese middle class prosperity in return for their unquestioning acceptance of the Party’s political supremacy. Such ‘legitimacy’ has been further reinforced by strict term limits on office for the procession of grey men who have led China in the intervening years. Now, with President Xi’s power grab (for that is what it is) that legitimacy is again open to question, and it will be interesting to see how a changing China adapts.
For a time President Xi’s personal supremacy may well buttress ‘stability’ within China. However, past experience in China, the Soviet Union/Russia and elsewhere suggests that over time such a retreat from what limited political legitimacy existed in China will be covered by the fostering of a personality cult which will doubtless increase the distance between this ‘Princeling of the Party’ and the people. There is also a danger that Xi’s move will further reinforce a tendency towards more nationalism and militarism in Beijing.
A Revolution in Chinese Military Affairs
President Xi’s power base is, and has always been the People’s Liberation Army or PLA. For decades the Chinese armed forces were essentially designed to assure the control of the Party within China, and assure the borders from threats without China. China’s foreign military adventures were relatively limited, strategically-constrained and close to China itself. Then Peking intervened in the Korean War in 1950 against US-led United Nations forces, fought and won a short border war with India in 1962, and in 1969 entered a border conflict with its ‘fraternal’ Communist partner, the Soviet Union. Chinese forces also entered Cambodia and Vietnam in the late 1970s. Today, China’s strategic ambitions extend far beyond its neighbouring region, as exemplified by Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative.
A revolution in Chinese military affairs is also underway. Beijing’s now smaller (2 million), leaner and more agile Armed Forces are currently taking possession of a whole raft of power projection military capabilities, including new aircraft carriers and nuclear attack submarines, whilst at the same time exploiting space-based and other advanced technologies, such as cyber and artificial intelligence. The People’s Liberation Navy is fast developing into the main regional challenger to the United States Navy. The PLN also has global ambitions, as the joint 2016 exercise in the Baltic Sea with the Russian Navy revealed. Like the emergence of Kaiser Wilhelm’s Imperial Germany Navy from 1898 onwards which had but one purpose, to challenge the might of the then Royal Navy, it is clear that the PLN is also being prepared with one military-strategic purpose in mind; if Beijing so decides to one day fight and defeat the United States Navy.
Now, China has as much right to invest in such forces as any Western country. However, the strategy behind such investments must be of concern to both neighbours and the rest of us. First, Beijing has shown scant ‘might is right’ regard for international law by employing a host of spurious claims to illegally-seize and militarise a string of islands in the South China Sea. The strategic aim is clear; to turn one of the most lucrative trading routes in the world into China’s Mare Nostrum. Next month, like something out of a Gilbert and Sullivan operetta, the ageing Royal Navy Type-23 frigate HMS Sutherland will conduct a ‘freedom of navigation’ exercise in the South China Sea. Regrettably, and in spite of some talk of a new Asia-Pacific focussed Franco-British alliance, far from being impressed the Chinese will no doubt conclude it is an exercise in British strategic pretence, and that the under-funded Royal Navy poses little or no threat to China. Expect Beijing to ignore the ship.
Chinese Might is not always Right
However, it is the mid-to-long term consequences of President Xi’s ‘might is right’ strategy both at home and abroad that should most concern the West. History suggests that autocratic, one-man regimes sooner or later resort to adventurism when the political and economic going inevitably gets tough. This is what President Putin did when he attacked Ukraine in 2014 after falling oil and gas prices undermined his domestic political and economic strategy and threatened the Kremlin’s control.
For as long as the Chinese Communist Party continues to deliver prosperity to the Chinese middle class and the wider country it is likely that the Party’s grip on power will endure. And, as long as China can continue to feed off Western technologies via strategic investments in companies in debt-ridden European and other countries, China will see no reason to become overly aggressive. And yet there are clear dangers implied by such investments. Last week it was discovered that Chinese investment in a small British semi-conductor company may have helped Beijing to develop a new naval ‘super-gun’ that will soon pose a distinct threat to US carrier battlegroups.
The dilemma for Beijing, as one Chinese official once told me during a visit, is that China has to grow at at least 8% per annum simply for the economy and prosperity to stand still. Sooner or later such growth will cease, a prospect made more likely by China’s burgeoning corporate debt. Sooner or later the militarised super-presidency of President-for-Life Xi could well seek to bolster its power domestically by further embellishing its nationalist credentials. In such circumstances Taiwan (the Crimea of Asia-Pacific?) would be first in the firing line, closely followed by Japan and South Korea, something that that other President-for-Life Kim Jong-un has no doubt considered.
Chairman Xi’s Bipolar Disorder?
There is another even greater danger, or rather combination of dangers that really worry me about President Xi’s power-grab, which could threaten the world order. The defining strategic relationship for much of the twenty-first century will be that between the United States and China. They are the two power poles around which other lesser powers are already coalesced or coalescing. It is a complex relationship and that could spawn a dangerous bipolar (dis) order, particularly if China and Russia define their relationship as inherently anti-Western.
In some respects the world is already beginning to look eerily like Europe in the first decade of the twentieth century when the Triple Entente of the British, French and Russian Empires, ‘balanced’ the Dual Alliance of Imperial Germany and the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Whilst this was an essentially European-focused power struggle it had global reach because of empire. Given the West itself is now an idea rather than a place with liberal democracies the world-over, and centred on the American system of alliances, the threat of systemic conflict can no longer be ruled out. Indeed, whilst Russia may pose a regional threat to certain NATO and EU members, in combination with China that threat becomes a wholly different ball-game, particularly for the Americans.
It is a threat compounded by the West itself. First, too many debt-ridden Europeans seem only too willing to see the ‘opportunities’ afforded by rich China, but at the same time refuse to recognise the risks that an increasingly autocratic and aggressive China poses. Second, President Trump seems more interested in disrupting the West than reinforcing it. This most idiosyncratic of American presidents this week decided to threaten trade wars with most of his major allies so, apparently, he can secure an improved NAFTA. Sadly, at times the White House seems more interested in disaggregating the very system of alliances that helped make America great. Alliance which America will again need if Washington is to reassert the very considered leadership that was, is, and always will be the true source of American greatness.
A Global Triple Track
Is war with China inevitable? Certainly not. Having worked with seasoned diplomats and practitioners over many years I have learnt that the expectation of the worst is the surest fire way to guarantee it. And, whilst I harbour profound concerns about the direction of travel of the Xi regime, it is vital the West continues to talk to Beijing. Beijing is not simply a richer and more powerful version of Putin’s Russia, and because a set of circumstance and patterns of power occurred in the past they are by no means doomed to reassert themselves in the future.
Rather, Americans and Europeans should seek strategic balance in their respective engagements with Beijing. Deterrence, defence and dialogue were the triple themes in a narrative that emphasised just such a need for strategic balance in the GLOBSEC NATO Adaptation Initiative, for which I had the honour to be Lead Writer. Realising such balance demands that Europeans see their security and defence not just in regional, but global terms. It also demands of Europeans a willingness to better support, albeit not uncritically, Washington’s lead in dealing with Xi’s China if they want the Americans to continue to underpin Europe’s own security and defence.
All of the above will certainly demand that Europeans finally get serious about their twenty-first century defence and invest sensibly, although not excessively, in such a defence. Equally, Europeans also have something to contribute in ensuring Xi’s China maintains a nuanced understanding of the contemporary West. Indeed, it is precisely the bloc-forming experience of Europeans prior to the First and Second World Wars, and during the Cold War that places Europeans in a responsible position to promote dialogue with China, whatever past imperial insults Europeans have committed.
What is happening in Beijing this week is a cause for concern. Equally, Beijing is inherently cautious and remains for the moment open to dialogue, particularly if it believes an adversary respects its legitimate interests and has the power and coherence to counter its own ambitions.
Therefore, President Xi’s bipolar disorder is not a given. However, to paraphrase one of the Roosevelt’s the global West together, Europeans included, should speak softly, politely and firmly to President Xi, and help America carry not just its big stick, but its many burdens. It would also help if America learnt again to speak softly. Over to you, Mr President.