“Quo Vadis China?” or “Wither Goest Thou?” to coin an ancient Latin phrase. My two-part Letter this month and next covers a subject that will increasingly affect all our lives here in the United States, and indeed the world as a whole.
The rise of China is self-evident, but the huge question exists as to what are China’s long and short term goals, whose economic drivers, let alone military expansion, are reshaping the international security land and seascapes. At the same time the United States has currently rejected the multilateral economic and political framework, witnessed by withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, renegotiation of NAFTA, and threats to leave the World Trade Organization, compounded by punitive tariffs on China and our allies, and rejection of the Iran Nuclear Agreement signed by our key European allies, Russia and China.
The effect of all this has been to draw nations into the Chinese orbit, create disharmony with our NATO allies, and draw Russia and China closer. Punitive US sanctions have led to hugely negative consequences. Most of all is the extraordinary successful growth of China’s “Belt & Road Initiative” (BRI) a 21st century “Silk Road” started in 2013, a trillion-dollar investment that embraces about 80 countries, strategically designed to guarantee that China will not only secures its own energy, trade routes, and key natural resources, but also expand its investment in global port infrastructure and sea routes across all the world’s oceans, stimulating demand for Chinese products and acquiring economic control through massive investments and loans that will not be repaid in some cases this century.
China is seeking to gain access to and control of precious metal extraction and production in Russia, Central Asia, Latin America, and Africa. China’s “Debt Diplomacy” is reaping benefits at the expense of the United States. It enables China to soften hitherto strained relations with Japan, the Philippines, and Vietnam, lessening the friction resulting from Chinese occupation and militarization of the Spratley and Paracel islands in the South China Sea. The latter is overtly geared to creating a presence to counter the US Seventh Fleet, while enabling China 200 nautical mile territorial claims to fishing and undersea resource rights around every atoll and island, in spite of the International Court of Arbitration’s declaration that China has no such legal or historic claims. The US has not attempted to enforce the ruling of the court in The Hague.
Meanwhile, China is building naval facilities across the Indian Ocean in Gwadar, Pakistan, in Hambantota in Sri Lanka, and Djibouti, with long term port agreements with Cambodia, Indonesia, Malaysia, Brunei, Myanmar, Bangladesh, Tanzania, Namibia, Greece, and Italy. Two successive National Security Advisors, Tom Donilon, a Washington lawyer, (2010-2013) and Susan Rice, a policy aficionado, (2013-2017), let all this happen with zero US counter strokes, with the hawkish John Bolton, until his firing on September 10, more preoccupied with provoking conflict with Iran rather than paying attention to the detail that James Fanell briefed the House Permanent Select Committee on Intelligence on May 17, 2018, a detailed unclassified manifesto of where China is headed.
A trade and resource conflict is inevitable unless the United States shifts gears to a political-diplomatic-economic turn around strategy, underwritten by the power of the United States Navy and Marine Corps, the forward-deployed round the clock presence that guarantees freedom of the seas, a rule-based international order, and the prevention of conflict over trade, resources, and those critical minerals deemed vital for not just national security but the very heart and soul of the continuing digital revolution and its massive product line.
China is following the British maritime strategy and economic model that it pursued for centuries – the defense of seaborne trade and its support of overseas acquisitions and influence. China is investing “Without Risk”, with zero shareholders to please. Chinese investment in African mines brings nothing like the risk that US and European investors bear. China is stealing technology not just through well known cyber penetration and espionage but a simple and successful economic strategy – US and other foreign investors have and are going to China, investing, and then finding that China replicates their technology, production, and engineering plans, and then creates homegrown industries and companies. Foreign investment has and will die on the vine in due course.
The response from the United States and its key NATO allies has been appallingly paltry. Former Secretary of Defense, Jim Mattis, a wise and wonderfully astute US Marine General, has rightly observed that one key counterbalance is the “Strategic Convergence” of India and the United States, together with other key US allies, because otherwise Chinese hegemony in the Indo-Pacific region at the economic, political, and strategic levels, will predominate. The huge danger of this is a 21st-century version and tragic specter of the 1930s economic implosion in East Asia that set Japan on not just a conflict course at sea but territorial aggrandizement that led to catastrophe for the world and dénouement on December 7, 1941.
The global economy, the world, simply cannot afford to witness another conflict on this scale. There will be no winners, only losers all round. The United States and its allies, including convergence with India, must face this challenge with unprecedented diplomatic, economic, and political-military skill and fortitude.
Next month we will address Chinese global telecommunications and the 5G era.
Acknowledgement: My wife, Dr. Carol Evans, Professor of National Security, US Army War College, an Indo-Pacific expert, provided me additional invaluable insights for this month’s Letter.