The Great Myth Of China
China is simply not the existential threat Americans, Australians, and Britons are being told it is by our failed leaders.
A powerful, populous, and prosperous country?
One that could become a terror to its neighbors if it chose to?
But that’s not the path China will likely walk — unless a foreign alliance tries to “contain” it.
You know, exactly what racist Transatlantic foreign policy experts are working on right this very instant.
Making sure that China never thinks it can get away with using force to solve border disputes or attack Taiwan is vital to the cause of global peace in the 21st century.
But that is absolutely not the goal of the foreign policy expert class in D.C. and London.
Their goal is much simpler: ensure large-scale military spending forever, a permanent subsidy to well-connected arms manufacturers that can never be questioned because of scary, evil China.
Americans already pay twice as much per-person as anyone else in the developed world for a bloated, incompetent military that can’t figure out how to beat flip-flop clad insurgents after twenty years of war. Britain, fresh off a Brexit debacle fast making it Americas 51st state is run by leaders determined to suck up to Washington to score points against Berlin and Paris.
China’s government does a lot of terrible things — the rulers in Beijing are no angels — but a conflict with China would be both pointless and futile.
Wargame after Wargame shows the balance of power has inexorably shifted thanks to twenty years of wasting funds, personnel, and attention chasing terrorists across the Middle East and Africa. The idea that the US can hope to contain China or defeat it in a war is absolute pseudoscience.
As is the paranoid delusion that the US and China are destined for conflict.
Since the end of the Second World War America’s foreign policy elite — largely unelected, unaccountable individuals who adopt whatever academic theory best suits their purposes to justify endless confrontation and conflict.
This class simply cannot stand the idea of any other country in the world being able to stand up to America, ever.
Having failed to defeat the freaking Taliban you’d think they would be hanging their heads in disgrace, but sadly these hacks can always count on Americans’ total disengagement from foreign policy to avoid being held responsible.
George W. Bush, responsible for prosecuting a haphazard War on Terror that killed nearly a million people, a third of them civilians and over 7,000 of them US soldiers — some my friends — while achieving precisely nothing that CIA assassins couldn’t have eventually pulled off without nearly as much collateral damage, walks free.
No matter how badly these people fail and who is harmed as a result, they’re never held accountable. And so they are free to push their failed ideas and empower arms dealers that gouge American taxpayers.
And because of this, they are beating war drums and pointing with great angst at China, calling for a new Cold War and pretending the last one turned out fine despite nearly going hot and nuclear on several notable occasions.
The fact that Americans aren’t constantly told how much their taxes are wasted on so-called “defense” spending day in and day out is an indicator of how broken its news media is. More than $2,000 per-person per year just for the base Pentagon budget — what could that build in your community, I wonder?
But more important for the rest of the planet is how totally pointless a US-China standoff will truly be. Two of the most integrated economies on the planet can’t fight a war without disastrous consequences for everyone.
And the harsh truth of the matter is that even if they do go to war, there is zero chance the United States can win.
In military affairs, geography is the bulk of destiny.
And China is far too big for any foreign power to totally defeat — a lesson learned the hard way by European colonizers in the 19th Century and Imperial Japan in the early 20th.
China’s Long History
Americans today are told to see China as a rising power — but Chinese people, with a lot of justification, see China as simply returning to its historic place on the global stage.
For most of human history, China was far more advanced than Europe. Most of the technologies like gunpowder, paper, and the compass that gave European nations the ability to colonize the Americas, Africa, and Asia came from China, passing down the ancient Eurasian trade networks protected and expanded by the Mongol Empire.
But in the 1800s, China’s ruling regime was weak and beset by aggressive European trade missions that slowly expanded into a series of local occupations. Well aware of how the British and Portuguese had colonized India through a campaign of divide-and-conquer, China’s leaders did what they could but slowly lost ground.
The country split into squabbling warlord states, and on top of that a civil war between Mao’s communists and Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists raged. Whole chunks of China fell under foreign domination.
Then in the early 1930s Imperial Japan, which had narrowly avoided direct colonization by working with and aggressively emulating the European powers, chose to push hard into China. Thus began a 15-year nightmare capping off what Chinese scholars describe as a Century of Humiliation.
Most Americans don’t realize that around twenty million Chinese citizens were killed by the Japanese onslaught, which began well before Hitler began his conquest of Europe and genocide of the Jews, Roma, the disabled, and anyone else the Nazis disliked.
Nanjing was shattered in an orgy of rape and murder as undisciplined Japanese troops punished local people for the tenacious defense offered by Chinese soldiers. Japanese forces used chemical and biological weapons multiple times in China.
In those days the United States supported China with arms and even a volunteer air force, the famous Flying Tigers. Eventually my own grandfather would join the fight against Japan, flying in the belly turret of B-24 Liberator bombers supporting British, Indian, and Chinese troops in south Asia during the Pacific War.
After Japan’s defeat, the temporarily subdued tensions between the communists and nationalists broke out in open war again. This time, the communists — once forced to retreat for weeks to a refuge deep in the country’s interior —took control of most of the country.
The nationalists were able to hold out in only one place: Taiwan, which for the last fifty years been a Japanese colony.
It is a testament to the arrogance of American leaders in the heady days after the end of the Second World War that who lost China was the question foreign policy elites discussed in the same way they’re now arguing over who screwed up Afghanistan.
Though absolutely brutal in its own way, Mao’s communists rose to power on the back of the failure of the old system. Though ostensibly democratic, the nationalist Kuomintang Party was deeply corrupt and lacked the support of its people.
Right or wrong, Mao unified China — and decided exactly what China meant: the maximum extent of past dynasties, including places like Tibet, Xinjiang, Hong Kong, Macau, and Taiwan. The Communist Party of China, now and for the foreseeable future led by Xi Jinping, based its legitimacy on two pillars: national integrity and economic progress.
This is why there is now a so-called Second Cold War between the United States and China, tensions that are sadly drawing other regional powers into a dangerous web of perpetual low-intensity military conflict that runs the risk of accidentally spiraling into a nuclear exchange. America’s foreign policy elites — no more truly democratically accountable than the regime in Beijing otherwise the argument I make here would be a topic of constant national discussion given the stakes — have based their own legitimacy on brooking no global rival.
That’s why Joe Biden says things like China will never surpass the United States on his watch — it’s baked into the mindset of a small group of very powerful people that this must be true and if there is doubt at all it must be made true.
Even if they have to bankrupt the country in a pointless arms race to prove it.
China is going to surpass the United States economically— if it hasn’t already, at least in purchasing power parity terms — because it has a population four times as big as America’s. Even if you pull the UK, Australia, Canada, and New Zealand into some Anglo-American free trade network, together they have less than a third of the population of China.
Unless you believe people in China should not be allowed to have more than 1/3 of the wealth Anglos do, then China can and will get richer.
And the truth our fearless foreign policy experts do not want you know — because accepting it implies the need for military spending reductions, not increases — is that China is also inevitably going to wind up with a bigger, tougher military than the United States and its allies.
And you know what?
There’s nothing to fear.
The True Threat
The idea that the United States is some indispensable, special nation is a racist notion that has wormed its way into the fabric of national life. American society doesn’t even exist as a unified thing, the country has always been deeply regional at heart.
Since the end of the Cold War, the foreign policy and defense establishment in D.C. — The Blob, as it’s often called — has been desperate for an enemy to justify needless military expenditures that have primarily enriched a few well-connected contractors. The collapse of the Soviet Union left Russia too weak, and China was still deeply impoverished in the 1990s, so the War on Terror was an absolute godsend that distracted Americans and their leaders from the country’s steady deterioration.
Now, with the War on Terror finally over — at least publicly, for now — it’s back to hyping the threat of Russia and China. Both parties do it, most members of the media uncritically accept both as America’s new great enemies.
Which is a really, really bad thing.
It is painfully similar to the situation in Europe before 1914, when the powers-that-be and media were all sure a war was inevitable but would also be over in a few months. Soldiers were sent to the front with fanfare and celebration — most died in the mud and the trenches, their younger siblings sent to take their place, and then theirs, until a generation was decimated.
The true threat from China is not actually emanating from anything China is doing right now but the image of China Americans have been trained to hold by our media: of a vast mysterious country with incomprehensible people and vicious leaders.
Every country’s leaders wants its people to believe this of their rivals. America’s absolutely thrive on convincing a people protected by two vast oceans that they are somehow in perpetual direct military peril.
But the truth about China is that its autocratic government is ridiculously fragile.
Part of America’s elite, especially Clinton-era liberals, are deeply upset that China hasn’t become a democracy yet. What they fail to realize is that China is heading down that road as fast as America ever did.
It took until the 1960s for the United States to guarantee universal suffrage, and even today that right is threatened. Whole states remain under the control of one party or the other — most Americans are effectively governed under a one-party system too.
Within China’s one party there are natural divisions that always threaten to split it apart. And the wealthier China gets, the more powerful it grows, the stronger these internal tensions will become.
Under the hood, China already devolves a tremendous amount of power to local areas — in fact one of the biggest problems the central government faces is corruption. At the local level villagers protest, vote in elections, and otherwise carry on politics as people everywhere do.
Sooner or later, in a time of crisis — and probably less than two years after taking over Taiwan, if Beijing makes that foolish choice — a substantial rift will emerge in the party that will result in fundamental democratic reforms. It might not look like western democracy to an outsider, but the elements will be there.
Democracy is defined not by a scientist’s checklist of required characteristics but by the natural desire felt by all people to have a say in the rules that govern their lives. The difference between a repressed democratic society and a free one is a function of how strict and disenfranchising official rules are.
China will democratize — it is only a matter of time. And it is precisely this steady loss of control that is driving the Chinese Communist Party under Xi Jinping to restrict social freedoms and clamp down on any hint of separatism.
Because they know, as all leaders do, how precarious their privilege truly is.
This, incidentally, is why fears of Chinese military actions against its neighbors are severely overblown.
The Chinese Communist Party relies on a strong economy to survive more than it does conquering Taiwan. And you know what powers a strong economy in the modern world?
Cargo ships. Lots and lots of cargo ships.
And there’s this key thing about ships: they float.
Why is this new Anglo-American alliance being announced in the context of selling Australia nuclear-powered submarines?
Because submarines are the proven, time-honored method for turning ships into shipwrecks.
During the Pacific War, American and Allied submarines strangled Japan’s economy so effectively all those bloody island invasions and the immolation of hundreds of thousands of civilian cities by firebombs and atomic blasts were probably pointless. Japan’s domestic economy was a shambles by 1944 thanks to the fact the food and fuels the island needed to power a war effort was littering the Western Pacific.
The reason China is investing so much in its Belt and Road Initiative is that China’s entire economy — the world economy as well — would instantly collapse the moment a submarine sank a cargo ship anywhere between Shanghai and Copenhagen.
The reason foreign policy wonks talk so much these days about the “Indo-Pacific” (use that pernicious phrase unironically in my home and I’ma stab somebody) is a public taunt at China, a reminder that in the event of a conflict its vital connections to its export partners can be severed — any shipping from China to Europe or Africa has to go right past India or Australia.
And even when the new Silk Road is complete, it will remain too expensive to move most goods long distances by rail to supplant oceangoing vessels. Why are the parts of the United States that grow the most quickly along the coast while the middle hollows out?
’Cause boats beat trains for long haul jobs effiency-wise, just like trains beat trucks for long-range land-based transport.
This is why China is building a large blue water navy including shiny aircraft carriers. Why it is investing in a few overseas bases in Africa and Southwest Asia. Why it is so aggressive about making maximalist claims in the South China Sea and being able to threaten to invade Taiwan.
This is also why it is simultaneously stupid, futile, and needlessly provocative to try and contain China and push for a forever Cold War. It is this, plus America’s twenty-year project of smashing then abandoning countries, that has pressed China to embrace military expansion and bullying neighbors.
China doesn’t want a war — but it can’t be seen as weak. So it will choose war if necessary but only if pushed into it, if certain red lines are crossed.
And therein lies the danger, because America’s leaders are too inept to even realize what those lines are. A stupid error could spawn a tragic conflict nobody wants.
How To Handle China
None of this should be taken as an argument that China is purely benign, that it doesn’t oppress many of its minority groups and jail people without cause or bully its neighbors.
And by no means may China ever be allowed to force democratic Taiwan to submit to Beijing’s rule through use of force. Any democratic nation worth anything is willing to help another defend itself if it comes under attack.
But uninhabited islands in the South China Sea? Sorry, not worth a fight. Periodic freedom of navigation ops, maybe. But not worth a single human life.
Look, in the South China Sea, people forget that aggressive actions have consequences beyond the military. China is taking islands and reefs claimed by multiple parties to protect its southern coastline from the very real threat — at least from the perspective of Chinese leaders — of an American attack.
It isn’t at all hard to find Americans arguing for bombing the Chinese mainland in the event of a spat. Just read Fox News for a week or the comment section of any defense-related website.
The United States Army (in which I served), desperate for a mission to justify its enormous budget after the War on Terror, wants to place soldiers on some of these uninhabited rocks with long-range missiles to attack Chinese facilities ashore.
The United States Air Force is busy building stealth bombers and hypersonic missiles intended to, again, hit targets inside of China. The Marine Corps too wants to be able to operate from the First Island Chain.
It is frankly incredible the kinds of inane and irresponsibly dangerous thinking that comes out of American foreign policy elite circles these days. If China were — as the Soviet Union did, something my dad who worked on tracking their subs can attest — sending submarines armed with nuclear weapons to patrol near San Francisco, these hacks would be screaming bloody murder.
All quite symptomatic of the racism driving their ideological assumptions, as well as the classism inherent in being willing to needlessly risk the lives of American military personnel — few of whom are children of privilege.
It’s all a clarion call for wasteful defense spending that will provoke exactly the same from China, the cycle continuing on and on until someone screws up and people die.
You want to make sure China never thinks of trying an attack on Taiwan but also doesn’t feel it has to build a massive military that threatens its neighbors? Deploy weaponry that makes it extremely hard for a Chinese attack to be a success, but that don’t have the range to threaten China’s heartland.
I’m talking short-range missiles, electronic jamming gear, drones, and satellite surveillance. Any Chinese attempt to attack anybody would involve a lot of equipment moving around — and in the modern world, satellite remote sensing is so widespread and cheap civilian observers would know an attack was coming well before it got underway. So making sure Taiwan has these capabilities and the ability to sustain them in a siege is a vital step.
To make sure China knows a full-on assault would be blood-drenched and counterproductive, the US and its Pacific allies — Australia and Japan more than the distant UK, plus Canada, New Zealand, and South Korea if the North gets involved — should jointly develop the kid of military gear that would make a siege difficult to pull off.
It’s submarines with precise anti-ship missiles, long-range high-endurance air superiority fighters controlling stealthy companion drones, full-spectrum electronic warfare and surveillance kit, and a robust network architecture linking them all securely together.
Surface vessels — including smaller aircraft carriers better able to avoid detection — will form a second line of defense to make sure China can’t easily escalate or fully surround Taiwan and, of course, to hold its shipping at risk.
These capabilities alone will prevent China from making any move on Democratic Taiwan at a far lower cost than taxpayers bear today. Yet they would be less threatening, and so require less of a response from Beijing, opening the door to improved relationships and even peaceful resolutions of all outstanding political issues in the Pacific.
And if there isn’t a fight over Taiwan, there won’t be a fight over anything else. Proxy conflicts and covert nonsense, sure — but no major war.
China was rattled enough by the prospect of political collapse in the United States that the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff felt it necessary to personally reassure his Chinese counterpart everything would be alright. Yet still China was concerned a sudden attack might come.
This summer, it was revealed that dozens of silos for nuclear missiles are under construction, a significant escalation in China’s nuclear posture.
Mistakes happen. A conflict must be ruled out.
Ultimately, direct arms limitations talks would be ideal, restricting China’s military expansion in exchange for concessions in America’s posture in the region. Nuclear arms reductions and controls would be ideal.
But overall the task is this: patient and don’t reinforce Xi Jinping’s argument to his people that China is under threat. The Internet Age will steadily chip away at the foundations of his power without a confrontation — and all the faster without the threat of one looming over those of us who live along the Pacific.
Don’t buy into the anti-China hype, and don’t give politicians any quarter when they try to distract you with fear-mongering tropes.
China is not what you think. China is not a true threat.
Carbon pollution, on the other hand, is.
Fight that, people. Not China.