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China, U.S. moving closer to viewing war as inevitable

by Mark J. Valencia

Special To The Japan Times

The Aug. 19 dangerous encounter between a U.S. Navy surveillance plane and a Chinese fighter jet over the South China Sea was in the Pentagon’s words “certainly not in keeping with the kind of military-to-military relations” the United States seeks with China. Political relations are tenuous as well.

Many analysts in both the U.S. and China have warned of a “tipping point” in China-U.S. relations beyond which the two conclude that conflict is unavoidable and begin preparing for it in earnest while trying to hide their true intentions. This is different from hedging in that there is no easy way back.

Beyond the tipping point the national mind-set and policy decisions inexorably tilt and then flow toward conflict.

Such a clash of titans would not be a new phenomenon. In classic realist theory, established powers strive to preserve the status quo that assures their position at the top of the hierarchy and view emerging powers as potential threats. Rising powers feel constrained and strive to stretch the sinews of the international system. They fear that the dominant power will try to snuff them out before they become an existential threat.

Thucydides described this “natural” process regarding Athens and Sparta as a combination of “rise” and fear — which inevitably leads to war. Today this is known as the “Thucydides trap.” The international relations question of our age is: Can China and the U.S. avoid it?

This may sound like Chicken Little warning that “the sky is falling.” But the situation really is quite bad and growing worse by the day. It is now clear that China expects to play a role at “the center of the world’s political system.” It wants to be a new rule maker and an old rule breaker if it is in its national interest to do so. It wants to be an “exceptional” country like the U.S.

The accommodation of such a role for China by the U.S. is what President Xi Jinping presumably meant when he proposed a “new” type of major country relationship at his Sunnylands summit with U.S. President Barack Obama in June last year.

But as Ashley Tellis argues in his new book “Balancing Without Containment: An American Strategy for Managing China,” the loss of “primacy to China would fundamentally undermine the national security interests of the United States in the most comprehensive sense imaginable.”

The U.S. ideational, political, cultural and economic dominance of the international arena and decision making process would slowly erode and be replaced by that of China. America would no longer be the only “exceptional country” and the envy of the world, if it ever really was. The very way of life of Americans would be diminished and disparaged in the eyes of the world.

In short, we may be witnessing a fundamental U.S. foreign policy failure in East Asia. The U.S. has not been able to unify the 10-member Association of Southeast Asian Nations against China, stem China’s assertiveness or even enhance stability in the South China Sea.

Its “pivot” has made the region more unstable and a cockpit of contention between it and China. Its attempts to impose an interim solution to the disputes there have so far failed.

The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Martin Dempsey, believes that the risk of war in Asia will increase over the next 10 years as the U.S. military technological edge over China erodes.

In an even stronger indication of a change in mind-set, the U.S. Air Force is deploying more B-2 stealth bombers and advanced B-52H strategic bombers to Guam.

In a clear allusion to China, a frustrated U.S. Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel warned those who violate the territorial integrity of nations by “force, coercion and intimidation” against doing so. Hagel also stated that “the United States will not look the other way when fundamental principles of the international order are being challenged.”

Deep strategic thinkers like Tellis have sketched out a strategy to “manage” China’s rise. Whether by design or coincidence, pieces of this grand strategy are already being implemented.

Tellis calls his strategy “balancing without containment.” Others might call it “soft containment.” He proposes that “the U.S. pursue policies that simultaneously increase China’s stake in the existing global system and raise the costs of abusing its power.”

His strategy would also require supporting the states around China through increasing cooperation with them. This is already happening. According to Daniel Russell, U.S. assistant secretary of state for East Asia and the Pacific, “we joined EAS (East Asian Summit) because, as an Asia-Pacific nation, we want to be at the table for a strategic discussion about how we build and shape the institution over time.”

Another element of this strategy is the enhancement of the U.S. military as a deterrent that reassures U.S. allies and convinces fence-sitters to lean toward it while dissuading China’s assertiveness toward its neighbors.

The last element is to promote “the highest velocity of technical change possible across the spectrum of civilian to military endeavors” — essentially to out-create and out-think China technically and economically. This is America’s best “weapon” and the key to its dominance and survival. But can it really out-think China with its increasingly tech-savvy 1.3 billion population?

Meanwhile, China perceives a somewhat different big and long-term picture. In its view the tectonic plates of the global international political system are inexorably shifting, and the U.S. and China are on opposite sides of the divide — and perhaps history.

The U.S. is yesterday’s and today’s sole superpower, but its credibility, legitimacy and ability to impose its will are fast eroding. Indeed, America is no longer a Leviathan overseeing and ruling the global system.

As one commentator puts it “The U.S. is deeply in debt; its middle class is crumbling; its industries have been hollowed out; its infrastructure is in disrepair; its education system is badly underfunded; and its social contract is in shambles.” It is also squandering blood and treasure as it tries in vain to sustain its dominance.

China’s leaders believe China represents the future, not just in hard power but also in economy, culture and values. Indeed, China’s leaders believe it is China’s destiny to regain its prominence if not pre-eminence in the region and perhaps eventually the world.

Many of its neighbors are keenly aware of this distinct possibility and are thus hedging and trying to maneuver between the two.

If the U.S. wants to avoid direct conflict or at least postpone it — and it is not obvious that the U.S. wants to do either — it has to accommodate to some degree China’s international interests and aspirations by sharing power: when, on what issues, how, and how much are challenges for U.S. government deep thinkers to ponder and negotiate with China.

For its part, China needs to prove by its actions that it will not threaten or use force to settle its disputes.

Such strategic “flexibility” by both parties will be necessary to avoid the worst scenario. The two have fundamental differences and conflicting “national interests.” It does not seem likely that the U.S. will “give” and China will “accept” what it will take to make this new relationship a reality.

Perhaps the tipping point has already been reached. If so, all we policy analysts and policymakers are doing now is akin to “rearranging the deck chairs on the Titanic.”

Mark J. Valencia, a maritime policy analyst, political commentator and consultant focused on Asia, is an adjunct senior scholar at the National Institute for South China Sea Studies in Hainan, China.

  • 1derer

    A significant problem with relations between the two are the massive conceptual differences between Chinese and American worldviews. Unfortunately, the world’s two pre-eminent powers are also among the most politicized in their diplomatic posture… Unless both commit a more fully technocratic and policy-based approach to communication, they will continue to commit signalling error after signalling error, and talk at each other instead of to each other.

    The Wang/Hagel debacle at the latest Shangri-Law Dialogue is a great example of the sort of unhelpful bickering this leads to.

  • TBL

    Both sides must find some way to compromise. And more importantly, the first side to take a step to the middle, must be met with the other side taking a step forward too. If the other side refuses to take the reciprocal step forward, not only are both sides NEVER going to meet in the middle, the side that took the step forward first is going to lose face, and will turn around and walk away, thus torpedoing the chance of compromise forever.

    Do both sides have the pragmatism, the sensibility, the maturity to do what is needed in order to avoid Einstein’s Fourth World War being fought with sticks and stones? Well…. only one way to find out.

  • CalvinFountain

    I am a Chinese working as a China analyst at a think tank. It is becoming more and more apparent to many people, that the ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) knows it is on its last straw of survival.

    The party is facing severe and endlessly increasing systematic stress on all fronts:

    1. Increasing external oppositions from all other countries in the world including all of China’s neighbours. They are forming more and more alliances and becoming more outspoken with rising strengths against China, in addition to increasing anti-China sentiment from people in all other countries. Many countries including Canada and Australia and U.S. have just tightened their immigration policy to prevent Chinese from entering their countries. Even on these casual internet message boards, when you look past the paid Chinese propaganda professional commenters, you notice rising general anti-China feelings from all over the world.

    2. Increasing internal severe and massive violent social unrest and anti-CCP mutiny from people of all Chinese living places. To beat down internal dissent in mainland China, the CCP every year is forced to spend even more money than on its massive military budget. All the semi-external places (Hong Kong, Xinjiang, Tibet, Macau) are fighting harder and harder to break free from China. Taiwan is for all practical purposes already a separate democratic country, with its own army specificly trained to fight the PLA, and anti-China sentiment there (especially among younger Taiwanese generation) is at all-time high after seeing how China violently suppress Hong Kong as an example of “reunification”. This whole situation is continuously worsened by the free flow of information, with Chinese people knowing more and more from travelling abroad and learning about truths from jumping beyond the “Great Fire Wall” on the internet.

    3. Its own economy and social system never able to advance to higher level beyond mass skill-less manufacturing, due to complete absence of law and common morals. High technology and innovations and scientific development all require many citizens working together voluntarily contributing long term in a system they trust, with things like rule of law, no censorship on knowledge, no restrictions on speech and expression, copyrights, open minds, patents, common morals when collaborating and trading with each other etc. These qualities are all destroyed in modern China by the CCP. When was the last time you heard an announcement of technology development or innovations or scientific breakthrough coming from a Chinese organization / company / university? You haven’t because there ain’t any. Unlike mass manufacturing factory work, high level human developments cannot be forced by or bought with a dictator’s central planning. The only way contemporary China gets these things is from stealing and spying from all other countries e.g. secretly installing spywares in foreign executives’ electronic devices when they enter China, but that has become much more difficult since the whole world has caught on to their act.

    This systematic fatal flaw is why you do not see even one Chinese brand or company that can compete in the international market in any industry of the human race. For example Lenovo, who is already one of the few Chinese brands some people may have heard of, cannot make either the chips that power their computers or the operating system that run them, so it is just one of many plain vanilla boxmakers without any competitive advantage offering only cheap price. Another example Huawei is blacklisted by many countries and international customers because everyone knows Huawei’s products send all communication data back to the CCP. This CCP weakness is also why China cannot produce even one home-grown science Nobel Prize winner in its history, nor one famous business guru, nor one cultural figure, not even a third rate national soccer team. No rule of law in China also means no people or businesses, both Chinese and foreign, ever invest in China long-term or on a large scale because everything frequently change on a whim along with the political climate. No one trusts any contract or agreement in China because they are always broken by the Chinese and there is no legal protection whatsoever, meaning China can never advance to a knowledge economy or service economy. Your business can be seized from you any second by the military police working for someone with “guanxi”. No rule of law also ensures Shanghai fail to become a financial city despite the CCP dumping huge resources into it for 30 years.

    4. China’s mass skill-less manufacturing itself is going away to other countries due to sharply increasing costs and openly hostile and unfair business environment full of frauds and sanctioned protectionism and government robberies. The labor force is endlessly more demanding in wages and benefits expectations and working conditions, especially since all of today’s Chinese workers are single child used to coddling and indulgement by their own family. It is further worsened by the rise of robotic automatic manufacturing and 3D printing. This situation is a death knock to the “growth-based legitimacy” of the CCP, which is the only thing CCP can rely on for continuing ruling power. For sure Chinese people tolerate or even “like” the CCP when the economy seemingly explodes, but when one day it crashes and the country’s hopeless bad shape hit them in the face the people’s “support” for the CCP will turn on a dime.

    Since six months ago, all the major economic indicators for China have gone on a continuing nosedive – including manufacturing orders, export volume, commercial investments, graduate employment rate, corporate credits, foreign capital inflow, domestic consumptions, real estate prices, consumer spendings, luxury goods demand, HSBC Service PMI, survey of business sentiments etc. Suddenly all the rich Chinese tourists gobbling up luxury goods at different world cities seem to have disappeared altogether. The CCP is on its last resort of printing literally trillions of worthless renminbi to dump into massive failing and zero ROI “state projects” that only enrich corrupted CCP officials. China’s huge multi-year increase of M2 money supply (it is afraid to publish the figures citing “national security”) causes way more long-term harm on itself than short-term help, and when that is over there is nothing else the CCP can do to prop up the failing economy. China currently ranks 82nd on GDP per capita and that is the highest it can go before falling sharply in the coming near future.

    5. Fierce unstoppable purges and mutually-destructive infighting among different factions within the party, who are imprisoning and killing each other every day. This power grab goes on under the laughable thin guise of “anti-corruption drive” when everyone knows all officials in china are corrupted. No work to manage the country or guide the ship is being done while this is going on.

    6. Its many previously-suppressed fatal problems have all grown too big to be contained all catching up to the CCP e.g.

    - severe carcinogenic poisonous pollution everywhere in air and water and soil and their own food etc, with the WHO issuing multiple warnings on Chinese population having the fastest cancer growth rate in the whole world
    - skyrocketing
    non-performaing loans, local government bad debts, world’s biggest amount of corporate debt leveraged to the tilt, “shadow banking” liabilities
    , unrepayable dodgy financial products etc, their true scope no one on Earth knows because all data from China are faked
    - biggest housing bubble in human history, in addition to innumerous crumbling “ghost cities” and shoddily-built vanity project “GDP-creating” infrastructure that cannot and will not be used
    - rapidly aging demographics with a 140:100 male:female ratio (from one child policy, culture of “leftover women”, and many Chinese families killing their own daughters so as to chase boys)
    - world’s no.1 wealth inequality, with a Gini coefficient rivaling 18th century France just before the French revolution
    - complete absence of soft power / cultural influence / social attraction, partly due to CCP censorship. One result of which is minimal and sharply dwindling number of foreign professionals and tourists and students going to China. It also means the CCP only has force as the only tool to use on the international stage
    - all Chinese chasing foreign-brand goods and services while ditching low-quality Chinese-brands, who have a well known history of poisoning their own food and their own baby formula so as to make more money. This dashs CCP’s hope to build indigenous industries and a domestic consumption economy
    - corruptions and fraud throughout the whole rotten core of a system
    - desperate mass exodus at all levels of Chinese society to escape the country using emigration or buying houses / study abroad or marriage to foreigners or plain old human smuggling, resulting in all able Chinese leaving taking huge amounts of talents and money out of the country
    - the law of large numbers, “middle-income trap”, “Minsky moment”, “Lewis inflection point” all work against the growth-based legitimacy CCP desperately needs for its survival

    Most importantly, the CCP knows that if 1.4 billion Chinese learn about basic human qualities such as morals, truth, justice, human rights, rule of law, fairness, freedom, universal values etc the CCP will be toppled very quickly. Therefore its state-controlled brainwashing education and propaganda machinations ensure a complete lack of morals and regard for laws in all Chinese growing up and beyond. Coupled with the fact that Chinese do not work well together, this results in failure in all basic aspects of human interactions with every modern Chinese, whether it is business trading / personal dealings / technology development / creating innovations / human communications / scientific research / artistic expressions / teamwork collaborations / academic exchange etc. Another propaganda brainwashing technique used by the CCP is to make all Chinese people pathologically nationalistic and very emotional on this issue, so the CCP can always create and point to some “foreign enemies” so as to hide all the domestic crises and government robberies going on. This attention-diverting technique is the same trick magicians have used for more than a thousand years to fool their audience.

    An interesting example would be the Chinese reaction to this report – they are expected to dismiss this report as total rubbish, accuse the author “unpatriotic” for saying the truth, shout China will only become richer and stronger than all other countries, yet they will give no counter-arguments and they will make no acknowledgement to the horrible factual conditions and complete lack of basic human qualities listed above in modern China. Ironically, the longer Chinese people deny or refuse to acknowledge the CCP problem, the longer they are only digging themselves into the hole and hurting themselves for any chance of recovery, causing the chinese economy to crash even further. Consider the example of Google, Facebook, Wikipedia, Youtube, Whatsapp, Twitter, Instagram etc – these services are all completely banned in China while at the same time the rest of the planet are on these services every second communicating ideas with each other, making friends, exchanging knowledge, doing business, working together, improving science and technology and arts, and advancing humanity.

    Some people say China economically developed a lot in past 20 years, but the truth is this “development” is actually debt borrowed against the future. After the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre of their own students, in order to survive and hang on to power, the CCP was forced to pursue short-term explosive economic growth that sacrifice everything else, including a foundation or potential for long-term economic and social development. This “scorched earth” policy is like winning the lottery for corrupted CCP officials who can rob a lot of money from the country in the short-term before escaping to America. The only entity left to suffer is China’s future from this point on, a country that has been turned by the CCP into a place with no law, no morals, no system for future scientific or economic or social development, no spiritual support apart from money, no trust or cooperation among Chinese, no trust or goodwill from foreigners, no other country as friends, all resources sold away cheaply, entire environment and air and water and soil and food fatally polluted, only social recognition is to make a lot of money for “face”, no creativity or personal development for Chinese young people, a populace not allowed to know the truths and not allowed to say the truths.

    The end result is that majority wealth of this “debt borrowed against the future” has gone to the 0.0000001% elite ruling class “princeling” CCP families (about 250 of them) who have already smuggled trillions of dollars abroad along with their U.S. passports and their own children (all Chinese elites and Politburo members hold foreign passports, with U.S. and U.K. being the most sought after choice). For the CCP in 1989, 1.4 billion people is great central-planning asset when the country start from nothing and you order them to do backbreaking mass manufacturing repetitive factory work 20 hours a day without workers protection of any kind. But in the 2014 borderless knowledge economy when that no longer works, 1.4 billion immoral and uncooperative and selfish and undeveloped and angry Chinese contained in a lawless system without any hopes of growth is very, very dangerous liability for the CCP.

    All debts against the future have to be paid back – China is no exception. That moment may arrive a bit later than expected but it surely will come, as it has on 100% of occasions in human history. In normal countries bad conditions correct themselves with short periods of market ups and downs, but in China the CCP suppress all problems and criticisms until inevitable system meltdown. For China the moment has arrived to suffer the consequences for all its own chosen actions in past 30 years. All the festering fundamental systematic problems listed above and much more, are only getting worse and worse everyday until one day when the system can suddenly no longer bear.

    Think USSR in 1989.

    ( Cliff notes summary for the smartphone generation with ADD, ADHD and Asperger’s:

    - The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) signed a deal with the devil to pursue miraculous short-term economic growth
    - Miraculous short-term economic growth has been achieved, now China has hit the wall on its path of no return, many bad conditions have caught up
    - CCP cannot go on externally, it cannot go on internally, economy has no way to go but greatly down, many fatal cancers and huge structural problems from the past now overwhelming the country
    - Something has to break, what happens is anyone’s guess, guaranteed to greatly impact China and the world )

    • Terry

      China analyst? Sounds more like Falung Dai Fa cult professional commentator.

    • jhk123

      How many places have you posted the above? I have seen it at atleast dozen different comment sections.

  • Ken5745

    China Analyst? You sound like someone with a big axe to grind.

    Your claim of “Increasing external oppositions from all other countries in the world including all of China’s neighbours.” is just nonsense.

    In Asean Thailand, Singapore, Indonesia, Brunei, Myanmar, Cambodia, Malaysia (just celebrated its 40th year of diplomacy with the PRC), and Laos are all friends of China, which is also their biggest trading partners. Eight out of 11 is not a bad vote of confidence.

    Russia, South Korea, North Korea, Kazakhstan, India, Uzbekistan, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Nepal, Bhutan and Bangladesh, the ME nations, Iran, Venezuela, Brazil, Argentina, Ecuador, Colombia, Cuba, Germany, Chile, Switzerland, Denmark, etc are all friends too.

    Majority of the people in the world are friends of China.

    The rest of your dribbles is not worth commenting on.

  • future

    Who pays the usa to be the world police ?