An Unproven China

Streetwise Professor has put up a post regarding Donald Trump’s possible policy towards China, which includes a paragraph on the Chinese military capability:

Chinese military power is increasing dramatically. This is perhaps most evident at sea, where the Chinese navy has increased in size, sophistication, and operational expertise. Submarines are still a weak spot, but increasing numbers of more capable ships, combined with a strong geographic position (a long coastline with many good ports, now augmented by the man-made islands in the South China Sea) and dramatically improved air forces, long range surface-to-surface missiles, and an improving air defense system make the Chinese a formidable force in the Asian littoral. They certainly pose an anti-access/area denial threat that makes the US military deeply uneasy.

I’ll not argue with this, it is hard to imagine China’s military isn’t improving with all the money and technology being thrown at it.  What I don’t agree with is a comment by “FTR” underneath:

China will be the dominant power. There’s really no stopping it, try as the Communist Party might. Even if long-term per capita development remains below the west thanks to the inefficiency and corruption of the party, it will still be the world’s largest economy from sheer population alone. Correspondingly, the military will eventually match or exceed American capabilities. Just as the United Kingdom couldn’t block the rise of the more populous Germany or America, China will take the pole position.

People often talk about the future of China in terms of inevitability, as if their enormous population is the one factor that will propel them to the top of the pile.  Me, I’m not so sure.

I remember writing ages ago – I forget where – that quality is inherent in a culture and not every culture has it to the same degree.  The Chinese have grown their economy from a very low base by engaging in low-level manufacturing of things Westerners want to buy, and made technological progress by copying what the West has been doing for years.  This will be enough to bring improvements, but I don’t think one can draw a line through the progress, extrapolate it 20 years into the future, and conclude China will be top dog.  A lot of the stuff the Chinese produce is utter junk.  Most of their own designs – meaning, those they have not bought or stolen – are rubbish which nobody with money or standards wants.  People talk about the incredible learning rate of the Chinese, but I think most of this comes from having the bleedin’ obvious pointed out to them.  I don’t think it means they will necessarily be able to do what any economic superpower needs to do – innovate, and produce quality goods.

It is not just a matter of time.  The British have had plenty of time to learn how to build a decent house, but seemingly can’t.  For whatever reason, we put up with shit that some other nationalities don’t.  Our cars were also crap (I used to be an amateur Land Rover mechanic: I found some of the bolts/screws were metric, some imperial, and the remainder some obscure thread nobody had heard of in two generations), whereas the Germans and Japanese made them properly.  I will believe the Chinese have mastered technology not when they have built a high-speed rail to much government fanfare based on a design they copied from Siemens without permission, but when an international airline orders a batch of Chinese aircraft instead of Boeing or Airbus.  Until then, the jury is out on whether they can produce quality goods or differentiate themselves when it comes to innovation.  Perhaps they will manage it – I’m not saying they won’t – I’m just saying that thus far they haven’t proven much and fears of them taking over the world might be a little premature.

Which brings me onto the Chinese military.

When I was a student I came back from a night out and found my apartment had been burgled and all my stuff stolen.  This was rather unsurprising given I lived in Manchester, but nevertheless I had been rather stupid and not gotten insured.  Eager not to get burned again I replaced the goods out of my own pocket and got some insurance.  The company I dealt with were very reasonable and I got covered in short order, and so I happily told my eldest brother that I had found a good insurance company.  His reply was that you normally find out if an insurance company is any good when the times comes for them to pay out.  Wise words, indeed.

Similarly, a military normally finds out if they are any good or not when they have to actually fight.  Manpower numbers, training levels, budgets, equipment specs, number of ships/tanks/planes etc. are all good indicators as is historical performance and the culture from whence the personnel comes, but none of this really counts until they are involved in some serious action.  History is littered with examples of supposedly superior forces being proven to be useless (the Russian navies in the Russo-Japanese War, for example) and of theoretically weak armies being surprisingly hard nuts to crack (e.g. the Finns in the Winter War).  I wrote here that Turkey’s intervention into Syria might end up putting a dent in what I think is probably a rather outdated reputation of their army, as they haven’t done any proper fighting in generations.

Other than a few skirmishes, the Chinese have not had a proper fight since the Korean War.  By contrast, the Americans – perhaps for this very reason – seem keen on fighting in one way or another practically non-stop, as do the Brits.  The US Navy hasn’t been properly tested in a long time, and nor has its air force.  But American ground troops have, as have their logistics capabilities.  True, they’ve not fought an all-out large scale war but they have come far closer than anyone else with Afghanistan and the Iraq War.  Their weapons and personnel have been tested in the field and, although sometimes have come up wanting, it is at least known that they work.  The Chinese?  Well, it’s all theoretical, isn’t it?

I think what would hamper the Chinese military more than anything is the same thing that could bring China to its knees anyway: an unaccountable Communist Party facing off against an increasingly wealthy and well-informed middle class.  During the Korean War, Mao was able to send hundreds of thousands of Chinese to be slaughtered without any domestic backlash: being slaughtered seemed to be a pretty routine way of life in 1950s China, especially if you complained about it.  But China has changed.

Let’s supposing China does decide to flex its military muscles in the South China sea.  They could probably lose quite a few men and a lot of material before they’d hear any grumbling at home, and – like Putin over Crimea – they could dress up the capture of a few hundred square miles of land as a major strategic victory which has saved the face of the nation and proven that it’s rightful place is zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz.  Sorry, I nodded off just thinking about such a speech.  But should they decide on a bolder adventure, such as a full-scale invasion of Taiwan, they will almost certainly incur enormous casualties – something everyone assumes they would just absorb.

But would they?  China’s one-child policy has left most households with a single son.  Could the mothers of the quarter-of-a-million soldiers who are going to die capturing Taiwan please step forward and tell me how robust is your national pride?  Are they really going to be motivated by the same ultra-nationalistic propaganda used in the Korean War when the body bags start coming home (or the bodies washing up on the beaches) in 2030?  If their military is found wanting and catastrophic flaws are found in their doctrine, equipment, leadership, and men it could easily lead to an internal revolution – either from the military themselves or a middle class who are fed up of a CP who have badly overestimated the popularity of their own geopolitical ambitions.  As with their economy, I don’t think it is a given that the Chinese military will be any good simply because it is big and they have spent a lot of money on it.  As yet, they are completely unproven.

I’m sure the Chinese leadership knows that any bold military adventure would need to succeed very quickly or they could find the domestic situation slipping out of their control., and that for all the hype their military has yet to be put to even a simple test.  By contrast, the Americans know they can fight deeply unpopular wars and life goes on much as before, and that their military is up to the task.  With General Mattis now on board hopefully preventing anything idiotic from happening, Trump probably doesn’t have too much to worry about from China.

A Positive Step for Chinese International Relations

This, on the other hand, is good news:

Two Chinese oil companies operating in Ecuador said they could seek international arbitration if they do not reach agreement over new contracts, saying negotiations so far were characterised by pressure and a lack of transparency, a letter from the companies said.

Andes Petroleum and Petrooriental sent the letter last month to state officials involved in negotiating new contracts with foreign oil companies to express their concerns over how the talks were progressing.

“The initial phase of the negotiations has been marked by a lack of transparency — in terms of take or leave it, confiscatory measures and pressure to accept conditions,” according to a letter dated 19 October and signed by executives, Reuters reported.

As the Chinese get more involved in international affairs, of which oil and gas is but one, they are going to find themselves increasingly exposed to the trials and tribulations which have plagued the Americans in their dealings around the world, and the British before them.  How the Chinese react to these will be worth noting, but it is inevitable that they will have to rely on international cooperation to a greater extent than they have previously needed.  The two small Chinese companies seeking arbitration against Ecuador might not amount to much in itself, but it signifies that the Chinese appreciate the benefits of international cooperation.  This can only be a good thing.