Archive for November, 2017

Finally catching up on some very old posting. Here is a piece on China for the Telegraph, was intended after the 19th Party Congress. I will catch up on other posting later.

Can China avoid an armed confrontation with the West?

Chinese soliders

China is moving towards shedding Deng Xiaoping’s famous maxim about hiding its strength and biding its time. President Xi Jinping’s bold statements during his 19th Party Congress speech last week spoke of a China rising to fill its role on the global stage.

The difficult question for the West is: how will this newfound confidence be expressed in China’s posture on the world stage? And how the rest of the world will have to interact with it?

China’s rise as a military and security power is not a new story. From a third-rate military force in the 1980s, the People’s Liberation Army has transformed itself.

Xi Jinping’s administration has stepped this up through an intensive process of reform that is giving it doctrines and approaches that are competitive with some of the world’s most effective militaries.

China is also expanding its military footprint. We can see this from the establishment of new forward bases, like in Djibouti on the Horn of Africa, or through port visits, such as the appearance of Chinese submarines in Sri Lanka.

On land, Chinese peacekeepers are being deployed with increasingly dangerous mandates, something reflected in losses on the ground in parts of Africa.

In military sales, China has leapt up the rankings to become the world’s third largest weapons vendor at around $9.1 billion, according to estimates by SIPRI.

But is this surprising? China will soon be one of the world’s largest economies, with investments and interests all around the globe. It makes sense for it to develop a hard power capability to protect its interests and people as they go out under the auspices of Xi Jinping’s keynote “Belt and Road Initiative”, which aims to build a series of land and sea trade routes across Asia.

The dilemma for China is whether this role is one which will complement or compete with the activities of the West – and the United States in particular. The American political scientist Graham Allison believes all rising powers face something called the Thucydides Trap, in which their rapid improvement brings them into inevitable confrontation with an established power which fears replacement.

In reality China’s foreign policy is complex, containing three strands with varying degrees of aggression:

1. China often cooperates with the West

In Afghanistan it has worked closely with the US and Germany on joint training missions, providing training for Afghan security forces, and facilitating negotiations between the Taliban and the Afghan government in Kabul. This clearly matches with western interests.

2. China sometimes passively opposes the West

In Syria the US and most of Europe has taken against the Assad regime, against Isil and alongside the Kurdish forces. By contrast, Beijing has thrown its weight firmly behind Assad, and is supporting the fight against Isil only with the proviso that it is ultimately the regime (supported by Russia and Iran) that will bring stability and security back to the country.

The running theme through all of these situations is that China is protecting its own interests. This is quite natural, but an accidental war would be in nobody’s interest. So far, tensions like these re mostly restricted to border countries where China feels it is not being expansionary but merely protecting its homeland.

A bigger dilemma will present itself when China decides to undertake a more aggressive action in some foreign field where it has no direct border dispute but isprotecting its interests or nationals. In this context, what will be the Western response – to support or condemn?

It is not clear we are anywhere near this situation yet, but clearly Beijing has started down a path of preparing itself for such an eventuality. The question at that stage will be whether the West agrees and supports China’s activity, or whether Beijing is seen as an aggressor that requires confrontation.

There is no clean answer to this question. And nor is it clear whether and when it will be faced. But there is no doubt that China is rising as a global power and has a growing military and security footprint to accompany its mighty economic machine. How the world manages this will be one of the defining questions of the next decades.

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