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Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy – Book Review

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George Magnus writes about the dangers of the Middle-Income Trap in the Middle Kingdom, among other issues, in Red Flags: Why Xi’s China is in Jeopardy. President Xi’s face adorns the book cover, with his name looming above.  Fitting, seeing as China has removed presidential term limits; China’s fate is thus likely to be tied to the decision making of Xi for the next couple decades.

Magnus writes about the dangers of Xi’s likely ascendance to President-for-Life.  Ever since the excesses of Mao’s one-man rule, China’s Communist Party has largely ruled by consensus, while provincial governments have served as a counterweight to federal authority via control of their land and many of their local State Owned Enterprises (SOEs).  Xi is challenging this staus quo.  So-called Xi Jinping Thought is now official party canon, being taught in schools and in the media.  The 2012 crackdown on corruption by Xi in his inaugural year was widely seen as a pretense for taking out political opponents and sending a message to his potential opponents.  Ever since, Xi has been working to centralize power to himself.  Magnus notes that being leader for life largely shields Xi from short-term popular discontent, but also means that every long-term decision, good or bad, will become part of Xi’s legacy.  Hence, the book informally reads as a personal policy checklist for Xi.

Red Flags lists four, well, red flags of likely impediments to Chinese economic development.  Firstly is debt.  China has been an unprecedented money-making machine for the past three decades or so.  However, signs are starting to appear of a possible economic slowdown.  Most significant is the debt-GDP ratio, which has skyrocketed over the past few years.  Magnus writes extensively about how China’s growth, up to this point, has largely been fuelled by credit (debt).  China’s much-maligned (by Trump, most notably) trade balance surplus has shrunk to no more than a few percent, statistically insignificant.  China could theoretically make up for shrinking foreign demand for goods and services with domestic consumers.  Magnus is unfortunately the bearer of bad news in this regard: “Household savings rose from about 5% of disposable income in the late 1970s to about 38% in 2016, or just over 25% of GDP. Savings by companies are also elevated, amounting to about 17% of GDP in 2016.”

Hence, the Xi regime has been trying to maintain economic growth via ever-greater sums of state investment funding.  Magnus explicitly warns against this: “The reason the investment rate has to fall is because the more China relies on it, the more inefficient that investment will become.”  Such a statement might seem self-evident, but Magnus backs it up with facts.  For instance, he points out, “Between 1978 and 2006, for example, China spent between 2 to 4 yuan of investment to get 1 additional yuan of GDP. Since then, the amount has risen steadily to reach about 9 yuan in 2015, corresponding to a marked fall in investment efficiency.”

Magnus writes a lot about the inefficiency of China’s thousands and thousands of SOEs.  “Officially, and according to some China-watchers, SOEs now account for just a fifth of output and a tenth of employment. The presumption though that the rest of the economy is in private hands, as we understand it in the West, is incorrect. Many private firms have large or majority state owners, who exercise significant control over senior appointments and corporate strategy, and state ownership is often disguised by multiple layers of investment companies ultimately owned by a state entity. Allowing for these opaque adjustments, the purely private part of the enterprise sector may actually be little higher than 20–30 per cent.”  SOEs have built much of modern China, but their efforts are increasingly being wasted on skyscrapers and airports that remain almost empty, Chinese Roads-to-Nowhere.  A blank check invites planners to ignore long-terms concerns of viability, blinded by short-term gains that go directly into the pockets of Party-affiliated contractors.  China’s financial services sector isn’t much better off.  Magnus writes about all the bailouts, takeovers and general heavy-handedness by the government of various Chinese banks and other related companies.  Due to a slowdown in trade and many other issues discussed in the book, state investment will figure to play an ever-larger role in China’s economy, inefficiency be damned.

The book’s second diagnosed problem for China’s future growth is its currency, the renminbi.  Xi mirrors the isolationist mindset of China’s ancient emperors with regards to cash inflows and outflows.  It’s very hard for Chinese investors to send renminbi out of the country.  Likewise, China restricts the ability of foreigners to own reserves of renminbi, or Chinese financial assets in general.  The renminbi is subject not only to this lack of liquidity, but also the confines of a planned economy.  China is infamous for its strict control of its currency valuation, as well as its monetary policy via diktats, investment and bailouts.  Its ownership of USD and other foreign currency reserves must always be flawlessly balanced to safely back up the value of the renminbi.  This resulted, for instance, in the selling off of a trillion of its USD reserves between 2014-2016.  The combination of currency illiquidity and over-management limits the ability of the renminbi to fuel Chinese economic growth.

Thirdly, the book mentions the so-called Middle Income Trap.  Once a country reaches a certain benchmark of development, it’s hard to maintain further momentum.  China’s already experiencing slowed growth due to factors such as increased global manufacturing competition.  As Magnus points out, China has already had its coming-out party to the world economy.  It can’t join the WTO again or eliminate mass hunger again.  Likewise, China has stalled in terms of rural development and education.  Rural China is increasingly falling behind the major cities and the hukou system of restricted movement and rights for migrant workers isn’t helping.  Students in China still attend far fewer years of school than students in developed countries like the US, especially in advanced fields like IT.  These issues of inequality and 21st-century education must be addressed if China is to fully develop.

Lastly, Magnus writes about the demographics crisis.  China has one of the highest ratios of elderly people in the world.  Combine this with China’s 1.45 birth rate and the gender disparity caused by the 1-Child Policy and you have a ticking time bomb.  The workforce is increasingly running out of youngsters who can take the place of retirees, causing a slowdown in economic output.  The higher the elderly population becomes, the more each working-age person will have to contribute to pensions and healthcare.  The economic burden that only-children will have to shoulder taking care of their aging parents will inevitably lower marriage rates and thus further lower the unsustainably low birth rate.

This is the most dire problem because there’s very little that society can do about it.  Xenophobia has prevented any meaningful amount of migration to China, but even if China were to let in tens of millions of foreign workers, that would be a drop in the bucket for a nation of 1.4B people.  Even after China ended its One-Child Policy, couples are still averaging well below 2 children, despite increasing prosperity.  The only real hope for China’s demography problem would be a literal ex machina: automation.  Robots may be able to generate untold wealth that could buoy a small nation like Singapore, but even an army of robots is unlikely to completely offset the gradual loss of hundreds of millions of working-age people to aging.  Even if AI is a magic bullet for all productivity woes, it take probably at least a century to meaningfully scale up, by which time China’s population will have substantially shrank.  It doesn’t help that China is, in many respects, barely keeping pace in the AI race with the US, Japan and the EU.  In the race for artificial intelligence, even being a year behind the competition can cost trillions of dollars; China’s tech sector will likely take a few decades to completely match Silicon Valley.  Lastly, it should be noted that not even innovation can overcome the limit resources of our planet.  We’re already running out of industrial resources like oil and lithium.  It would be foolish to place all of one’s eggs in the basket of a sci-fi utopia.

Red Flags is a very detailed and interesting book about the future of China.  Magnus isn’t anti-China by any means; he gives credit to China’s marvelous successes and doesn’t moralize.  If anything, the book was too generous by barely mentioning the unrest in Xinjiang and not mentioning the occupation of Tibet at all.  In an objective fashion, he succinctly explains China’s problems and offers possible solutions.  China has shown an unprecedented ability to adapt to change.  This flexibility may wind up being undone not external adversaries or limitations, but by increasing autocracy.  Dictatorship has rarely resulted in long-term, across-the-board growth.  One can look at a fellow Communist country for an example: the Soviet Union.  Though the USSR made impressive leaps in technology, manufacturing and agricultural output and human longevity, it was ultimately undone by its ideological rigidity.  A lack of accountability for its leaders meant that the USSR was forever a captive to bad policy.  Likewise, a lack of freedom stunted innovation.  If Xi is to avoid the pitfalls of the USSR, he must avoid letting his power get to his head and embrace a flow of ideas from both fellow Party members and private citizens.  Xi’s consolidation of control and crackdown on dissent would point otherwise, unfortunately.  Only time will tell if China will continues to beat the odds…

Russell Whitehouse is Executive Editor at IntPolicyDigest. He’s also a freelance social media manager/producer, 2016 Iowa Caucus volunteer and a policy essayist.

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East Asia

Considering the Continental Dimension of the Indo-Pacific: The Mongolian Precedent

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The Indo-Pacific is now the site of global great-power competition and contestation. And, as a reflection of its growing importance in international discourse, a number of extra-regional actors adopted the concept last year. Among those adoptees, Mongolia set a unique precedent for the regional security discourse to actively consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific by highlighting geopolitical convergences with other regional actors, and the strategic threat posed by Beijing’s “Silk Road Economic Belt”.

Mongolia in the Indo-Pacific

Actors who have adopted the Indo-Pacific concept vaguely define it as beginning in the Arabian Sea and ending in the Western Pacific Ocean. Much of the discourse is also driven by the US-China strategic competition in Southeast Asia, and the US’ attempt to counter Chinese influence in the Indian and Pacific Oceans, along with its regional partners and allies, e.g the India-Australia-Japan-US ‘Quad’. As a result, actors in the Indo-Pacific have generally focused on the development of maritime military and economic measures.

In early October, during a Japan-Mongolia Foreign Ministers’ Meeting, both sides agreed to continue consolidating their efforts in pursuing a “Free and Open Indo-Pacific”, in line with the promises of the 2018 Japan-Mongolia Summit.

Mongolia’s participation as a continental, extra-regional actor with limited maritime significance, shifts the geopolitical locus of the theatre, ever so slightly, north of Southeast Asia (the current focus). Ulaanbaatar’s adoption of the geostrategic theatre appears to be driven by continued Chinese antagonism, and a result of its “third neighbour” policy.

China continues to threaten Mongolia’s territorial sovereignty by claiming Inner Mongolia,clamp down on its cultural identity, and impose costs on Mongolia’s export-oriented economy. The last issue is critical, since Mongolia’s largest export partner, approximately92.78 percent of overall exports, is China. Enclosed between two large countries, Russia and China, Mongolia has traditionally maintained a “third neighbour” policy approach: building political and economic relationships with actors other than the aforementioned.

Given the continued animosity with Beijing, Ulaanbaatar has increasingly emphasised these other relations over the years. e.g. with the UK, the US, Japan, etc. In 2019 President Khaltmaagiin Battulga visited New Delhi to develop deeper ties with another “third neighbour” state. Mongolia also shares the “like-minded” characteristics – a liberal democracy – to maintain and preserve a “free, fair, open and rules-based” order in the US-Japan Indo-Pacific strategy.

And so, actors looking to potentially partner with Mongolia or others with similar economic and connectivity deficits in Central and West Asia, will have to include, within their Indo-Pacific approaches, measures that involve non-littoral actors.

The BRI and Continental Asia

China’s rise as an expansionist Asian military and global economic power is at the core of the  Indo-Pacific security discourse. Beijing’s claims in the South China Sea (SCS), China’s growing naval power, and the colossal Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) form the major strategic threats to regional multilateralism and collective security.

The most long standing threat among them, the BRI, is divided into the transcontinental “silk route” and the maritime “silk road”. However, much of the Indo-Pacific discourse is dominated by the silk road, especially those projects directed towards the Indian Ocean Region (IOR). BRI projects in the IOR are crucial to Beijing’s expanding influence in South Asia and control on international energy and trade supply routes. Also hidden among the maritime/trans-continental connectivity and infrastructure projects, is China’s growing security presence in the region.

However, Mongolia’s entry directs attention to a dimension unique to the current maritime Indo-Pacific discourse –the silk route, that cuts across Central Asia, towards Europe and South Asia, with a similar number of projects in Southeast Asia.

Among the six ‘silk route’ projects, Mongolia’s concern is the China-Mongolia-Russia Economic Corridor (CMREC) that cuts through Eastern Mongolia, beginning in Ulanqab (or “Jining”) in Inner Mongolia, and ending at Ulan-Ude, in BurYatia, Russia. Similar projects include the China-Pakistan Economic Corridor (CPEC) and the China-Central Asia-West Asia Economic Corridor (CCWAEC).

Connecting the continental to the maritime is the main goal of the BRI. In fact, the project was first announced during a Chinese state visit to Central Asia in 2013. President Xi Jinping proposed the “Silk Road Economic Belt” with a vision to connect the Pacific Ocean to the Baltic Sea. Beijing’s vision of comprehensive global economic and military power requires a built path to various regions of the world, i.e infrastructure to facilitate dual-use logistics. Given the recent spate of BRI loans going bad, this vision continues to remain unfulfilled.

The continental dimension, Asia, is what makes the Indo-Pacific a theatre of global concern. Trans-continental connectivity, between and within Europe and Asia, narrows the distance between actors, and the shared interest in maintaining regional multilateralism and collective security ensures their continued participation in the Indo-Pacific. As more actors like Mongolia adopt the Indo-Pacific concept, connecting the continental to the maritime and vice versa, sans BRI, will become a strategic concern.

Mongolia’s entry into the theatre offers a unique precedent for those involved in maintaining and preserving a “free, fair, open and rules-based” Indo-Pacific to evaluate and initiate relationships between non-littoral actors and the maritime dimension.

The On-Ground Reality

However, there are a number of obstacles to actively consider continental Asia in the Indo-Pacific discourse. The two most important are geography and geopolitics.

Mongolia for example, is completely enclosed by two actors – Russia and China – who are averse and hostile to the idea of the Indo-Pacific. And, any “counter-BRI” connectivity project envisioned by other regional actors will have to go through their territories. The case of Afghanistan is similar. Divergences in geopolitical interests and ties with actors in the Arabian Sea, particularly with regard to Iran and Pakistan, stays the idea of trans-regional connectivity between Kabul and the world.

The geopolitical obstacle here is the dependent economic relationships that non-littorals in Asia have with Beijing. Mongolia is just one among many Central and West Asian states that have local economies indelibly tied to the political whims of Beijing. During the coronavirus pandemic, a period that saw considerable anti-China sentiment in the international community, Beijing has managed to maintain a level of trust and shared security with many Indo-Pacific states. National vaccination plans are based on the delivery of Chinese vaccines.

There is another reason why the security discourse on the Indo-Pacific is focused on maritime measures – maintaining and preserving the integrity of international Sea Lines of Communication (SLOC) and the respect for territorial sovereignty. In that endeavour, multilateral platforms like the Quad allows members to share historic and strategic advantages in the IOR and Pacific Ocean to counter Chinese expansionism in the Indo-Pacific’s various sub-regions.  On land however, in Central and South Asia, for example the clash in the Galwan river valley last year, Chinese incursions provoke bilateral responses giving it leeway to act with relative impunity.

Conclusion

While there are a number of real obstacles to consider the continental dimension of the Indo-Pacific, Mongolia sets a geopolitical precedent for a comprehensive geographic definition, one that includes both the maritime and continental. From this year on, states participating in the Indo-Pacific now have a reason to approach and include non-littoral actors in the Indo-Pacific.

This precedent also highlights the need to include the continental ‘silk route’ in the Indo-Pacific security discourse. Devising such a definition will be a similar exercise as to the amalgamation of the terms “Indo-Pacific” and “Asia-Pacific” to form the “Indo-Asia-Pacific”; now used at times in geostrategic discourse.

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Time to play the Taiwan card

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At a time when the dragon is breathing fire, India must explore alternative tactics, perhaps establishment of formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan can be a landmark step

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The standoff on the Ladakh border between the Indian Army and the PLA (People’s Liberation Army) continues amid failing talks and casus belli measures being unleashed by the Chinese regime. While the union government and the armed forces make it clear that they will do whatever it takes to protect India’s sovereignty and integrity, precious little has been done on the foreign policy front. While India and its democratic allies which comprise the Quad security grouping declare their intent to form the ‘Asian NATO’, the Quad continues to suffer from indecisiveness which was pretty much evident when the Quad did not even issue a joint statement to condemn China at the foreign ministers meeting held last year, only America publicly called out China.

In such a situation, it is imperative that India explore alternate diplomatic and militaristic routes to tame the dragon.

Recognizing Taiwan

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan after recognizing should be vigorously pursuing by South Block. Indo-Taiwan ties date back to the early 1950s when Chiang Kai Shek, the ex Chinese president and former head of state fled to the island of Formosa following the victory of Mao Zedong in the long drawn out Chinese civil war called on Nehru to establish and further ties with Formosa, however Nehru believing that Chiang was nothing but a “peanut” decided to ignore his call, choosing instead to concentrate on building ties with People’s Republic of China (PRC).

Seven decades on, plethora of changes has taken place on the foreign affairs front, while both China and India have developed considerably both militarily and economically the dragon has surpassed elephant to become an economic powerhouse in its own might. It has now embraced aggressiveness to enforce its 5th century vision of the ‘Middle Kingdom’. In such a situation providing legitimacy to the existence of Taiwan is a necessary first step.

Paradigm shift in policy

Establishing formal diplomatic ties with Taiwan will bring about a paradigm shift vis-à-vis India’s foreign policy. It will enforce the idea that liberal democracy is the last word in the battle of ideologies as Francis Fukuyama had visualized in his landmark book ‘The End of History and the Last Man’ and that there is no alternative to human rights and liberties, not even the Chinese model of ‘authoritarian development’. It will be the boldest step that any global leader has taken, not even the mighty US which has no formal diplomatic relations with Taiwan has taken this step.

Recognizing Taiwan will entail a lot of benefits for the mandarins of India’s foreign policy regime- firstly, Taiwan is a robust democracy with a booming economy, it will prove to be an alternative to China albeit in a relatively less proportion, secondly, India can bolster the legitimacy as the leader of the democratic world at a time when the democratic institutions in the US-often regarded as the cradle of democracy has been undermined.

Thirdly, India can get the support of another powerful ally in its attempt to carve out a new supply chain alliance which India-Japan-Australia formalized recently. Fourthly, recognizing Taiwan will make it clear to China that India means some serious business and if the need arises then India will not back down from sending dedicated naval and air assets in the disputed South China Sea region to enforce freedom of navigation principle in the resource rich region. Lastly, the Quad security grouping will be institutionalized which in the near future can even be extended to include new members, it will be the first time that India will be a part of any dedicated military and economic alliance which will deter the aggression of the Chinese war machine in the strategic Indian Ocean and Indo-Pacific Region.

Caveats remain

However the recognition may invite severe ramifications for India. China will be infuriated and can choose to ratchet up tensions with India. India must be extremely careful while dealing with China as China is our second largest bilateral trade partner and a key export partner of India with regard to raw materials and goods. According to a FICCI report, India imports more than 40% of several important goods like the API (Active Pharmaceutical Ingredients), television, chemicals, chips, textiles and many more.

The dragon will as a possible retaliatory measure can activate its propaganda machinery to wage psychological warfare with India. It can also activate its terror financing networks which for years remained a chronic internal security for India in the northeast of the country. China will also collaborate with its ‘iron brother’ Pakistan to try and deter India by intensifying terrorism in the Kashmir valley and elsewhere. Further, China can use its potent disinformation empire to try and peddle fake news about the credibility of India’s indigenous vaccines at a time when the light at the end of the tunnel of a pandemic stricken world has appeared.

Exercising caution

Keeping all the dangers in mind, the Modi government must keep national interests in mind. Despite all the risks, it must work with all the like- minded countries to take own the mighty dragon responsible for unleashing a deadly virus which has wrecked havoc on humanity. For the sake of the free world, India must take the hard step which will reinforce India’s position in cementing its place as the leader of the free world.

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Pro-Communism warping Hong Kong

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The latest turmoil in the Covid-ridden strata of mainland China is not servile to any pandemic, however, the issue has been one of the most queer and rare kinds, enough to be classified as one of the endemic issues in the global affairs. The tension at helm is the chaos following the announcement of a “New Security Law” by the Chinese regime which is being eyed as one of the monumental events of this decade; slicing off a sliver of attention from the deadly Corona virus that continues to exponentiate around the world in its second wave and sporadic variants.

The law that set out by the Chinese lawmakers back on 22nd May 2020, threatens the liberties of subversion and sedition enjoyed by the citizens of Hong Kong under a constitution. Simplistically named “Basic Law”, it aims to tame the country scaffolded by the “One country, Two systems” framework since the power handover by the former colony to China back in 1997. This act came around amidst strained economic relations between the two superpowers of the world; China and USA, each passing the baton in the blame game of who sustains the blood-crown of the catastrophe impending on the world courtesy of the lethal virus that engulfs every periphery in each continent on the globe. The matters seem complex at sight and a glimpse to the historical timeline of how riddled the relations were could hint at how strained they could reach.

The colony, known as ‘Hong Kong’ today, had been the battle ground, figuratively, to the major competitors of the 20th century: The Great Britain and China. The British dominated the colony for more than 150 years, tracing back to the late 19th century; leasing the territory for the span to morph it into the modernised metropolis marking it as the hub we know today. In 1997, an agreement was reached via an accord, ‘The Sino-British Joint Declaration‘ between the two sides. The treaty allowed Hong Kong a semi-autonomous status, that is, relaying self-sufficiency in all the national domains except in defence and foreign affairs. The allotted autonomy arches under the sovereignty of China until year 2047, henceforward melding into the mainland China as harkened by the Chinese hegemony over decades.

Despite of the granted protection of Hong Kong’s own legislation, borders and freedom of speech, the liberties have been trampled on by the Chinese government over the last couple of decades. A similar law abolishing the right to sedition was initiated in 2003 yet mass protests calling out up and about 50,000 citizens impeded the efforts that went futile and drastically ended up being shunned for good. The Communist party under the wings of Chinese president Xi Jinping have expounded further in tightening their talons on the city since 2012 as efforts were made to corrode the educational system of the country via meddling with the curriculum, biasing the foundation to hail Chinese communism. These acts were proactive reactions to the advances of the United States forging relations with the city. China even tried to manipulate the elections in 2014, tampering with the selection their Chief Executive leading to a 3-month long protest known as the ‘Umbrella movement’ and ultimate downfall of Hong Kong’s autonomous political system.

The security law falls in tandem to the events of 2019; the legislation allowing the convicts from Hong Kong to be extradited in China causing a rave of fear of a massive tactical crackdown of the Anti-communist activists of Hong Kong, sighting it just as ruse to underwhelm the right of sedition of the people of Hong Kong. The Law passed by the parliament notions to only one thing; The ultimate end to Hong Kong. The lawmakers in China, hailing from the National People’s Congress (NPC), sight this move as extricating a threat to the national security and stability of the country while many of the pro-activists in Hong Kong deem the law as betrayal, accusing China of walking back on its promise of high-degree autonomy and freedom of speech, marking it as the final straw, the last struggle before the country could override the laws in the city and indirectly, transition from the entity holding the right to veto the laws to now gripping the law altogether.

Despite of the speculated protests to spark like the history dictates, many of the sage minds predict either a relatively dormant demonstrations or none at all, having a tint of finality in the statement shote the protests are “high stake in risk and repression”. The recent arrest of the leading activists of Hong Kong standing up to voice their disdain to the separatist efforts of China further solidify the notion. Despite of a global condemnation to the new law, the efforts of China resume to subdue any opposition in Honk Kong no matter how sparse. Foreseeing no way out for Hong Kong this time; the Covid-19 paralysis the United States in its own crisis and the legislature inclining towards the Chinese pressure, a complete erasure of Hong Kong is sighted and could not be restrained- for better or for worse.

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