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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…

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East Asia

Shaping the new world order: The battle for human rights

Dr. James M. Dorsey

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China is leading the charge in a bid to undermine accepted concepts of human rights accountability and justice.

The Chinese effort backed by autocrats elsewhere has turned human rights into an underrated, yet crucial battleground in the shaping of a new world order.

China is manoeuvring against the backdrop of an unprecedented crackdown on Turkic Muslims in its north-western province of Xinjiang, the accelerated rollout of restrictions elsewhere in the country, and the export of key elements of its model of a 21st century Orwellian surveillance state.

The Chinese effort, highlighted in Human Rights Watch’s World Report 2019, is multipronged.

It involves proposals to alter the principles on which United Nations Human Rights Council operates in ways that would enable repressive, autocratic regimes.

To achieve its goal, China is employing its financial muscle and infrastructure and energy-driven Belt and Road initiative to economically entice countries that are financially strapped, desperate for investment and/or on the defensive because of human rights abuses.

China is also seeking a dominant role in various countries’ digital infrastructure and media that would allow it to influence the flow of information and enable its allies to better control dissent.

China is waging its campaign at a crucial juncture of history. It benefits from the rise of ethno- and religious nationalism, populism, intolerance and widespread anti-migration sentiment across the world’s democracies.

The campaign is enabled by the emergence of presidents like Donald J. Trump in the United States, the Philippines’ Rodrigo Duterte, Turkey’s Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Hungary’s Victor Orban and Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro who have either deemphasized human rights or gone as far as justifying abuses in addition to seeking to limit, if not undermine, independent media that hold them accountable.

The timing of the Chinese effort is significant because it comes at a moment that predictions of the death of popular protest, symbolized by the defeat of the initially successful 2011 popular Arab revolts, are being called into question.

Mass anti-government demonstrations in Sudan demand the resignation of President Omar al-Bashir. Anti-Chinese groups march in Kyrgyzstan while protests in Zimbabwe decry repression, poor public services, high unemployment, widespread corruption and delays in civil servants receiving their salaries. The past year has also seen widespread anti-government agitation in countries like Morocco and Jordan.

The protests and what Human Rights Watch executive director Kenneth Roth describes in his foreword to the group’s just published, 674-page World Report 2019 as “a resistance that keeps winning battles” suggests that China’s campaign may have won battles but has yet to win the war.

“Victory isn’t assured but the successes of the past year suggest that the abuses of authoritarian rule are prompting a powerful human rights counterattack,” Mr. Roth wrote.

Nonetheless, Human Rights Watch’s China director Sophie Richardson warned that “people outside China don’t yet seem to realize that their human rights are…increasingly under threat as Beijing becomes more powerful… In recent years, Beijing has…sought to extend its influence into, and impose its standards and policies on, key international human rights institutions—weakening some of the only means of accountability and justice available to people around the world,”

Ms. Richardson noted that China had last year successfully pushed a non-binding resolution in the UN Human Rights Council (HRC) that advocated promotion of human rights on the basis of the People’s Republic’s principle of win-win, a principle that cynics assert means China wins twice.

In a sign of the times, the resolution garnered significant support. The United States, in a twist of irony, was the only Council member to vote against it with countries like Germany and Australia abstaining.

China is not the only country that would like a globally accepted approach to be altered to the detriment of human rights. Muslim nations, with Saudi Arabia in the lead, have, for example, long sought to have blasphemy criminalized.

The resolution “gutted the ideas of accountability for actual human rights violations, suggesting ‘dialogue’ instead. It failed to specify any course of action when rights violators refuse to cooperate with UN experts, retaliate against rights defenders or actively reject human rights principles. And it even failed to acknowledge any role for the HRC itself to address serious human rights violations when ‘dialogue’ and ‘cooperation’ don’t produce results,” Ms. Richardson said.

“If these ideas become not just prevailing norms but also actual operating principles for the HRC, victims of state-sponsored abuses worldwide—including in Myanmar, South Sudan, Syria, and Yemen—will face almost impossible odds in holding abusive governments accountable,” Ms. Richardson cautioned.

In a separate interview, Ms. Richardson described the resolution as “the start of a process to wither away the UN human rights eco system.”

She said human rights groups were concerned “about what China will try to do next, whether it will more aggressively try to change the council’s mandate or nibble away at language in treaties or roll back the role of civil society. China wants inter-governmental cooperation instead of accountability, government officials discussing among themselves with no discussion of accountability for abuses and no participation of independent groups.”

China’s efforts are both an attempt to rewrite international norms and counter sharp Western criticism of its moves against Christians and Muslim and its crackdown in Xinjiang.

Up to one million Turkic Muslims have reportedly been incarcerated in re-education camps that China projects as vocational training facilities. To maintain its crackdown, China depends on a fragile silence in the Muslim world that is fraying at the edges.

In addition to attempting to change the operating principles of the UN Human Rights Commission, lobbying UN and foreign government officials to tone down criticism and invited foreign diplomats and journalists on choreographed visits to Xinjiang, China has at times successfully employed its economic and financial clout to buy either support or silence.

Pakistan, the host of the Belt and Road’s US$45 billion crown jewel, has curbed its initial criticism of the crackdown in Xinjiang.

Similarly, China is pressuring Myanmar to revive the suspended US$3.6 billion Myitsone dam project, which if built as previously designed would flood 600 square kilometres of forestland in northern Kachin state and export 90 % of the power produced to China.

China has reportedly offered in return for the dam to support Myanmar that has been condemned by the United Nations, Western countries and some Muslim nations for its repressive campaign against the Rohingya, some 700,000 of which fled to Bangladesh last year.

In a bid to pacify, criticism of its Xinjiang policy in Central Asia where anti-Chinese sentiment has been rising, China agreed this month to allow some 2,000 ethnic Kazakhs to renounce their Chinese citizenship and leave the country.

The decision follows testimony in a Kazakh court of a former employee of a re-education camp detailing three facilities in which up to 7,500 Kazaks and Chinese nationals of Kazakh descent allegedly were being held. The testimony prompted sharp criticism in parliament and on social media.

China and the West’s diametrically opposed concepts of human rights are part of a larger contest for dominance over the future of technology and global influence.

Freedom House, a Washington-based freedom watchdog, reported last year that China was exporting to at least 18 countries sophisticated surveillance systems capable of identifying threats to public order and has made it easier to repress free speech in 36 others.

“They are passing on their norms for how technology should govern society,” said Adrian Shahbaz, the author of the report.

Added Nadège Rolland, a senior fellow at the National Bureau of Asian Research, a Washington think tank, speaking to Bloomberg: “There’s a 1984 component to it that’s kind of scary.”

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Project of the century: How the Belt and Road initiative will impact the Eurasian region

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In 2013, China announced the creation of the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century – this initiative of “The Belt and Road” was designed to turn Asia and Europe into a single economic region. It focuses on the industries that are important for the internal growth in China and, at the same time, involves over 70 countries with a total population of 4.4 billion. Today, the initiative has already changed the economy of Eurasian countries significantly. Over the last seven years, the region got approximately $98 billion in investments in order to implement 168 projects.

What’s in it for China?

In recent years, China’s economic growth has slowed from double-digits to 6.4% in 2017. The wide-reaching economic model formerly in use (based on cheap labour, gross investment, and exports) has faced a number of serious challenges.

The country has to overcome industrial overproduction – steel making in China is a great example of this challenge. According to official data, China’s production capacity amounts to 1.1 billion tons per year, while internal demand is approximately 700 million tons, and China’s export partners cannot consume the remaining 400 million tons. The country needs to be provided with an access to new markets and to launch new resource-intensive projects.

In addition, Chinese authorities have been facing the problem of a sharp increase in labour cost. We live in a world where the average labour cost in China ($758) is higher than in Russia ($615). And it causes many multinational corporations to move their manufacturing facilities to other South-East Asian countries, such as Vietnam. China is losing its historical competitive edge – cheap labour, and analysts are increasingly talking about the risk of “stalling” in the trap of average income.

Furthermore, China needs to reduce its debt burden. The country is one of the world leaders in joint debt rating. In 2016, the total debt load in China amounted to $27 trillion, which equals 254% of the country’s GDP. Simultaneously, the amount of “bad” debt in the banking system is growing.

Social inequality and poor ecology exacerbate the situation further. For example, 1% of the wealthiest Chinese control roughly 33% of total national wealth, while 25% of the poorest Chinese possess just a mere 1%. Beijing sees as little as 124 clean days every year, while total environmental destruction amounts to 3.5-5% of China’s total GDP. In addition to a number of internal reforms adopted to create an economic model focused on domestic consumption, the Chairman of the People’s Republic of China, Xi Jinping, proposed the “Belt and Road” initiative. Among other things, it is designed to stimulate domestic economic growth through external forces – ensuring access to Chinese products in new sales markets, natural resources, integration into complex production chains, exchange of advanced technologies, and the establishment of new high-tech manufacturing facilities in China. To do this, Chinese authorities are attempting to create a large-scale platform that will enable the expansion of trade and investment relationships, as well as technological cooperation between China and Central Asia, Europe, and Africa. This is believed to be a way for China to gain an access to the tools needed to overcome the economic development challenges described above.

China helped create powerful financial institutions in order to finance projects within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative, such as the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank with $100 billion in capital, and the Silk Road Foundation ($40 billion in capital). The New Development Bank (or BRICS Bank) is also seen as an important element of the Belt and Road projects’ financial infrastructure, which will also involve the participation of the largest Chinese state-owned banks and development institutions. The total budget for projects under the Belt and Road initiative is estimated at an astronomical $1.3 trillion. The bulk of these investments is expected to be sent to the countries of the Eurasian Economic Union, including Russia, Kazakhstan, Armenia, Belarus and Kyrgyzstan, which are key to the implementation of The Belt and Road initiative.

How will this Chinese initiative affect other countries?

The Belt and Road initiative will stimulate major infrastructure changes not only in China, but also in other countries through which the New Silk Road passes. There are expectations for the construction of new roads and railways, power plants, ports and fuel pipelines. The Chinese investments are expected to accelerate the growth of the economies of the countries participating in the Belt and Road initiative.This is precisely what is meant by mutually beneficial cooperation, or the “win-win” model, which Chinese officials often reference. Many believe in the efficacy of such a model. A total of 69 countries and international organizations have entered into agreements with China to cooperatively implement the framework of The Belt and Road initiative. In practice, cooperation is developing in several key areas.

Trade

In the long run, the Chinese government is striving to create a single integrated economic space, with the ultimate goal of establishing a free trade zone. Already, by the end of 2017, China’s trade turnover with the countries that signed cooperation agreements within the framework of the Belt and Road initiative exceeded $800 billion. To further integrate the economies of Asia and Europe, the creation of six economic corridors has been proposed. The main routes of the Silk Road Economic Belt will connect China with Mongolia and Russia, Indo-China, Pakistan, the Republic of Bangladesh, India and Myanmar, as well as Central and Western Asian countries. Today, goods from China are most commonly delivered by sea, taking approximately 45 days. The construction of modern highways and high-speed railways will shorten this delivery period to 10-15 days.

The most important project in this respect is the largest Central Asian land port – Khorgos. This facility is strategically located in Kazakhstan in the Free Economic Zone called “Khorgos – Eastern Gate”, which also includes logistics and industrial zones. China has invested over $3 million in this project, which saw the first trains come to port in 2015. It is expected that the majority of cargo trains traveling between China and Europe will pass through it in the future.

The formation of a modern transport and logistics infrastructure in the countries of Central Asia, the Caucasus and, even, Europe is a key component for the development of these national economies. Such projects enable China to unload their excess production capacity and deliver domestic goods to foreign markets. Not only large state-owned companies, but small and medium-sized businesses stand to gain as they provide services for complex projects implemented under the framework of the Belt and Road initiative. For example, since 2011 Chinese and European cargo trains have traveled through 28 cities in 11 European countries. Currently, there are more than 4,000 trips per year, and this number is expected to increase to 5,000 by 2020.

Energy

The Belt and Road initiative also takes into account the need to create new energy capacities – construction of interstate power lines, pipelines and gas pipeline systems, and the development of new energy-deposit fields.

One of the most promising projects in this area is Yamal LNG, the Russian liquified natural gas plant that was commissioned at the end of last year. The project’s budget is estimated at $27 billion with approximately $20 billion provided by Chinese banks, led by the Silk Road Foundation as the primary investor.

Additionally, the Power of Siberia gas pipeline is expected to be complete by the end of 2019 – it will enable Russia to supply China with 38 billion cubic meters of gas per year for 30 years. The pipeline, traversing the Republic of Sakha (Yakutia), Irkutsk and Amur regions, will become the largest gas transportation system in Eastern Russia, thanks to over $70 billion in investment by Russia and China.

Tourism

According to online companies Ctrip and Alibaba, Chinese citizens took 129 million tourism trips abroad last year, spending a total of $118.4 billion. Implementation of the “One Belt, One Road” strategy will contribute to the influx of Chinese tourists to countries in the Eurasian Economic Union. Indicators of that influx are already growing. For example, last year a record number of Chinese tourists visited Russia – 1.5 million. However, it is important to note that the bulk of revenue generated as a result of  serving Chinese tourists goes to Chinese businesses, not Russian ones, as Chinese travelers tend to buy tour packages and order guide services from home, paying either in cash or through national Chinese payment systems.

Education

The Silk Road Economic Belt also fosters business cooperation between China and other Eurasian countries in the field of education. Today, 25% of all international students in Russia come from China. This indicates an especially high rate of international education collaboration with China as Russia’s share is a mere 2% of all Chinese students studying abroad (most still prefer European and American universities). China and the EEU countries are trying to solve the problem of a personnel shortage in the fields of economics, law and business, increasingly developing joint educational programs. For example, the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO runs specialized “Understanding Russia” programmes for Chinese entrepreneurs on how to effectively conduct business in Russia. Over 300 business leaders from China have been trained in this programme. In addition, in November, 2018 the Moscow School of Management SKOLKOVO and the business school of the Hong Kong University of Science and Technology will launch “EMBA for Eurasia”, a cooperative programme designed for business leaders in Eurasia.

Innovations

The most widely-accepted theories of economic growth see technological development as the main driver of modern economic growth. Within the Belt and Road initiative, a special role is played by the sharing of technologies and technological innovations. As of today, 75 industrial parks are under construction as a part of the initiative.

In 2015, a Chinese holding bought 65% of YotaPhone, the Russian smartphone manufacturer. China also actively collaborates with other Eurasian countries on innovative projects in the fields of biotechnology, photonics, biomedicine, LED, food and consumer goods. In essence, it means that “One Belt, One Road” propels the industries of the Eurasian region to a new technological level. For example, several organizations from Belarus, Kazakhstan and Russia are developing an innovative project to cool heavy-duty machinery – the so-called “double phase-shift cooling system” is being developed on a super-computer technology platform.

Work is being done in other areas as well, as seven belts are planned to be put in place, including financial and agricultural ones. In total, roughly one thousand different projects are expected to be implemented across different countries in the long term.

What are the barriers for implementing the strategy?

The Belt and Road is an initiative, not a project, meaning it has no defined goals or deadlines. China first mentioned its intention to establish the Silk Road Economic Belt and the Maritime Silk Road of the 21st century back in 2013, yet today, five years later, there is still no official information about the total number of projects or participating countries that should be involved, rendering the strategy somewhat amorphous. Unless the Belt and Road initiative is “institutionalized,” business can not use standard project and investment approaches, which makes it difficult to implement the overarching plan.

Furthermore, China is reducing investment in the Eurasian region. In 2013, the country allocated as much as $18 billion toward the project, but cut this amount down to $10 billion in 2016. If China had not invested in Iran’s nuclear program that year, this amount would have dropped to $5 billion. Such an approach makes predicting future investments challenging. The internal economic and political dynamics of China contribute to the challenge of forecasting the trajectory of the initiative – public and private investment banking institutions have begun to scrutinize these investment projects, as too much money was spent inefficiently or lost, drawing the attention of Chinese regulatory bodies.

Another important roadblock is the fact that some of the announced projects have not been a success. For example, the construction of a high-speed railway between Moscow and Kazan, which was originally designated as one of the priority projects for the Belt and Road, stalled. The construction of this Russian segment was supposed to be the first stage in building a railway between Moscow and Beijing, which was to be followed by an even more ambitious “Eurasia” railway project, connecting Beijing, Moscow and Berlin. Unfortunately, under current financial conditions, these projects are not economically viable, which halted their development at the feasibility study stage. This is a clear example of collaboration in which strategic ambitions outpace, or fail to take into account, the economic and investment feasibility of the Belt and Road projects.

Nevertheless, the initiative has emerged at the right time. At a time when protectionism is gaining momentum in international trade, China is driving an expansion of free market values, simplified customs and visa procedures, and the creation of transportation and logistics infrastructure that will ensure the quick and easy delivery of goods to new markets. This approach enables multilateral development at the domestic level and eliminates barriers to business that already seem archaic in the global world of the 21st century.

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Decoding Pentagon Report on China January 2019

Gen. Shashi Asthana

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Amidst sequential escalation of US- China ‘Heated cold war’, Pentagon has released a new report on 16 January 2019, airing US concerns about China’s growing military capability highlighting a contingency  about a possible attack against Taiwan. This is sequel to the coercive/threatening speech of Chinese President Xi Jinping in the beginning of 2019 and earlier in 19th CPC. This Pentagon report however needs to be read in context of US-China heated cold war, including information war. The interpretation of the report indicates expeditionary design of Chinese military strategy with global ambition, exploiting its increased ‘Comprehensive National Power’ (CNP) with improved technology, economics, military hardware and other elements of CNP. Chinese rapid advancement  in hypersonic weaponry, cyber warfare, sea and air power have allowed it to look beyond its “Active Defence Strategy” and slow moving “Incremental Encroachment Strategy” to expeditionary ambition beyond second island chain. It highlights its design of increasing number of bases, which can be turned into military bases at short notice. The Chinese interest of keeping a buffer zone in the form of North Korea to avoid having direct land border with US ally is also indicated in the report. The continuous increase in its defence budget has helped PLA to modernize and pose serious challenge to regional neighbours like India

The US Position

As per the information in open domain, the Report does not cover US position in response to Chinese growing military capability in context of Taiwan, apparently being classified, as Taiwan is strategically important to them. In a joint Communication with PRC in 1972, US had adopted the line of No declaration of independence by Taiwan, No UN seat and no representation in an international organisation, which requires only one membership for a country, in respect of Taiwan. US, however, remains opposed to any unilateral changes in status quo by either side. US will therefore like to have a democratic, independently governed Taiwan as an ally, where they have adequate strategic and economic leverage, instead of it forming part of Communist PRC. Neither Taiwan nor China, nor US have crossed redlines of each other so far. The US security assurance in terms of Taiwan Relations Act, indirectly promising to make available “such defense equipment and services, as may be necessary to enable Taiwan to maintain a sufficient self-defense capability.” has been one of the deterrence to PRC in acting against Taiwan.  Last year US Defence Budget was more than next seven countries put together including China; I do not see China posing a military challenge or competition to US in global arena, however in near vicinity of its eastern seaboard, it may pose some challenge in South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. The recently signed Taiwan Travel Act, sale of military hardware to Taiwan indicates that US is in no mood to give a walkover regarding Taiwan.

Chinese Position in context of Taiwan

PRC claims Taiwan as its integral part and is looking for its peaceful reunification continues to be a dream. PRC passed the Anti-Secession Law in 2005, authorising war if island formally declares statehood: hence any effort towards its independence/aiding its independence will invite Chinese action to protect its sovereign territory. The threatening speeches of Xi have brought US and Taiwan much closer and much sooner than what Xi Jinping would have expected. Taiwan seems to have got bolder today and is talking of self defence indicating that Chinese coercion has not worked so far. Will China Use Force Against Taiwan

President Xi Jinping has ordered the Southern Theatre Command responsible for monitoring the South China Sea and Taiwan to get ready for war, but in my opinion China will not use force against Taiwan due to many reasons. Firstly Adventurism by China in Taiwan at the time of Trade War with US does not make any economic sense as bulks of Taiwan’s investments are already in China with Taiwan having a trade surplus of approximately US $ 30 billion with China . China gains nothing, but has a lot to lose if it attacks Taiwan. Secondly, its adventurism will amount to crossing red line of US, which treats Taiwan no less than an ally. It had earlier indicated that any unilateral change of ‘status Quo’ in Taiwan as a red line and most desired option of common Taiwanese. China has enough missile arsenals to destroy Taiwan, but such destruction of Han Chinese, who have relations and investments in mainland will not go well with domestic population of mainland, besides destroying its own economic powerhouse .The threatening speech by China for Taiwan and countries helping them is to deter Taiwan getting stronger to pursue the path of independence.

What does this Report means for India

With construction of CPEC connectivity, and China’s need to increase domestic support by generating spirit of  nationalism amidst slowing down of economy, the urge to do something different cannot be ruled out. This could be an encroachment into un-demarcated borders. The clouds of ‘Two Front War’ continue to hang over India. To avoid a ‘Two Front War’ for India, the best way is to convince the potential adversaries that India is capable of fighting it. This convincing cannot be by announcements or statements by leaders, but by developing capability to do so. The defence capabilities take long time to build up, more-so if India does not have strong manufacturing base. ‘Make in India’ and self reliance is essential, but time consuming; hence must continue simultaneously with procurements. The defence budget allocation will have to substantially increase in 2019 and beyond to narrow down asymmetry in CNP with China, in the interest of national security.

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In her remarks, the United States House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, asserted that Trump’s border wall campaign has nothing to do...

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