Home > Economics - General, World Events > China, me old China

China, me old China

April 4th, 2017

One of the reasons I like blogging and opinion writing is that I’m better at thinking up ideas than at the hard work needed to turn them into properly researched journal articles, which is the core business of being an academic. So, it’s great when an idea I’ve floated in a fairly half-baked form in a blog or magazine article gets cited in a real journal article. Even better when it’s a colleague or, in this case, former colleague who cites me.

James Laurenceson, formerly of UQ and now Deputy Director of the Australia-China Relations Institute at UTS, has an article just out in the Australian Journal of International Affairs (paywalled, unfortunately, but well reading if you can get access), on Economics and freedom of navigation in East Asia, which cites a short piece I wrote last year and reproduced here. My key points were
* Contrary to many claims, China has no interest in blocking trade in the South China Sea, since most of it goes to and from China
* For the smaller volume of trade between other countries, the cost of taking a more roundabout route is so small that China could not exert any significant leverage by restricting access to the South China Sea
* There’s nothing special about this case. The whole idea that navies are vitally needed to keep sea lanes open is nonsense

Where I based the first two claims on a bit of Google searching and a couple of academic papers, James has developed the argument in convincing detail, addressing a wide range of possible counterarguments. If I could find someone to do the same thing for my third claim, I’d be very happy.

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  1. April 4th, 2017 at 17:20 | #1

    What about those hoary favourites of international lawyers, pirates? They get billing in Grotius and Cicero. They are not a myth but a real if local hazard off Somalia and in the SE Asian archipelagos. True that you don’t need carrier battle groups to deal with them.

  2. John Quiggin
    April 4th, 2017 at 17:39 | #2

    We already whacked that mole, as you may recall when your memory is jogged

    johnquiggin.com/2016/05/02/pirates-militarism-whack-a-mole-173

  3. Jimmy
    April 4th, 2017 at 18:01 | #3

    It’s less about blocking shipping lanes and more about China’s ability to project power in the Pacific. The Australia-China Relations Institute is funded by Beijing and designed to project soft power and pro-Beijing propaganda. It’s predominantly staffed by pro-Beijing stooges like Bob Carr. I can assure you that China’s activities in the South China Sea are not benign. Aren’t we concerned about what is essentially a militaristic dictatorship run by a kleptocracy setting up shop in the South Pacific? Or does the fact that it’s not the evil, evil, evil USA make it ok? (Recall Bob Carr was once the number 1 pro-USA stooge before he changed with the prevailing winds and shifted his allegiance to Beijing, much like Captain Renault in casablanca).

  4. John Quiggin
    April 4th, 2017 at 20:07 | #4

    I can assure you that China’s activities in the South China Sea are not benign. Aren’t we concerned about what is essentially a militaristic dictatorship run by a kleptocracy setting up shop in the South Pacific?

    I’d be more inclined to accept your confident assurances if I didn’t know that the South China Sea and the South Pacific are in different hemispheres, which suggests that activities in one are unlikely to impinge very much on the other.

    More seriously, I don’t dispute your characterization of the Chinese government, and I’ll refrain from comparisons to other leading kleptocracies. Granted all this, what’s your counter to the central point of the article, namely, that the Chinese can’t actually use control of the South China Sea to block trade between other countries?

  5. J-D
    April 4th, 2017 at 20:41 | #5

    @Jimmy

    Are you able to explain in literal language the meaning of your figurative expressions ‘ability to project power in the Pacific’ and ‘setting up shop in the South Pacific’? Figurative language can be a very powerful, concise, and evocative way of conveying meaning, but it can also be a very powerful, concise, and evocative way of disguising its absence.

  6. John Quiggin
    April 5th, 2017 at 15:17 | #6

    Figurative language can be a very powerful, concise, and evocative way of conveying meaning, but it can also be a very powerful, concise, and evocative way of disguising its absence.

    This is very good.

  7. Ikonoclast
    April 5th, 2017 at 15:58 | #7

    China is employing “strategic creep” in occupying the South China sea. This is not to be confused with “mission creep”.

    Mission Creep – A gradual shift in objectives during the course of a military campaign, often resulting in an unplanned long-term commitment.

    Strategic Creep – A slow intentional expansion to take, consolidate, hold and utilise strategic points or strategic areas.

    The South China Sea is strategic (and geo-strategic) to China’s economic and military ambitions. This is true even if China’s military ambitions are defensive only. China is taking over the Sea and occupying it on the water, on islands and on artificial islands. China’s nine-dash line (encompassing virtually all the South China Sea and leaving nothing significant for Vietnam, the Philippines etc.) can be taken as truly representative of China’s ambitions for the South China Sea. China are saying “we want it all and we mean to take it all”. This does not mean they want to stop shipping in the S.C.S. They want the resources and the strategic buffer.

    The realpolitik is that China is powerful enough to take it all and it will take it all in a slow strategic creep fashion (most likely). There may be little that Vietnam, the Philippines etc. can do unless they more or less enter the Chinese field of influence as the Philippines leader has signaled he might do. From the point of view of the USA, Europe, Japan, Russia and India (the other significant powers around the globe) there is probably nothing to be done as any reaction will only make matters worse. It’s not worth it for the whole world to have a shooting war or a nuclear war over the Sth. China. A realpolitik strategic analysis says “huff and puff but quietly let China quietly take it over.” Any other response would make matters a lot worse.

    China will soon reach its limits in that direction. It can’t take over much more then the South China Sea and Taiwan (which of course is one of its objectives – unification of Taiwan with China). Where does the US, NATO and Japan draw the line? Well, before the takeover of Taiwan if they can still stop that after China’s strategic creep into the S.C.C. I think they could and would stop it. I don’t want to see such a war (or any war). It could be a large and dangerous war with every chance of turning nuclear. That fact might make both sides hold back from a full Battle for Taiwan.

  8. totaram
    April 5th, 2017 at 20:10 | #8

    @John Quiggin
    I concur. Very good!

  9. Greg McKenzie
    April 6th, 2017 at 08:18 | #9

    War communism seems to be the reason North Korea is pushing its nuclear missile launch agenda. The only way this “kleptocracy” can justify the mass starvation of its own people is by calling the USA a warmonger who is bent on invading North Korea. Now China seems comfortable with this approach, it certainly has done little to stop a close ally from reckless posturing. China seems to be playing a deep game in South-East Asia. It’s South China Sea posturing is just as pointless as its small ally’s yapping at a superpower. But that presupposes that China has no hidden agenda. What that is I have no idea. All I see is a “kleptocracy” that will lie to the UN and then do whatever it wants to do to make it look powerful. China has been here before, the Opium Wars were all about China saying no to the superpower of the nineteenth century. Historians, in the Communist Chinese government, should remind its power brokers of the outcome from that disasterous event.

  10. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2017 at 09:35 | #10

    @Greg McKenzie

    “China seems to be playing a deep game in South-East Asia.”

    Yes, indeed China is playing a deep, long-term game in South-East Asia and the world. They are playing that game smarter than anyone else at the moment. They are only doing what great powers do. Morality has nothing to do with the foreign policy and war actions of great powers. At that level the “game” is 100% about amoral “anarchic system” geostrategy. I use “anarchic system” in the sense John Mearsheimer uses that term. See footnote.

    China is following classical Chinese geostrategy. The one used from ancient times to defeat the Mongols, consolidate greater China into a unified nation (not without its stresses and strains of course) and to continuously expand incrementally. Tibet and the South China Sea are modern example of the latter.

    China plays geostratgy according the principles of Sun Tzu. “The supreme art of war is to subdue an enemy without fighting.” And of course, there are many other inter-linked precepts. China plays geostrategy like Go and the West now plays it like Chess. There is an enormous difference in these methods. Go is the ancient Chinese game of taking territory by “stones” on points. The stones, especially in linked groups, represent populations. Expansion is achieved by population expansion. Miltary power comes after and is necessary but secondary and dependent. The military clashes are not modeled in this game. However, chess is a game where the armies are modeled and not the populations. Chess models empire building as acts of expeditionary warfare; the Napoleonic model, The Hitlerian model and so on.

    We see the USA today mounting far-flung expeditionary wars to seek to expand or even keep its global influence (except over core Eurasia which Russia and China fully own of course). This USA geostrategic strategy model is horrendously expensive and fully bound up with strategic over-reach and implicit empire collapse. China works incrementally and waits for the USA to exhaust and destroy itself by its own foolish actions. “The supreme art of war is to subdue an enemy without fighting.” Relatively speaking contemporary China is being very clever and contemporary USA is being very stupid.

  11. J-D
    April 6th, 2017 at 10:23 | #11

    @Ikonoclast

    Yes, indeed China is playing a deep, long-term game in South-East Asia and the world. They are playing that game smarter than anyone else at the moment. They are only doing what great powers do.

    No, ‘playing deep long-term games’ is not what great powers do. On the contrary, what great powers do is blunder around shortsightedly.

  12. Tim Macknay
    April 6th, 2017 at 18:36 | #12

    @Ikonoclast

    China is following classical Chinese geostrategy. The one used from ancient times to defeat the Mongols


    I’m not sure I follow you. IIRC, China didn’t defeat the Mongols, it was conquered by them. An ethnically Chinese dynasty was eventually re-established after the Mongolian Yuan dynasty lost its authority following a series of natural disasters. Is that what you were referring to?

  13. Ikonoclast
    April 6th, 2017 at 21:30 | #13

    Here;

    “Mongol rule in China was about 76 years-old when, in 1352, a rebellion took shape around Guangzhou. A former boy beggar boy who associated himself with a Buddhist temple but never actually became a monk, Zhu Yuanzhang, left his temple and joined the rebellion, and his exceptional intelligence took him to the head of a rebel army. By 1355 the rebellion, accompanied by anarchy, had spread through much of China. Zhu Yuanzhang won people to his side by forbidding his soldiers to pillage. In 1356, Zhu Yuanzhang captured Nanjing and made it his capital, and there he won the help of Confucian scholars who issued pronouncements for him and performed rituals in his claim of the Mandate of Heaven. And Zhe Yuanzhang defeated other rebel armies.

    Meanwhile, Toghun Temur was still emperor, and during the rebellion in the mid-1350s the Mongols were fighting among themselves, inhibiting their ability to quell the rebellion. By 1368, Zhu Yuanzhang had extended his rule to Guangzhou – the same year that Toghan Temur fled to Karakorum. Zhu Yuanzhang and his army entered the former Mongol capital, Beijing, and with this he claimed the Mandate of Heaven. In 1371 his army moved through Sichuan. By 1387 – after more than thirty years of war – Zhu Yuanzhang had freed China of Mongol rule, and as China’s emperor he founded a new dynasty: the Ming.” – Macro History World History.

    Ergo, the Chinese defeated the Mongols. Where is the Mongol Empire today? And where is China today? China: biggest population and biggest economy in the world. The final victory (in any connected series) is what counts.

    The defeat of an occupation is a key victory. Just ask… any country or people which has been temporarily defeated and occupied. It’s interesting that you fixed on the last but one key event to raise your question.

    The Brits fix on Agincourt and talk up their great victory over the French. However, France won the entire Hundred years war. Not too many Brits mention that do they?

    Hundred Years War

    Overall outcome – French victory – The Valois retained the throne of France

    Phases

    Edwardian War (1337–1360) – English victory: Treaty of Brétigny

    Caroline War (1369–1389) – French victory: Treaty of Bruges

    Lancastrian War, 1st phase (1415–1420) – English victory: Treaty of Troyes

    Hundred Years’ War, 2nd phase (1420–1453) – French victory

    Territorial changes – France acquired the English continental possessions, except for Calais.

    People fixate on single wars, single events and not the big sweep of history. Big sweep of history from the point in question: China defeated the Mongols, China defeated Western Imperialism on its soil, China defeated the Japanese invasion in WW2, China defeated Tibet (nothing to be proud of morally but a geo-strategic gain nevertheless), China + Nth. Korea fought US and U.N. to a stalemate in Korea, China is now slowly but surely defeating the USA without needing to fire a shot at them. “The supreme art of war is to subdue an enemy without fighting.” – Sun Tzu (to reprise).

    Sure China has had theater repulses as when the Viets repulsed them with minor territorial losses to the Viets (Sino-Vietnamese War – 1979). Even this is consistent with the Chinese strategy of incremental expansion from and while maintaining a strong extensive core and without mounting expeditionary war too far beyond secure borders and secure supply. You’ve heard of reconnaissance in force? This war was perhaps the next step up or a few steps up, a theater size probe, a strategic reconnaissance in force (which of course was small beer to the Chinese army at the time).

    Both sides claimed victory. Some claim it was strategic Chinese victory. If so it was a rather Pyrrhic victory inflicting a “small loss of Vietnamese territory along Sino-Vietnamese border to China in Cao Bằng and Lạng Sơn Provinces.” – Wikipedia.

    I will write again if you are interested in more on China. I am not trying to say the Chinese are brilliant and infallible. But at this historical “moment” or juncture (circa 2001 to present) they are being a whole lot more geo-strategically clever than the USA. But that wouldn’t be hard would it? The Americans have been acting, geo-strategically speaking, like complete crazy idiots since 2001.

  14. Tim Macknay
    April 6th, 2017 at 22:33 | #14

    @Tim Macknay
    So it was what you were referring to. Thanks for clearing that up.

  15. Tim Macknay
    April 6th, 2017 at 22:35 | #15

    Oops – wrong reply tag.

  16. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2017 at 05:02 | #16

    @Tim Macknay

    No, to be pedantic, I was not referring to;

    “An ethnically Chinese dynasty (which) was eventually re-established after the Mongolian Yuan dynasty lost its authority following a series of natural disasters.”

    I was referring to the Chinese people’s rebellion which defeated the Mongolian dynasty. There is a world of difference between the equivocation that “the Mongolian Yuan dynasty lost its authority following a series of natural disasters” and the plain statement “the Chinese rebellion which defeated the Mongolian dynasty”.

    I wonder which set of natural disasters you are referring to? I don’t discount there may have been some such which played a facilitating role but you seem to be discounting the Ch’in or Han rebellion. Maybe the greatest “natural disaster” of all for an exotic ruling dynasty is the rebellion of the ethnic locals. 😉

    Plain fact, the Han people defeated the Mongolian dynasty. Sure, the Han people lost the penultimate struggle but then they won the ultimate struggle (in that series). I am intrigued why you focus on the conquest struggle and not the liberation struggle. Of course, even “liberation” is a relative term. Who was liberated by the general ascent (with setbacks) of China after these times and who was conquered? We can certainly name peoples conquered, oppressed or injured externally and internally by the rise of China to modern times… and this history is still in progress.

    And China is no different from any other great power or empire. With great power comes great arrogance; and hubris and finally corruption (economic and moral). No human ethnic group is immune to this effect precisely because they are all human. Empires fall for this reason and others reasons more materialistic to do with resources, logistics and strategic overreach.

  17. J-D
    April 7th, 2017 at 07:29 | #17

    People fixate on single wars, single events and not the big sweep of history.

    In the long run, we are all dead.

  18. Tim Macknay
    April 7th, 2017 at 08:51 | #18

    @Ikonoclast
    You’re not being pedantic, you’re just being argumentative. What I meant was that the fall of the Yuan dynasty was what you were referring to when you referred to the Chinese defeat of the Mongols. I wasn’t ‘focusing on the penultimate struggle’, I was trying to make sense of what you were talking about. It’s a bit tiresome talking to you when you’re in one of your grandiose enthusiasms.

  19. Ikonoclast
    April 7th, 2017 at 10:27 | #19

    @Tim Macknay

    My bad then. We basically agree. Without grandiose enthusiasms my mental life would be stone cold dead. I imagine most thinking people are like this deep inside. They no doubt temper it much better than I do when interacting with others.

    I am always trying to make mental connections, connecting everything to everything else. No doubt 99% of these connections are invalid. But that 1 in a 100 if I can find it and empirical evidence for it is pure gold. The rest would be great grist for creative writing were I good enough to be an author. I ain’t. But I am fairly sure this is how good authors work.

  20. Tim Macknay
    April 7th, 2017 at 11:16 | #20

    @Ikonoclast
    Yes, I’m not without my own grandiose enthusiasms.

  21. may
    April 7th, 2017 at 17:41 | #21

    those “islands” are smack in the middle of typhoon alley.

    all the infrastructure looks to be constructed on infill.

    i can’t help remembering the original meaning of “kamikazi”.

    fantasy?

  22. Mike H
    April 10th, 2017 at 20:45 | #22

    JQ, ‘Freedom of Navigation’ is complete nonsense in the context of commercial trade as any restriction of so called trade carriage by sea implies either one of two conditions; the first a state of war or second market control. As neither condition strictly exists, then the notion it does is therefore meaningless. The Freedom of Navigation argument is merely the counterfeit proposition that the United States has a right or is free to impose or interdict via the maritime projection of military power in any place or location of its choice, that in itself is a completely different topic for discussion, it is a contextual discussion of the actions of Imperialism in its true sense.

    I also find attempts to understand Chinese thinking in terms of historical allusion to Chinese historical philosophical antecedents demonstrative of a failure to understand modern China. Like all long lived cultures they suffer a degree of myopia with respect to alternative cultures but they broke free a long time ago of the constraints of their past history, to understand where they are now you need to understand Chinese revolution and its historical and political processes since 1948 to properly understand that conundrum. They may prefer the long game but it is not Confucian, they may have read Sun Tzu but they prefer alternative tactics with respect to warfare and defence. There is more to ‘One belt One road’ than meets the eye and it is not maritime. It is not about a projection of Sino Imperialism but the protection of Chinese Communism.

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