Chinese geopolitics


China and Russia Draw Closer: Or, America Should Worry, But Not Panic

Mr. Putin must feel pretty good after signing that $400 billion natural gas deal.  With a massive cash infusion such as that over a predictable schedule, Putin’s Russia is in much better shape today than ever since the fall of the Soviet Union.  Crimea has been annexed, peacefully; Georgia and Ukraine blocked from both NATO and EU membership for the foreseeable future; America bogged down by debt, war-weariness, and an increasingly dysfunctional political system.  Been a damned good couple of years for the man.

But invariably, America will reorganize itself and counterattack.  So to secure all the gains made, to prevent America from finishing the job started in 1991 and preserve what remains of Russia’s independence as a great power, he must now seek out an alliance structure that permanently reshapes the world’s geopolitical landscape.  His Eurasian Union won’t cut it; too many nutjobs and backwards weird-o states in the rolls.  With Europe now lost to America, where can he now turn?  The obvious answer is China.

Danger, America!  Never let anyone control the Heartland!

Halord Mackinder was an English geographer who first wrote about the Heartland – essentially, the heart of Eurasia – as the geographical pivot point from which any single power could then go on to dominate the world.  Alas, he was wrong.  First Russia and then the Soviet Union did control that Heartland and still failed to win the world.

That was because while the Heartland does have plenty of resources, people, and territory to set up a mighty state, it lacks the ports necessary to transport that stuff around to bring the real hurt to enemy forces.

During the Cold War, a key part of American strategy was to prevent the Soviets from expanding into places where they might gain easy access to the Atlantic and/or Pacific Oceans.  The loss of China in 1949 to Communism was such a blow for this reason; its split from the Soviet bloc in the 1960s was equally as disastrous for Moscow.

From enemies to allies to enemies back to allies?

Imperial China and Czarist Russia were not the best of friends, competing for power in Siberia and the Russian Far East.  But that changed for a time under the early Chinese Communists, who needed Soviet industrial goods to modernize their state.  When America stepped in as a superior trade partner, the Chinese jumped ship.  After the fall of the Soviet Union, relations were normalized as both states reorganized themselves into the authoritarian capitalist states they’ve grown into.

Now they’ve noticed they’ve got quite a lot in common.  Such a thing must chill the blood of the U.S. government.

The Shanghai Cooperation Organization, the building blocks of what would become a serious Chinese-Russian military alliance.

Trading partners today, great allies tomorrow?

Both Russia and China tried communism and decided it wasn’t for them (with varying degrees of order as they made the switch).  Both have nasty post-communist hangovers in the form of state-owned enterprises that don’t perform as well as they should.  Both are built on the borders of old imperial states and have a lot of ethnic groups that clamor for autonomy or independence.  And both don’t particularly like the American-led world order, because said world order means the elites in Moscow and Beijing must play by rules that would likely fray their borders.  (For example, national self-determination, an oft-America-supported principal could cost Russia Chechnya and other Muslim-majority territories, while China might lose Tibet, Outer Mongolia, and Uighurstan).

Russia doesn’t have enough people to work its many Siberian resources.  China lacks the resources but has the people.  It’s a simple enough trade.  But around it grow more and more connections and shared interests that make a Russian-Chinese alliance all the more possible.

Boy do they have a lot to talk about

A key shared interest is getting America to shut the hell up and step back away from authoritarian governments butchering rebellions.  For both, the precedent of Libya was disastrous; there, a dictator, faced with armed rebellion, was overthrown by a coalition simply because he was acting morally reprehensible.  But to authoritarian leaders, such actions make a great deal of sense – when people don’t agree with you, you simply sack, arrest, or kill them and replace them with people who do.  If coalitions against morally bankrupt regimes become a regular thing, the eventual targets will be China and Russia, both of whom must do bad things to keep their restive ethnic minorities, as well as dissident movements, under wraps.

Syria is the front line in this confrontation.  For now, Russia and China have been content to wield their UN vetoes to protect a government they gain nothing from except the halting of a world whereby bad men who do bad things get killed for those bad things.  Russia and China’s borders are not entirely ethnically based, and if one follows the principal that each ethnic group that wants a state should get one, both of them should be a great deal smaller.  Not precisely ideal for elites who like power.

Now that’s just about the cutest potentially world-dominating logo ever made.

The Americans must therefore walk a fine, uncomfortable line

Confrontation with Russia or China will push either into the other’s arms.  Such an alliance would give China access to Russia’s resource base that would allow it to militarize all the faster.  Russia, in turn, would get access to China’s people to boost its own economy, as well as the necessary ports in the Pacific to trade and to build mighty fleets.

So while the U.S. would like to deal with Syria, save Ukraine, and stop Iran’s nuclear program, it cannot push too hard on these issues lest it alarm either Russia or China and accidentally cause a real military alliance to come into being.

The Americans do, however, have an advantage – the natural dislike everyone feels for a neighbor who’s doing better than them

Russia and China are natural rivals rather than partners.  Their long, shared border is tenuous; a real problem is that Siberia is empty of Russians and China has too many Chinese.  Why shouldn’t Chinese move north, anyway, if there’s work to be done and forests to be felled?

Of the two states, China is also naturally more powerful, with the kind of sea access leaders in Moscow have dreamed about for centuries.  In any alliance structure, it won’t be so unreasonable for Beijing to see itself as the senior partner with Russia playing the part that Britain does for America.  For a power not so long away from its glorious past as a world leader, few Russian elites will want to stomach the inevitable condescension as Chinese diplomats refer to them as “useful” and “plucky.”

What unites them is a common dislike for American hegemony. If that hegemony is tolerable, their own differences will keep them at arm’s length.

Best ease off, Mr. President

Any American president who acts too aggressively in pursuit of U.S. interests will cause such an alliance to come into being.  It was Nixon’s withdrawal from Vietnam that helped spur Mao to switch camps; it was Truman’s entry into the Korean War that cemented Mao in Stalin’s.  The past can be instructive; let’s hope someone in D.C. has read their history.

A Sum-Up Of Why China, Japan, And The U.S. Are All At One Another In The Pacific

The Pacific is a lot more interesting than it’s been in years, thanks to a great game of ship-building, missile-deploying, and defense-procuring all around the Pacific Rim.  More than Europe, the Pacific is in the middle of a geopolitical struggle for security, prosperity, and dominance between three traditional nation-states.  Everybody wants to be happy, but not everyone is so sure their neighbors want the same thing for them.

So let’s begin with why Japan and China are at one another

China and Japan are spitting and hissing at one another over a series of rocky, pointless islands that aren’t worth dying over in and of themselves.  They are, rather, symbols of the geopolitical struggle over the future of East Asia and the Pacific.

Three powers are capable of influencing the destinies of the myriad of countries in the region – Japan, China, and the United States.  All three vitally need to ensure that the Pacific stays open and free for trade (and most importantly, their trade; everyone else can go fuck themselves if it comes down to it).  Control of islets, as pointless as they might be as vacation destinations, give control of large swathes of the ocean and whatever riches lie underneath, as well as the ability to set up anti-ship missile batteries and blockade points if anyone needs to get to a-sinkin’ enemy merchant traffic.  In reality, merely holding these places creates what’s called “sea denial” and makes life more expensive for rivals.  You don’t have to blow up the cargo ship; just looking like you might blow it up is enough to make it waste fuel, time, and money going the long way around your little island.

Literally a Soviet hangover, this new carrier was refitted from a Russian design to give Chinese military planners the feeling that they were cool, too.

With the end of the World War II, the Pacific returned to its quiet namesake because the U.S. Navy dominated the waves.  Until the 1990s, no nation was really capable of keeping pace with an arms race with the U.S. anyway, so by default the Pacific went to the Americans.  Most of the biggest Pacific powers formally or informally joined an American-led Cold War alliance to keep Soviet influence in the Pacific to a minimum; this alliance was so successful that even now the U.S. is the #1 power on these high seas.

Meanwhile, China’s peaceful rise might not be a lie, but it’s not the whole truth, either

China insists again and again that its military build-up is defensive.  To ward off any American president who might build a reputation on bullying China (and that’s hardly impossible), China needs to be a serious threat to the American carrier fleets and bases of the Pacific.  But that’s not the whole story.  China is increasingly resource hungry; it must know it can get access to its trade routes at any time and that nobody can blockade or interfere with its vital links between the Middle East, Africa, and Southeast Asia.  The best way to ensure this is to follow the Americans’ well-worn path – break up potential threats long before they become actual threats.

Thus, for China, putting Japan, Vietnam, South Korea, and the Philippines all on the defensive makes more sense

Each of these states could become part of a coalition that could interrupt or harass Chinese shipping, even temporarily, and make life for China harder.  So what’s quite sensible is to overawe them with superior military power and make any of their leaders think twice before slapping Chinese-flagged ships with a transit tax or a blockade.  China doesn’t need to rebuild Japan’s empire to be secure; it just needs to keep the waves open and the oil, lumber, and other resources it naturally lacks pouring in.

Heavily trafficked East Asia is pretty bright.

And Japan’s pretty much stuck in the same situation, albeit more drastic

If China is hungry for outside resources, Japan is starving.  Its island-nation doesn’t have much that can sustain a modern economy except some quite clever people and some excellent airports, roads, and trains.  Everything else has got to be imported.  So if China is the guy buying a handgun for fear he’ll be mugged on the way to work, Japan is the isolated mountain man who feels the need for an assault rifle and a bunker full of beans.  Japan’s paranoid inclinations have been assuaged by the Americans for the past 60 years, but the last time somebody threatened Japan’s ability to import what it needs, the results weren’t pretty.

Meanwhile, America’s having a global identity disorder as it tries to find the Newest and Best way to dominate the Earth

Remember that America does not want to slip from #1 – ever.  In the past 13 years, the U.S. has learned the hard way that staying numero uno has little to do with setting the Middle East right.  In fact, if anything, America has learned that so long as the Persian Gulf states remain stable, what happens elsewhere in the region is pretty much irrelevant to American plans.  And so America is trying to decide what’s the real geopolitical threat out there – and right now, the answer people keep half-giving is China.

“Half-giving” because China and America have a fucked up relationship based mostly on a mutual love of money.  With China owning so much U.S. debt, and Americans buying up so many poisonous or poorly-made Chinese products to save on the monthly grocery run, both sides need one another to deliver a standard of living their citizens expect and want.

But China is a big country with the potential power base to build quite the fleet.  Once upon a time, China was sending navies to Africa and the Indian Ocean, but because the emperors got bored the expeditions were given up.  China could become the leading power in East Asia again.  For China’s leaders, that’s the best possible outcome.  Being at the top is the safest place to be and ensures the Communist Party’s hacks get to die in their beds instead of in some post-regime show trial.

Such a situation hardly favors the U.S., of course

Because a China that dominates the Asian Rim then decides its rules. To weaken in the Pacific will affect American power everywhere, and so it can’t be allowed.  Thus the Pacific Pivot.

One way to keep China off balance and to save the U.S. some much-needed cash is to encourage the build-up of other national navies that alone can’t challenge the U.S. but combined can prevent China from feeling it can do whatever it wants.  Key to that is Japan, which could put together a deadly fleet that might be tough enough to pause Chinese ambitions.  But South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Vietnam could each also play smaller roles and, best of all, balance one another, saving the U.S. the necessity of having to smack any of them down later on.

Welcome to the Asian arms race, kids!  Let’s hope none of them are ever used

Thus Japan is now moving to do just that.  Over the next decade or so, the Pacific nations will get better and bigger weapons in preparation for a war none of them really want to fight.  But because none of them can trust one another not to behave badly, they will continue the build-up until one side prevails.

It probably won’t involve gigantic samurai robots or killer trans-dimensional lizards.  But strange things do happen as nations evolve.