Biding time for an orderly rise

2011-04-14Asia Times

This is the conclusion of a three-part report.
Part 1: China banks on giving peace a chance (
Part 2: The China 'threat' as a blessing (

BEIJING - The first thing China needs if it ever is to become the indisputable world's "Number One", is friends and allies, not a mighty and technologically advanced military. Real friends, not like North Korea; and real allies, not like Pakistan, a country that if pressed would pick America. To have real friends, China has to become democratic, and while this would not be a total solution, it would be a necessary step.

At present, and for many reasons, the country that is most likely to become China's friend is the United States. China's road to greatness is therefore bound to go through some sort of political compromise and agreement with America that would have to come first and far before dreams of Chinese military build-up in the world.

One difficulty in this is that China would have to build its new friendship with America without leaving other countries behind. That is, China would have to build good ties with many countries presently friends with America, as it is building ties with America as well.

Only if it can build this complicated web of new political ties can China realistically hope to become the political "Number One" sometime after it becomes the economic "Number One." And then it could be poised to naturally inherit the US's reach in the world and its web of alliances.

This leaves a few open questions: what is the use of China's present military build-up? Will the new Chinese weapons realistically be used to conquer Taiwan or to rule the South China Sea? In the foreseeable future, China could meet both goals, but if that were to happen, China would economically and politically suffocate immediately after the conquest. China knows it, and will try not to pursue such a course as it would end all its dreams at once.

China's present tendency to maintain its military threat to Taiwan is motivated by domestic reasons: the push of domestic nationalists who have no real and clear idea of the ways China could realistically become "Number One."

Certainly, China's superpower dream has many enemies, many of whom call themselves Chinese. Take, for instance, the case of Mao Zedong. Some Chinese neo-nationalists consider him the greatest Chinese hero of the century. However, his 30 years of political experiments stopped China's economic growth for many decades.

At the end of World War II, Japan and China's GDPs (gross domestic products) were at the same level. If we take this as a standard, without Mao, China's GDP could have become two-thirds of America's GDP by the late 1980s. If we more realistically take Taiwan's GDP per capita as a standard of China's potential overall GDP growth, China's economy could have overtaken that of America by the late 1970s.

These projections are disputable but are a useful intellectual exercise as from here we can see that China, thanks to Mao, lost some 50 years of development! Then, in retrospect, Mao was China's enemies' best friend, and presently the best weapon of China's enemies would be to invent a second Mao.

Perhaps this thought could become more important in the next couple of years, as China is readying itself to place a batch of new rulers coming from the ultra-Maoist experience. The Chinese rulers after the 2012 Party Congress will in fact likely all be former Red Guards, and thus have experienced firsthand the disasters of the times when China wasted time. Yet they might also have an important Maoist mind-set: wu tian, wu fa ("no heaven, no law"), open to all possibilities and daring to do anything in the best interests of their country.

China's linear growth

However, China's economic growth also had some problems. One, as an essay by Lieutenant General Liu Yazhou pointed out, while China could play a catch-up game, following the US model until it reached American prosperity and wealth, what could and would it do thereafter? In this line of thought, the longer the US leads the way, and stays ahead, the more time China has to build itself and learn from the US model. However, it was a line of thinking that came to stop with the 2008 financial crisis.

But even taking for granted that China could bide time following the US model, the waiting was riddles with risks. One important issue, very important and pressing in the short term, was the possibility of defeat in a small scale war that would lead to a domestic power struggle which in turn could start a massive political turmoil in China. This war could be triggered by a crisis in oversensitive Taiwan.

China has important historical precedence on this. Its literature is still filled with bitter reflections on defeat in the 1840 opium war. That actually was a relatively small scale confrontation; so small that at the time Beijing underestimated its political significance. In 1840, China was home of a GDP ranging from 1/3 to half of the global GDP and it possessed about 70% of all the world's silver - which was a lot like present monetary reserves. That is, China in 1840 in the time of the defeat of the opium war was much richer than the US is today.

Yet, a minor military defeat with the British started a political turmoil in China, which some 70 years later resulted in the total collapse of the Qing Empire. Therefore, China thinks that even a minor military defeat in a small scale war could kindle a power struggle and a coup. The possibility of a coup is the system's crucial weakness. In the domestic power struggles that led to the great turmoil of the 1989 Tiananmen affair and the 1999 Falungong crackdown, internal party cliques clashed over some issues and used the incident to take power and expel the other side.

The possibility of a coup is an internal weakness because the system is secretive and regulated by hidden rules. Those rules are also subject to frequent arbitrary changes and interpretations. Because of this, the system is systematically prone to be swayed by sides vying for power. In theory, a democratic system, more open, with accepted rules not subject to sudden changes would impede coups and grant greater political stability. However, there are also broader considerations about the implementation of democracy in China.

Overall, the past 20 years has proved to China's leadership the benefits of economic growth for an authoritarian system. The authoritarian system has proved able to lead fast economic growth for a generation. Comparatively, India, with a more democratic system and thus hurdled by complex checks and balances, has not been able to exceed China's pace of growth. This is not simply an issue of the stage of development.

There is empiric evidence that authoritarian systems work for economic development better than democratic ones. China has two examples that confirm the point. Democratic Taiwan has since the introduction of free elections greatly slowed the pace of economic development and has been bogged down by political in-fights. On the other hand, Singapore, which has been developing at double digit pace for the past 40 years, shows no sign of slow down, despite the fact that it has already overtaken the per capita GDP of many developed countries.

China does know the overall benefits of democracy, ie greater political stability, resilience to attempted coups, and a free flow of ideas which provide the hotbed for the development of future trends, all of which will be important once China is stronger economically than the US. In other terms, democracy could be useful to China, once it is leading world economic growth and democracy would a role of providing new growth trends for social, economic and political developments of the world.

A more stable environment in recognition of this long transition is being created by the introduction of a greater number of rules regulating the promotion and demotion of officials and senior leaders. But it is also limiting the power of the top leaders and making the whole decision making process cumbersome. Many senior leaders have de facto veto power or great influence on some policies directly concerning them, while the powers of China's top man, the president, party chief and chairman of the Military Commission, have many boundaries.

The issue of the deviations from the 'peaceful rise' then becomes clearer.

Elements of different factions may use foreign policy flash points to challenge the establishment. As in all Chinese history, attacks against foreign forces are just screens and mirrors for attacks at their own leadership. For example: I attack the Americans, and therefore I implicitly attack my government, which is weak and subservient to the Americans. Therefore, my real goal is not really a war or a friction with the Americans, but the toppling of the domestic leadership.

Therefore, deviations are a phenomenal appearance of domestic power struggle, which are here to stay as long as the system is authoritarian. These deviations take excuses on the many friction points of Chinese policies. The friction points are extremely numerous as China has open issues on the borders with basically all nations and territories at its frontier.

Plus, there are also non-border related issues such as trade, economic clashes, issues of principles, which are bound to grow, in so far to grow as China is stepping up its international political role. All these flash points can and will be used by the domestic ''opposition'' to challenge the government based on admitted regulations, that is it is allowed within the authoritarian - yet not dictatorial - Chinese political system, to be patriotic and nationalist. Therefore, being nationalist, arguing in defense of nationalist issues is a way to declare one's opposition to the top government.

On the other hand, for the government, expressing China's overall interests, is just the opposite; that is it keeps the present status quo going, minimizes the cost of China's expansion in the world and also leaves to China a ready-made legacy it can simply step into without much ado.

In other words, China has benefits from and an interest in preserving the American-led system of globalization, which has created the environment conducive to its own growth. It also has an interest in preserving, for a long period of time, America's presence in Asia as it suppresses a regional arms race and thus gives time and resources for China to concentrate on its own economic growth. China also has an interest in keeping and safeguarding America's presence in the world as a conduit to increased trade and greater freedom of commerce.

China is in no hurry to take over American military or political responsibilities in the world, which are costly, politically dangerous, and full of risks. However, one should also be very careful about the example America is setting, since this will be the real legacy Washington hands to China.

Changing territorial integrity

In the 17th century the Manchu dynasty conquered China, taking over the Ming Dynasty. In theory, the Qing dynasty should have just replicated the general form of conquest and rule of the past centuries: That was to carefully administer and rule a China territorial core (which roughly hadn't changed territorially since China's first unification under the Qin emperor in 221 BC) and then surround this with a group of buffer states or territories, ruled through different forms of agreements.

This system had worked for 17 or 18 centuries, and it was also defended by China's geographical positions: North and west were inaccessible deserts; west and south were mountains and forests; and on the east was the ocean. In all these directions there were also buffer states, which granted security, trade and expanded the Chinese imperial virtue to the outside world without creating problems to the capital.

However, contemporary to the Manchu conquest in China, Russian encroachment started into the once deserted and loosely controlled Siberia. This encroachment, followed in the 19th century encroachment by foreign powers on all the sides of the Chinese border, changed China's perception of its own territory.

The Russians started thinking of Siberia in terms of the European state, that is they wanted clear, limited frontier positions, not loosely ruled, buffer zones. In a way it was as if the Russians were setting fences on their borders, this imposing a similar policy to the Manchu who were conquering China and thus were new to the overall rules for governing this empire.

This led to a series of treaties and wars marking the borders between Qing China and Russia for over two centuries, by which Russia took large parts of Siberia's frozen desert. What transpired was the clearer determination and understanding of what constituted China territories in that period of time.

At the same time as the Russians were coming from the north, the British were coming from the sea and from the south. The first opium war came in 1839-42, which led China to accept different rules of trade and administration of foreign merchants working in China, and in 1939-42 was the first English-Afghan war that saw British forces reaching the South West frontier of one territory which was loosely under China control - Tibet. In the same period the French conquered Indochina, a buffer state of the Qing dynasty, and the Japanese rejected Chinese patronage and conquered Korea, also a part of the Qing empire.

Over the next 70 years, leading to the collapse of the Qing dynasty in 1911, many foreign powers, encroached on the Chinese borders from all sides. Also importing to China foreign concepts of frontiers and sovereignty (Zhuquan) and nation and nationality (Minzu) which were previously totally absent from the Chinese mindset.

This led China also to a different concept and perception of its own territory. China in a way came to realize that it could no longer accept buffer states and buffer zones at its borders, it had to clearly mark what was its own. This process was painful and confusing.

We can see, for instance, that Xinjiang was incorporated as Chinese territory at the end of the 19th century, before that it was simply under the administration of the Li Fan Yuan, a kind of Qing dynasty ministry controlling territories that were considered not totally part of the central administration. At the time it was also translated as ''colony'', although the translation may not be accurate, and it made a difference with territories administrated in a special way from the core traditional territory.

Tibet was also under the Li Fan Yuan, but in contrast to Xinjiang, it was more difficult to directly control because of the logistic and territorial difficulties of sending troops and keeping them in a territory with few resources and very harsh living conditions. In fact, one can track the changes in territorial perception in Beijing by examining Xinjiang's history until its complete incorporation into the Chinese state.

A brief sketch of the Qing in Xinjiang

The Qing, an alliance of Manchu, Mongols and Han, gained control over what is now eastern Xinjiang as a result of a long struggle with the Zungar Mongols that began in the 17th century. In 1755, the Qing Empire attacked Kuldja (Yining, pacified Yi) and captured the Zungar Khan.

Over the next two years, the Manchus and Mongol armies of the Qing destroyed the remnants of the Zungar Khanate, and attempted to divide the Xinjiang region into four sub-Khanates under four chiefs. Similarly, the Qing made members of a clan of Sufi shaykhs known as the Khojas rulers in the western Tarim Basin, south of the Tianshan Mountains. In 1758-1759, however, rebellions against this arrangement broke out on both the north and south sides of the Tianshan mountains.

After a tough repression, in 1759, the Qing finally consolidated their authority by settling Chinese emigrants, together with a Manchu Qing garrison. The Qing put the whole region under the rule of a general headquartered at the fort of Huiyuan (Yili), 30 km west of Kuldja (Yining). The Qing had thoughts of pushing their conquests towards western Turkestan and Samarkand, where local chiefs had requested assistance from the Afghan king Ahmed Shah.

This monarch dispatched an diplomatic mission to Beijing to demand the restitution of the Muslim states of Central Asia, but the mission was not well received, and Ahmed Shah was too much engaged with the Sikhs, who in turn were backed by the English, to attempt to enforce his demands by arms.

In 1827, southern part of Xinjiang was retaken by a former ruler's descendant, Zhangge'er (Jahanghir Khoja); Zhang Long, the Chinese general of Yi, recovered possession of Kashgar and the other revolted cities in 1828.

The Qing held on the territory, suppressing some minor revolts until the great insurrection of the Chinese Muslims, Tungani, which broke out in 1862 in Gansu, and spread rapidly to Zungaria and through the line of towns in the Tarim basin. This brought to power Yakub Beg, who took control of the region calling it Kashgaria and ruled at the height of the Great Game era when the British, Russian, and Qing empires were all vying for Central Asia. Kashgaria extended from the capital Kashgar in south-western Xinjiang to Urumqi, Turfan, and Hami in central and eastern Xinjiang more than 1,000 kilometers to the northeast, including a majority of what was known at the time as East Turkestan.

Kashgar and the other cities of the Tarim basin remained under Yakub Beg until December 1877 when General Zuo Zongtang conquered the region for Qing China. In 1881, Qing China recovered the Kuldja region through diplomatic negotiations with Russia (Treaty of Saint Petersburg).

In 1884, Qing China renamed the conquered region, and established Xinjiang ("new frontier") as a province, formally applying onto it the political system of China proper. For the first time the name Xinjiang replaced old historical names such as Western Regions (Xin Yu), Uyghuristan, Kashgaria, Alter Sheher and Yetti Sheher.

In sum, the Qing China enforced more and more direct control over the region as a result of competition with both Russians and English, who also aimed at the control of the territory. This is even clearer if we briefly look at the conflicts between the Qing and Russians spanning over two centuries.

Russians over China

The Russians started arriving in Eastern Siberia at the beginning of 17th century, at a time of weakness of the ruling Ming empire and while the Russians were moving towards the European styled rule of Peter 1st the Great (1672-1725). In fact the first Russian encroachment in the region coincided with a similar push of the Manchu on the borders of the crumbling Ming Empire. The Qing took over from the Ming in 1644, but for many years they were engaged in the effort to secure their power in the rich Chinese heartland against rebellious generals and pro Ming loyalists.

From about 1640, Russians entered the Amur basin from the north, into land claimed by the Manchus who at this time were engaged in their conquest of China. The first treaty between Russia and China was in Nerchinsk in 1689. It was a compromise between to central Asian powers as both had other priorities.

After their first victory at Albazin in 1685, the Manchus sent two letters to the Tsar (in Latin) suggesting peace and demanding that Russian freebooters leave the Amur. The Russian government, knowing that the Amur could not be defended, and being more concerned with events in the west, gave in. The Russians gave up the area north of the Amur River and east of the mouth of the Argun River but kept the area between the Argun River and Lake Baikal. By 1685, most of the Russians who had come to the region had been driven out.

The Chinese wanted to remove the Russians from the Amur but were worried about possible Russian support for the western Mongols. They also wanted some kind of delineated frontier to keep nomads and outlaws from fleeing across the border. However within that frontier the Manchu did not apply, as we have seen, the same kind of rule as in China's heartland.

They were interested in the Amur since it was the northern border of the Manchu heartland. They could ignore the area west of the Argun since it was then controlled by the Oirats. The Russians knew that the Amur was indefensible and were more interested in establishing profitable trade. They accepted the loss of the Amur in exchange for the Manchu acknowledgement of the possession of Trans-Baikalia, an area that was not clearly Russian until then.

In 1727, the Treaty of Kiakhta fixed the border of Mongolia west of the Argun and opened up the caravan trade. In 1858 with the Treaty of Aigun Russia annexed the land north of the Amur and in 1860 Treaty of Beijing took the coast down to Vladivostok.

Therefore we can see a progress of Russia not exactly conquering Siberia but of the northern border of Qing territory being marked. This loose border was in line with the Chinese tradition, indicating the area of influence for the Northern Barbarians. The Russians were just the latest of a long line of roaming predators to which the invading Manchu were in a way kin. But for the Manchu who took over China the grand prize to be defended was not the frozen Siberian desert, but the rich and thriving Chinese heartland. Parts of that desert could be given up if it meant they could get more attention to the rich south.

However, the patter in the 18th century had already changed, as the empire that the Qing took over was challenged not only from the north but also from the south, as French colonizers were stepping in an area of former Chinese influence – the pacified south, Vietnam.

France-Vietnam relations started as early as the 17th century with the mission of a French Jesuit, Alexandre de Rhodes. At this time Vietnam, which for centuries had been a semi-independent state of China's empire, was free of the rule of collapsing Ming Dynasty and only just beginning to occupy the area of the Mekong Delta, former territory of the Indianized kingdom of Champa (Cambodia). European involvement in Vietnam was confined to trade during the 18th century.

In 1787, Pigneau de Behaine petitioned the French government and organized French military volunteers to aid the Vietnamese rulers. Pigneau died in Vietnam, his troops fought on until 1802. From then on, France was heavily involved in Vietnam protecting the work of the French Catholic missionaries. In fact, the French influence in Vietnam in the 19th century competed against that of the Chinese, and the local ruling kings of the Nguyen Dynasty, viewed the French as a counterweight to the Chinese.

From 1858 to 1884, France gained control of what was later French Indochina through a series of intervention against Vietnam, Siam (Thailand), culminating with the French-Chinese war of 1884-85, after that China ceded all form of control over the region and in 1887 French Indochina was formed.

The British threat came later than the threats from the extreme north (Russians) and the extreme south (France) - and at first Beijing underestimated them. The first opium war started in 1839, at exactly the same time of the first Afghan war, threatening the farthest western Chinese border. China lost the war, but at the time underestimated this loss as it was concentrating on repelling the greatest threat coming from the north, the Russians and Zungar Mongols. This was historically a much bigger danger, as most of Chinese dynasties had succumbed to attacks coming from the north.

The defeat in the Opium war started the whole process that in 1911 lead to the fall of the dynasty still before it the borders of the Qing empire were further challenged. In 1875 Japan, which had begun to adopt Western reforms, forced Korea to declare itself independent from China in its foreign relations and China partly lost Korea to Japan.

Yet the process was not definitive. Japan supported the modernizing forces within the Korean government, while China continued to sponsor conservative officials gathered around the royal family. In 1884, a group of pro-Japanese reformers attempted to overthrow the Korean government, but Chinese troops under General Yuan Shikai rescued the king, killing several Japanese legation guards in the process. War was avoided by the signing of the Li-Ito Convention, in which both nations agreed to withdraw troops from Korea.

In 1894, however, Japan, in the wake of its successful modernization program and growing influence upon young Koreans, was not so ready to compromise. In that year, Kim Ok-kyun, the pro-Japanese Korean leader of the 1884 coup, was lured to Shanghai and assassinated, probably by Chinese agents. His body was put on a Chinese warship and sent back to Korea, where it was quartered and displayed as a warning to other rebels.

The Japanese government took this display as a direct affront, and the Japanese public was outraged. The situation was made tenser later in the year when the Chinese government, at the request of the Korean king, sent troops to aid in dispersing the Tonghak rebellion. The Japanese considered this a violation of the Li-Ito Convention, and sent 8,000 troops to Korea. When the Chinese tried to reinforce their own forces, the Japanese sank the British steamer Kowshing, which was carrying the reinforcements, further inflaming the situation.

War was finally declared on August 1, 1894. The Chinese force was much larger and better armed, but the Japanese had done a more successful job of modernizing their command structure, and they were better prepared. Japanese troops scored quick and overwhelming victories on both land and sea. By March 1895, the Japanese had successfully invaded Shandong and Manchuria and fortified posts that commanded the sea approaches to Beijing. The Chinese sued for peace.

In the Treaty of Shimonoseki, which ended the conflict, China recognized the independence of Korea and ceded Taiwan, the adjoining Pescadores islands, and the Liaodong Peninsula in Manchuria. China also agreed to pay a large indemnity and to give Japan trading privileges on its territory. This treaty was later somewhat modified by Russian fears of Japanese expansion, and the combined intercession of Russia, France, and Germany forced Japan to return the Liaodong Peninsula to China.

A further encroachment on Chinese territory came again from the British, trying to gain power over Tibet, which was linked to China, like Vietnam or Korea, in a form of vassalage.

British encroachment in Tibet came with the Younghusband Mission, which turned out de facto to be a full-scale invasion of Tibet. It took place during the viceroyalty of Lord Curzon (1899-1905). The British Government suspected that the Tsarist Russian hegemony was spreading to Tibet at the invitation of the thirteenth Dalai Lama, Thubten Gyatso, through the Mongol Buryat (who were then under Russian rule). They suspected a growing Russian presence in Lhasa.

Curzon appointed Colonel Francis Younghusband to head a civil mission to Lhasa escorted by some 3,000 soldiers and 7,000 support staff under Brigadier James Macdonald. The British desire to enter Tibet met a fierce Tibetan resistance which was eventually overtaken.

The British marched into the Forbidden City, after which Lhasa agreed to pay indemnities of the war and to sign a treaty apologizing for its resistance. Yet, after the victory the British withdrew from the inhospitable region. In the following years the Tibetan elite wavered over support for their erstwhile patrons, the Chinese, or for the newcomers, the British. Yet, no foreign forces could stay for long in Tibet, whose resources were too scarce to support ''long term guests''.

What we had at the beginning of the 20th century was one China completely different from the past. It was boxed in by foreign powers biting at pieces of its former ''dominions'', and the concept of loose buffer borders had been changed completely. European powers, or new powers adopting new European concepts, like Japan, defined with China, all around it, frontiers which were clearer than in the past.

To stop encroachments, China had to adopt different ideas about its borders. New ideas of frontiers were first adopted by nationalist China, which marked on paper a large territory comprising Tibet and Outer Mongolia. In fact those territories were de facto independent after the fall of the Qing Empire.

After helping the communists take over China, Russia carved out millions of square kilometers and established a protectorate over Outer Mongolia. Tibet, still was open to be re-conquered. Tibet did not have enough food and grains to feed extra mouths and the high plains killed or fatigued all the non-Tibetans. Modern technology, however, changed the game field.

The modern Western concept of territory dictated that China could not tolerate a buffer zone of a state at its border, but had to make its own unless another neighboring country, say India or Burma or Pakistan, take over Tibet.

On the other hand, once its territory is set, it's in China's interest to keep the American world order as it is. China, looking at the American experience at the Balkans, Africa, the Middle East, Central Asia, sees that tampering with the status quo doesn't give better global results, but actually makes matters worse for overall global stability. In other words, no matter that the Iraqi government or the Afghan situation was bad and despicable, American intervention made things worse, not better.

The Middle East issue remains for China a cause of great concern and uncertainty. China believes that the situation of Israel is some kind of trap in which the Americans will be caught in the Middle East and a rallying point for former divided and disunited Arab and Muslim countries.

According to view from China, the Middle East trap was a deliberately set by Stalin at the end of World War II to enmesh and bleed America to death. Beijing also sees that, although delayed for many years, this is actually working and deeply wounding America's position in the world.

China is thus not clear about what to do with Israel at present. Traditionally, it admires and respects Jews for their ability to make money and be a driving force of development. On the other hand, from the geopolitical point of view, it sees the Israeli position as untenable. China is unwilling therefore to take on the burden of being Israel's paladin, crusader, and defendant.

China is deeply scared of a mounting Muslim threat in its own Xinjiang region and is also diffident of Arab and Muslim countries as they prove over and over again to be unable to move on the path of development.

Since there are more than one billion Muslims in the world and they control most of its oil and gas resources, therefore it is impossible to think one can wage war on them or change the overall situation unless a major technological breakthrough makes oil and gas redundant. Yet even then, the sheer number of Muslims makes it difficult for China to think of confronting them all. It is thus possible that China could continue its present policy of ''two ovens'' - on the one hand officially being a good friend of the Muslim world but in reality being a good friend of Israel.

With Muslims, it has to keep good neighborly and necessary relations but with no feeling, with Israel it has to keep bad official relations but real and very warm feelings. Replicated in many other spheres, balancing acts such this are part and parcel of China's foreign policy as it seeks to benefit from and shape the status quo.  (2011-04-14 Asia Times)


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