China: Checking the boxes for fear of true global humiliation
We’ve heard solutions and non-solutions to the Chinese aggressive actions in the South China Sea, and an official statement from Foreign Affairs Secretary Perfecto Yasay Jr calling for restraint and sobriety following the Permanent Court of Arbitration (PCA) ruling. Some demanded that China should leave the West Philippine Sea and others, to not agitate China and let their humiliation from the ruling, completely sink in.
First of all, the call for calm and restraint was expected coming from a diplomat.
We have to dig deeper into what exactly does Duterte plan to do with the ruling. China will not leave the Spratlys now that they’ve heavily invested in their artificial island projects and certainly not from the demands of a country that in their eyes is militarily insignificant. China will never consider the PCA ruling a humiliation because they’ve already drawn their conclusions from the start: the UN intervention would be irrelevant and it would be a meaningless loss against an unworthy opponent.
China’s unilateral actions have long been justified in their minds. Control of the South China Sea’s trading routes and the oil and gas reserves in the Spratlys, is more than just for economic reasons. It’s an important step toward fulfilling their global aspirations, to be able to challenge the only superpower in the world, the U.S. and then to become one.
It might be a little bit too late but it’s worth looking into some of the strategies of Chinese General-strategist-philosopher Sun Tzu of ancient China, one of which is “You can be sure of succeeding in your attacks if you only attack places which are undefended.” Two of China’s undefended weaknesses are in the cultural and economic places.
Checking the boxes
China recognizes the enormity of the task ahead and is well-aware of what it’ll take to get there. It starts with the economic wealth needed to fund building up its military power to match the US To be the next superpower has been their long-term goal and a failure will manifest itself as a huge blow to one of their weaknesses and what they fear the most: true global humiliation, in the strict sense.
For China, the recent UN ruling is but a flea on a dog that it can tolerate to hang on forever. Its true fear is buried deeper than a “flea” could reach.
To allay their fears, they’ve been checking the boxes on the path to getting things done. These are military power, economic power, political influence, scientific influence and cultural influence, all to be close to or better than the U.S. It will take a long time but it’s not beyond the realms of possibility that their lofty ambitions will come to fruition by around 2030.
They’ve so far checked one box when we saw their GDP based on PPP (Purchasing Power Parity) surpassed the US.
The militarization of the artificial islands in the Paracels and the Spratlys is just one of their planned moves before they can check the military buildup and political influence boxes. There are many other moves, like parts of a puzzle, needed to support their intent to expand their territorial reach to become the first regional superpower, a stepping stone for the next world superpower.
So what other things have they since accomplished?
The Chinese are the masters of reverse engineering.
For example, lagging behind the US in stealth technology, they embarked on detailed analysis of the downed F-117 stealth jet in 1999, followed by cyber-attacks for design data targeting the Lockheed Martin’s stealth projects.
They’ve successfully launched a J-20, a cheaper copy of the F-22 Raptor but inferior unless proven otherwise. Then came the J-31 version of the F-35 Lightning II, but again with their own military doubting it has the same capability as the F-35.
They only have one aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, their first reworked older Russian model and are now building a second one. They’re also busy on a more ambitious nuclear-powered 110,000-ton super aircraft carrier to better the 100,000-ton U.S. Ford-class aircraft carriers. They’ll do whatever is necessary to catch up with the U.S. despite knowing that it would be a very long and arduous undertaking. To put this into perspective, talking about aircraft carriers alone, today the U.S. has 10 Nimitz-class and 2 Ford-class nuclear-powered aircraft carriers.
Similarly, they have a ways to go before they can check the scientific box and being tight-lipped about the recent rash of cyber-piracy against the U.S., only explains their lack of innovativeness.
In the world rankings on cultural influence in 2014, China was 14 positions below the US.
So nobody can blame them for first checking all the boxes, after all it’s only their future superpower status at stake.
The “what ifs”
The Philippines, weak economically and militarily, does not have many good options, but if we turn to another of General Sun Tzu’s strategies, “We should observe, calculate and outwit, without actually engaging in a battle”, there might just be a ray of hope for keeping the Spratlys.
China’s diminishing resources in coal, which will get exhausted in the next 35 years or so, was more than enough incentive to aim for the Spratlys. After they saw the low-lying fruit close enough to their backyard with the billions of dollars in oil and gas underneath the reefs, it was most cost-effective to build the artificial island that would support drilling operations and militarily, defend their cause.
They also see in natural gas, the cleaner fuel of choice in line with their commitment to reduce GHG emissions and at the same time, another justification to delay the billions of dollars that will get tied up in their committed nuclear power plant projects.
So now ….
- What if Duterte announces an offer to foreign investors that they can’t refuse, to partner with the Philippines in a massive natural gas explorations near the Spratlys?
- What if Duterte starts the talks with the U.S. about a U.S. military base in Mindanao to ensure that the international trade routes in the South China Sea are preserved?
- What if Duterte, as he has threatened the power oligarchs in the recent past, invites foreign investors from Africa to South America, to build natural gas-fired power plants in Mindanao?
- What if Duterte incentivizes FDIs (Foreign Direct Investment) to move factories to Mindanao with guaranteed reliable low-cost power and low-cost labor that China cannot beat?
- What if Duterte promotes a full-blown environmentally-safe mining for rare earths that China is now virtually out of supply?
These “What ifs” are threatening situations that will feed directly into their fear of true humiliation because these will involve powerful global actors who will have skin in the game, not mere “flea” opponents that could be handily brushed off.
Back in the mainland, China’s booming economy has become one of its biggest weaknesses. If we ask the General, he’ll say that China is now self-attacking one of its own undefended weaknesses.
The manufacturing surge that catapulted their unprecedented GDP growth, was significantly supported by the conversion of farmers into factory workers. That in effect transformed a significant group more than the population of the U.S., into the new middle-class.
However, the recent economic slowdown only fed into the fears of a “middle-income trap” that most former farmers are now already in. The government want them to spend but unlike the west, the former farmers would rather save as they’ve been culturally accustomed to. In view of that, a broad sustainable middle-class might not emerge.
Many can no longer go back to farming, as the rough transition from an export-driven economy to that of a consumption-driven one is underway. The feeling of being trapped will persist as more factories continue to cut manpower in response to the oversupplied global market.
The aftermath of massive factory layoffs will eventually morph into public protests and civil unrest.
In the meantime, the government has been busy providing subsidies and assurances of some social safety net. Whether this program will have a happy ending or not, is yet to be seen.
In the near future, the Chinese government could be in a precarious position because a stalemate will be an indication of weakness and when publicized will manifest itself as instability around the country. They cannot allow this to develop because it will only support another segment of its potential true global humiliation.
Call to action
It’s time for President Duterte to click the “deploy” button for the “what ifs,” regardless of any notion that these are farfetched outside-the-box ideas.
In the eyes of Beijing, simply putting these out there will have the same impact as actually doing it. That’s because they’ll be faced with their own “What ifs” to think about and respond to, such as:
- What if some of these are already in the works?
- What if the critical point of no return for the Spratlys takes more time to be reached?
- What if China’s economic slowdown remains unabated with a struggling transition from an export-driven to a consumption-driven economy?
- What if the next US president displays a stronger view against a potential disruption of the South China Sea trading routes?
After the Beijing leaders have done their due deliberation, they’ll have to choose between “avoid true global humiliation” or “just let it play out." – Rappler.com
Rolly Calalang holds a BSME from UP Diliman and a BSEE from FEU Manila. He has experience in the power industry.