As one of the leading military historians and the author of the book “Carnage and Culture“ (that sparked my interest in a career in military history), I was rather disappointed in a recent article by Victor Davis Hanson that showed a lack of nuanced analysis by omitting many important historical and theoretical considerations, effectively marring this piece.
Hanson said that China resembled the British imperialism of the late 19th century: “coaling stations…dotted the globe and served British warships and commercial vessels in the 19th century. China is buying up leases on dozens of ports in key strategic areas from the Piraeus to the Horn of Africa. In theory, in time the Chinese could pressure such countries to deny entrance to hostile military or commercial rivals.”
That is factually correct but it isn’t as dangerous as Hanson suggests. The United States has even more ports around the world, and in the Horn of Africa they are sometimes very close to Chinese ports. The Chinese could exert pressure to close them down, but the U.S. has even more leverage to keep them open.
Having ports around the world is a natural part of a blue-water navy. As the attacks on the USS Cole and Sullivan show, having secure ports is needed to prevent terror attacks. But not all of their actions are quite as aggressive as the doomsayers would believe. Chinese naval forces have participated in anti-piracy operations along the Horn of Africa.
In fact, these actions might be compared to the operations of the Great White Fleet early in the 20th century that signaled America’s entrance on the world stage as a world power. If European analysts interpreted American actions the same way as modern analysts interpret Chinese actions we might conclude that Roosevelt was aggressively warning his neighbors and had sinister intentions.
Yet at the same time Hanson is warning about ports that suggest a growing blue-water navy, he turns around and implies, using a somewhat facile example from Germany in World War II, that China is essentially pursuing a Jeune Ecole philosophy. Hanson wrote “The threat of China is…that it will…deploy small and more numerous submarines, frigates, and shore-to-ship batteries to create storms of sophisticated anti-ship and anti-aircraft missiles that would ensure that key areas of the South China Sea were no-go zones for the fossilized multibillion-dollar flagships of the American navy.”
This could be the case, except that Hanson and others often breathlessly report on the creation of every new carrier and creation of a blue-water port around the world. Leaving the contradiction aside, a short review of that strategy’s potential impact and the American counter-responses suggests the threat isn’t nearly as large as analysts believe. From the networked sensors on the F-35, upgraded Arleigh Burke-class radar, hypervelocity rail guns, or repurposed artillery into anti-aircraft guns, American analysts have a strong case that they are prepared for the Chinese strategy and their ships are not “fossilized” or, as another flawed report said, “Blockbuster in the age of Netflix.”
Hanson says “That these massive investments in ports and infrastructure might seem to be bad financial deals makes their acquisitions even more astounding and strategically germane.” It might seem like a dictatorship can take a long-game approach and avoid short-term corrections and consequences as seen in a democracy. But the lack of market responses makes their bubble even bigger, and even more catastrophic when it bursts.
The one-child policy has introduced demographic challenges similar to Germany and Japan, with an aging population and a lack of young workers to support the care of the elderly. China still has a significant number of people living in caves and their progress is amazing, but it didn’t touch everybody and may not continue forever. They now have a debt bubble that is larger than that faced by the U.S. in 2008, even though their economy is one-third of the size. Recently their GDP dropped to just over one percent, which is half the growth of the U.S., and may decline further.
The last time China recorded a downturn was 1976, so China will eventually have to face a correction that will dwarf the U.S. crisis from 2008. It will perhaps be a crash, or maybe a decade-long recession similar to the much-vaunted Japanese economy. Whatever course the correction takes, it will mean that China’s investments in their belt and road initiative will end up being a noose around their neck.
Hanson is correct that China can use its ethnicity and race to game America’s race-conscious elite. Since 1950, Chinese leaders have fought offensive and often preemptive wars with each one of their neighbors, but they’ve been able to claim these are defensive measures. A careful look at the history suggests there is some merit to Chinese positions, but most often they are used as rhetoric to mask and justify aggression.
In fact, world history suggests these practices are counterproductive. Before World War I, Germany constantly worried about encirclement. As a result, they aggressively pursued their interests with their neighbors around them. But it often backfired. China claims they are addressing their rights and defending their sovereignty. But they are doing so by aggressively disputing land and maritime territories with most of their neighbors, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Vietnam, India, the Philippines, Malaysia, Brunei, and Indonesia. Much like Germany before World War I, these actions end up being counterproductive and create a ring of staunch opponents who ally against Chinese aggression.
Victor Davis Hanson produced an interesting piece that was unfortunately flawed with comparisons and analysis that didn’t address both sides of China’s potential danger. I tried to send him a copy of my latest book “Dragon’s Claws with Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy,” but he wasn’t interested. If he accepted my offer he would know that the Chinese are aggressive in several areas or figuratively have dragon’s claws. I have found through the example of long-term trends in America’s response to missile technology and historical examples such as Germany before World War I among others, that China’s rise is not as fearsome as Hanson believes.