Reinforcing China’s Borders And ‘The Great Illusion’ [Opinion]

Chinese parade in Hong Kong during official visit in June, 2017.
Vincent Yu / AP

During the last few months, there have been concerning developments along the borders of the People’s Republic of China. South of Tibet, Beijing’s attempts at building a road to Bhutan ended in a standoff against Indian troops, with inflamed rhetoric coming from both sides.

More recently, the People’s Liberation Army has also been reinforcing its positions along the 1,400-kilometer-long border with North Korea, CNN reports. It is assumed Beijing is getting ready for the consequences of any intervention in North Korea, either by direct action by the U.S. and allies or through a hypothesized regime change.

At the same time, Chinese jets continue to have tense meetings with American aircraft along the Asia-Pacific region. Recently a pair of Su-30 long-range fighters intercepted an EP-3 spy plane, coming closer than 300 feet from the American aircraft, which is considered an extremely dangerous distance.

As the agency Reuters reports, such incidents are not uncommon, but they do show the current state of the U.S.-China affairs on the topic of political influence and objectives for the region. When such incidents happen, the media are sometimes quick in warning against possible signs of impending war.

In face of all of this, one should keep a cold head and try to read between the lines. Most of the posing is meant as just that: propaganda to be fed to the public. In international politics, what you make yourself to be can be more important than what you actually are.

Sometimes, though, when something is repeated enough times, one may fall into his own hyperbole.

Chinese President Xi Jinping reviews honor guard before a ceremony.
Xi Jinping is the current president of the People’s Republic of China, and has led some important reforms in the country. [Image by Mark Schiefelbein/AP Images] Mark Schiefelbein / AP

China is a true emerging superpower. Beijing has been an important regional player for quite some time, and before the breakup with Moscow it was an important member of the Soviet bloc. Ever since, the country took its own path that consecutive rulers have attempted to make it ascend as one of the most powerful nations in the world.

Mao’s policies were disastrous. Embargoes and the strained relation with the Soviet Union kept China’s growth at bay for a few decades. Nevertheless, it remained a strong regional power, which intervened in the Korean War and in several small wars along its borders.

One can say that at this early stage, the priorities of Beijing were to control its own borders and internal space. One should keep in mind that the current 1.3 billion strong Chinese population is very diverse, with some regions not really caring much for being part of the people’s republic. Nevertheless, strong internal policy measures and efforts at creating a dynamic economy were put in place to control dissidence.

On the military front, Beijing has been using reverse-engineering and espionage to develop their own military industry. Although still lacking maturity in some fronts, Chinese military hardware is numerous and has been improving. In fact, military planners seem to be developing strategies to counter American technological edge, like the commonly mentioned saturation strategy, which implies overwhelming point-defenses with so many missiles that one will inevitably go through and cause damage.

Meanwhile, the core of the political system, the Communist Party itself, reorganized. The implementation of Deng Xiaoping’s economic theories in the 1980s and 1990s allowed an increment of the market competitiveness by imbuing it with a capitalist edge.

The geopolitical analyst Robert D. Kaplan has made references to how this system is used as part of the mechanisms maintaining the populace in line. Basically, the essence of the matter is that the state will keep providing jobs, and while the jobs exist, people will tolerate it. This is compounded with a strong propaganda machine.

With these issues taken care of, China moved to a next step in its path to becoming a superpower, which was moving away from its zone of comfort and intervening more in the world affairs.

In essence, the main approach implies forcing China’s presence in the regions it claims for itself, counting on the neighbors’ unwillingness to act forcefully to provide the time needed to establish bases, build roads, and make deals that will make Chinese presence an indisputable fact of life in the long run.

Of course, this has led China to an inevitable clash with the neighboring nations, who seldom intend on having their own influence disputed. The case is especially grave with Japan and Korea, and even more with India.

New Delhi is another ascending global power, with great ambitions for itself. Although for now it is mostly focused on the Indian Ocean, the northern borders, with Pakistan and China, are also of concern to India, and the current dispute in Doklam relates with the unwillingness of India to allow China to simply impose itself in Bhutan.

India, a traditional Russian client, has been following the example of other Asian countries and started to lean towards the U.S. Washington is, maybe, the greatest long-term concern for Beijing.

Currently, the U.S. is the global power. In the past Washington followed a route not much dissimilar to what China is doing, imposing its presence throughout the world. It was aided by the World Wars, which in a way forced the country to break from previous isolationist tendencies, and after the end of the Cold War the U.S. were left as the one superpower in the globe.

As China grows out of its cage, confrontation becomes increasingly inevitable.

J-11 jet fighters aboard the Chinese carrier Liaoning.
J-11 jet fighters aboard the Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning. [Image by Kin Cheung/AP Images] Kin Cheung / AP

Conversely, war, like everything else in politics, is closely related to economy.

Both Beijing and Washington need to show strength, but none of them truly wants a fight. Not only would it be absolutely destructive, but both countries are strongly involved into each other’s economy as well. Many American companies have factories in China, while Chinese investments are quite prevalent in the U.S. and elsewhere.

There are parallels in this situation that can be traced to India and even Japan. All of these countries had economic issues that were solved through trade and some degree of cooperation. Moreover, the leaders need to show antagonism in order to calm their respective populations and show they maintain their legitimacy.

There is a notion that direct conflict between any of these nations is not really plausible. It is possible, and the fears being thrown back and forth in the mass media are not totally unwarranted, but the underlying sensation one gets when studying flashpoints like the Asia-Pacific region or Ukraine is that most leaders aren’t really looking for a fight, at least not against “proper” enemies.

Fighting against rebels in a border or in a distant land or pushing aside a smaller ally of one of the rivals is one thing. But a Great War? No one is really looking for that, and sometimes that is quite visible.

But history has shown that things can go spectacularly wrong.

In 1909 the English author Normal Angell published Europe’s Optical Illusion, a book that would later be expanded and re-titled as The Great Illusion. In it, the author explained how improbable a war between the European nations would be due to the economic interdependence.

Chinese soldiers perform during an open day in Hong Kong.
The Chinese armed forces have been developing greatly during the last decades and are a force to be reckoned with. [Image by Kin Cheung/AP Images] Kin Cheung / AP

As we now know, Angell ended up being shown to be wrong in the most terrible fashion.

Like the empires of the early 20th century, the global powers of today have little to gain in a direct confrontation. But sometimes it is not about the inherent logic of the conflict that the problem lies, but in the demon of unforeseen consequences.

In Doklam, Chinese and Indian officials exchange severe threats on a daily basis. As before, such remarks exist to make a stand, and they are accompanied by propaganda meant to show that the respective nations are ready to fight if it comes to that.

Could both sides feed themselves with so much of their own propaganda that they start believing in it? From China’s standpoint, could a situation like Doklam or a border clash in North Korea be seen as a way to prove how much the country has grown and its new position in the world stage?

As military hardware gathers at the borders for this show of force meant to reinforce rhetoric without breaking the status quo, the possibility of a fatal mistake increases. War may be improbable, but we cannot underestimate the potential for disaster when global powers get comfortable with constant posturing.

[Featured Image by Vincent Yu/AP Images]