Harmonisation in China: A Window into the Party’s biggest problems

“Harmonisation” joined the pantheon of CCP buzzwords partly as a way to make the pill of the end of class struggle and the cradle-to-grave economic support of state industrial workers go down more easily; yet the idea behind this and similar concepts has turned into a challenge in itself to the Party’s ability to bring meaningful change to the ordinary worker.

One thing that the study of China has brought home to me is just how Herculean the problems of governing so populous a country really are. Where I live, healthcare and education are regulated at the provincial level. In China, they are regulated at the township and village level, because that is the difference in the scale of the population. Harmonisation provides a window into the nature of these problems.

Anodyne Confucianism?

Harmonisation itself is a disputed concept. As with a great deal of Party rhetoric since 1978, it advances an inclusive agenda, wherein the Party represents everyone, not merely the working class. This, however, is where consensus ends. Many authors note that the concept of harmonious society references Confucius, and claim that the Party is hearkening to the values of the past in order to compensate for the ideological void left by the demise of Marxism. Holbig and Gilley disagree, noting that the CCP has faced a series of ideological challenges to Marxism through Confucian revivals over the past two decades. In this context, they interpret harmonisation as a ‘sterilisation’ of Confucianism as a potential rival to Party doctrine.

Ideological Bridging Mechanism?

Some authors go so far as to argue that harmonious society rhetoric is the logical link between current phase of China’s development and still-desired yet distant communism, taking Deng Xiaoping’s line, reiterated by Hu Jintao, that China is in the primary stages of socialism, and that realising the goal of the Party will take generations. One need not take this argument at face value to appreciate the value of harmonisation as a means of seamlessly weaving together the traditional ideological demands of the Party and the politics of the present. Harmonious society can be all things to everyone, precisely because it is not much of anything by itself. Harmonisation nicely accommodates every viewpoint without saying much about any of them, while simultaneously introducing an unhealthy atmosphere of conformism.

We will see that the same indeterminacy applies to the programs subsumed under the umbrella of harmonisation; while these are promising in many respects, it is difficult to make the case that they would not have occurred without harmonisation. Neither do they have any observable coherence among themselves which would suggest a planned, unified reform program that could be called “harmonisation.”

Labour

While programs designed to alleviate rural and regional inequality were not new to the party, it has been argued that harmonisation coincided with a new willingness to deal with labour rights issues, as part of a shift away from low-end manufacturing. The All-China Federation of Trade Unions (ACFTU) functioned up to this point mainly to prevent the rise of an independent labour movement, thus depressing labour costs, a stance that appears to have moderated to some degree. This is probably one of the best-documented original reforms claimed for harmonisation, and so deserves some attention.

At the level of labour relations, there has been a rise in rhetoric surrounding the role of the ACFTU, with Chairman Wang Zhaoguo calling for the unions to “organise the unorganised and fight for worker rights.” What effect this may have is unclear. Such symbolic victories as the Wal-Mart unionisation have so far been just that; the Wal-Mart union essentially pledged never to strike at its inception, and the avoidance of economic disruption is seen by the ACFTU as essential.

The 2007/8 Labour Contract Law made some advances in employment security, and the consultation process for that law included an unprecedented cross-section of civil society, including NGOs, workers and entrepreneurs. The Labour Contract Law drew over 200 000 online comments from the public following the release of the initial draft, and was extended as a result to cover part-time, contract and farm labour. The law shifted the basis of contract law in favour of employees by encouraging collective bargaining and indefinite-term written contracts. Despite employer resistance to the law, it has had the definite effect of sharply raising the number of employee litigations throughout China, thus providing a new pressure valve for labour discontent.

Part social policy, part macroeconomic tool, the Party’s new labour advocacy seeks to regularise the extremely tenuous position of the workers under market transition. There are many possible contributing factors to this policy, such as a desire to shift to higher-end skilled industries, the need to develop the internal market through a decently-paid workforce, and even latent guilt over the role of the Party of the working class in suppressing the interests of the working class. Yet there is one key factor, namely the increasing awareness and ability of the working class to organise and protest. The Party would have had no choice but to deal with labour irrespective of harmonisation for this reason alone. Further, despite the significant and disruptive effect of the Labour Contract Law, there is no evidence of a coordinated harmonisation plan, either between labour and other areas or within labour policy itself, and the Party organ involved, the ACFTU, remains the least effective aspect of labour policy.

Growth Pains

Harmonisation is commonly understood as implying a renewed focus on problems arising as byproducts of economic growth, particularly “rural poverty, income inequality and environmental degradation.” The Sixth Plenum resolution “Major Issues Concerning the Building of a Socialist Harmonious Society” specifies that the Party’s major focus until 2020 will be redressing inequalities, rebuilding medical care and improving access to education, while attempting to balance economic growth with environmental concerns. Other programs nominally associated with harmonisation include rural education and healthcare schemes and a rural minimum living stipend.

The idea that the Party can redress economic inequalities is predicated on the increase in central government revenue and a desire to redistribute some of that wealth. The central obstacles remain the lack of accountability mechanisms at lower levels of government, which are responsible for administering social programs, and a broken fiscal system. What seems to be lacking at the moment is a comprehensive plan to improve control over local administration, or conversely, to centralise these services. Rather, a series of initiatives that would have been necessary in any case have been brought under the umbrella of the harmonious society, without significant evidence of coordination or an overall plan.

Corruption

It is most likely that the program of harmonisation is foremost a matter of internal CCP housekeeping. Despite decades of anticorruption work and the removal of high-ranking cadres, corruption remains endemic at every level of administration. Various methods of holding cadres accountable to the people, including local elections, failed. During the past two decades of reform, performance evaluations have had a primarily economic basis, thus encouraging cadres to involve themselves heavily in local business enterprises. The harmonisation paradigm offers the potential to reorient toward good governance, rule of law and responsiveness to public needs, all of which CCP leadership sees as crucial to the Party’s continued ascendancy. Of course, the word itself doesn’t actually solve anything, but no doubt it’s the thought that counts.

In short, harmonious society is less of a policy and more a state of mind, a marker for what was certainly an inevitable shift in the Party’s legitimation strategy in a more advanced stage of economic development. At best, it is a direction that may lead the CCP to fulfill the promises harmonisation has made; at worst, it is a placebo designed to inspire unity while distracting the public from the truth that the Party still has no comprehensive program to deal with the rising tide of inequality, and the people’s rising demand for better services. In either case, harmonisation has certainly set high expectations, if not scientifically testable ones. The Party’s future may depend on its ability to follow through.

Richard McGregor, The Party: The Secret World of China’s Communist Rulers (New York: HarperCollins, 2010)

Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, “China in Search of a Harmonious Society” in Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, eds. China in Search of a Harmonious Society, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008)

Haiyan Wang, Richard Appelbaum, Francesca Degiuli and Nelson Lichtenstein, “China’s New Labour Contract Law: Is China moving toward increased power for workers?” Third World Quarterly 30 No. 3 (2009)

Alice Miller, “Hu Jintao and the Sixth Plenum,” China Leadership Monitor 20 (Winter 2007)

Joseph Mahoney, “On the Way to Harmony: Marxism, Confucianism and Hu Jintao’s Hexie Concept,” in Baogang Guo and Sujian Guo, eds. China in Search of a Harmonious Society, (Plymouth: Lexington Books, 2008)

Heike Holbig and Bruce Gilley “Reclaiming Legitimacy in China,” Politics and Policy 38 no. 3 (2010)

Malcolm Warner and Ying Zhu, “Labour and Management in the People’s Republic of China: Seeking the ‘harmonious society’” Asia Pacific Business Review 16 no. 3 (2010)

Christine Wong, “Rebuilding Government for the 21st Century: Can China incrementally reform the public sector?” The China Quarterly 200 (2009)

Surface Combatant Role Definition for Middle Power Navies

The purpose of this article is to propose a new distinction in classifications which will be useful to middle power navies in more clearly defining their requirements.

Classifications

The navies with which this series is primarily concerned operate combatant vessels (for purposes of this article, we will define the latter as missile-armed vessels only) of three general classes. These are destroyers, frigates, and corvettes or patrol vessels. The trend has been to blur and confuse these categories, as capabilities of area air defence traditionally associated with destroyers have been incorporated into hulls with frigate classification, and the capability distinction between frigate and destroyer hulls has become economically unsustainable for all but a few navies (the Royal Navy with the Type 42/45 and Type 23/26, Japan, China, India and South Korea are the only nations currently producing or planning to produce both classifications in the future, given that the LCS designs of the United States are insufficiently armed in any configuration to match modern frigate designs and given that the Royal Canadian Navy’s future frigate/destroyer distinction will likely be one of armament rather than hull).

At the same time, corvette and patrol boat classes are in some cases becoming more capable, as with the Scandinavian Skjold and Visby classes and the Russian Steregushchy class. In any case, many navies continue to see the cost effectiveness of leveraging small, stealthy, fast and heavily-armed small vessels against larger targets (most notably the Chinese Type 022 Houbei class stealth catamarans).

Why We Buy

In order to do this, we must face one of the fundamental contradictions of naval procurement: navies purchase surface combatants for shore support, anti-piracy, anti-terrorist, humanitarian relief, goodwill and littoral roles for which they are both too expensive and manifestly ill-suited. Navies, like churches, endeavour to show that they are relevant, and carry out such missions in order to gain funding, which is then used to build surface combatants, which go forth and perform Operations Other than War throughout most of their service lives, ad nauseum. The rationale for not building dedicated ships for such missions is often to keep up numbers of surface combatants. Because the projected operational requirement for surface combatants is calculated factoring in OOW, however, the requirement becomes inflated artificially and precious funds are dispersed over a larger number of already expensive hulls at the expense of capabilities included in the design.

A Reluctant Distinction

In order to avoid this situation, it may be advisable for navies to make a clear distinction at the level of operational requirements between operations requiring fully capable surface combatants and those requiring something in the class of the United States’ High Speed Vessels. The latter concept has much to commend it. High speed ferries currently in service have proven extremely useful in cheap, rapid deployment of troops, equipment and vehicles, disaster relief and goodwill missions. In the form of the Sea Fighter prototype, there is potential for such a design, using largely Commercial Off-The-Shelf components, to undertake interdiction, anti-piracy, coastal patrol, shore support and low-risk missions such as coastal ASW and minesweeping, using containerised, removable equipment. The capabilities of such a ship in humanitarian roles could include conversion into containerised hospital facilities. As such, and with their greater cargo and transport capacity, they would represent a substantial and significant contribution to a broad range of operations, potentially far in excess of what a surface combatant could provide. Their military usefulness in transporting and supporting troops is equally clear.

Mistakes

This absolutely requires that the two major mistakes of the Littoral Combat Ship program not be repeated. This means that the design should privilege available empty space in the form of a large Ro-Ro deck and helicopter pad/container space above installed systems and/or warship-like appearance, and that there should be absolutely no military requirement creep with regard to the design, materials or installed systems apart from basic anti-missile defence, basic search radar and damage control. These ships do not need to be stealthy. If a program incorporating containerised armament and other military-specific features proves too expensive, simply buy an entirely COTS design, remembering that the main purpose of this hull is not to provide military capability, but to alleviate the operational tempo of militarily-capable platforms. Once again, avoiding feature creep is key to success.

Keys to Flexibility

This will allow surface combatant requirements, including hull numbers, to be confined to purely military needs. To reduce costs, all large surface combatants should share a common hull design, making use of modular systems to vary armament and equipment. Both Area Air Defence capable and non-capable ships would be of the same hull design. The keys to ensuring sufficient space and flexibility in armament are twofold. The first is to avoid the main avoidable mistake of every major European surface combatant program in the last decade by including sufficient (and sufficiently flexible) VLS tubes (64 tube minimum- this ensures a good mix of medium and short range SAMs capable of handling at least one saturation missile attack, plus room for anti-ship, ASW and land attack missiles without modification). There is no flexibility boost greater than a large number of Mk. 41 VLS tubes.

The second key to flexibility is a flex deck, which is simply a flat surface with the ability to attach containerised weapons, a concept used to great success by the Danish Navy. The ability to procure a number of hulls and, separately, containerised weapons systems on a Standard Flex- type model and using the inherent versatility of Mk. 41 VLS tubes, would create both savings and flexibility within a program, allowing hulls to be repurposed and allowing hulls and weapons systems to be procured on a flexible schedule. Given the rapid turnaround time for swapping StanFlex modules, a cash-strapped navy could conceivably swap weapons from ships returning to port to other hulls about to deploy. The catamaran hull form is ideal for this type of ship, as it provides the abundant surface area which maximises the potential of the modular concept.

Leveraging Small Vessels

The third and final type to identify is the corvette/ patrol vessel. It is well known that the LCS program was heavily inspired by the Scandinavian Skjold and Visby classes. The absurd cost and lacking armament of the LCS ships result from attempting to turn a concept for fast, extremely sea-worthy and well-armed single or dual purpose corvettes into a combination FFG replacement, Minesweeper replacement, War On Terror and OOW mutant and jack of all trades. Separating some of these roles into a seperate HSV design is therefore critical. What makes even more sense is a clear distinction between frigates, corvettes and high-speed vessels, multiple cheap and individually-capable classes being preferable to an expensive hybrid that is designed to do everything.

Taking the superb Skjold design as a basis, something not much bigger could, by containerising the NSM missile armament (which is conveniently placed aft), substitute basic ASW equipment such as a towed array, sonobuoys, USV and torpedoes (Skjold’s basic characteristics of speed, lateral manoeuvrability, low torpedo vulnerability and low radar cross-section lend themselves to this role, in much the same way that the RCN once contemplated for the hydrofoil Bras d’Or). Skjold is also a superb craft for littoral covert operations, and may be adaptable to minesweeping (better to have a purpose-built minesweeper, but better a modular capability than none at all). With its extremely low crew requirements and impressive capabilities, Skjold is a benchmark by which to measure craft of its size, an exceptional solution for any navy looking to rapidly and cheaply boost their capability.

This demarcation of roles between Major Surface Combatant, High Speed Vessel and Corvette may seem like a political risk, but it fairly neatly avoids several of the major pitfalls inherent in naval procurement programs today. Above all, it avoids the distortion of surface combatant roles and the stretching of resources to favour number of surface combatant hulls over the capabilities incorporated, by providing a relatively cheap solution for missions other than naval combat.

US-Russian Relations in Post-Cold War Retrospective: Could the United States have won Russia over?

Whether the United States “won” the Cold War by spending the USSR into the ground, or whether it was won for them by the great awakening that spread across Eastern Europe in the 1980s is a matter of continuing debate; that the end of the Cold War was a complete shock to exactly that group of scholars which now embraces the former theory is not. Whichever is the case, one thing that is clear in retrospect about that historical moment is that the United States and its European allies failed to secure the peace as well as they should have.

US in Russia: Enabling Paranoia

By now, we are all used to seeing the weekly Russian-American spat. Yes, there are historical and psychological factors behind this, going back as far as Ivan the Terrible, who taught his successors to unite Russia through fear of the West. And yes, Putin is a masterful manipulator of this psychological tendency. But the West made it easy. How many Russians after the humiliating decline and poverty of the 1990s looked back to the Soviet Union with nostalgia, the good old days when poverty at least had a defined bottom? And how easy to blame the change on the West, which gained everything by Russia’s decline and no doubt stood by laughing. And then, how tempting to look back on the military might of the Soviet Union and say, as many Russians do, “They were afraid of us then!”

From there, militarisation and nationalist bellicosity become embedded in Russian politics, and with them the price that Ivan the Terrible and Peter the Great and Lenin and Stalin have all taught their people to accept: a strong boss at the top of a strong state which will tax the people in order to defend them and spy on them and repress undesirable elements in order to keep them safe.

Consider the Following

Could this regression have been prevented? Could the West have prevented it? No one can answer that question. But the West certainly could have done more. Consider the following scenario:

In the early 1990s, after the fall of the Union, American economic advisors were sent to advise Russia on how to manage the transition to capitalism. From the perspective of these advisors, the Russian political establishment was so caught up in its internal problems that it implemented their advice haphazardly and clumsily. From the Russian perspective, the Americans were suspect representatives of a foreign ideology who gave a lot of advice and did little besides.

Suppose the United States had sent a high-level envoy to Russia with a whole package of economic incentives, including trade concessions and widespread industrial collaboration. Many Russian industries which simply could not compete on an open market could have been easily updated through industrial partnerships rather than sold off in bulk to corrupt predators. Above all, the United States should have tried to sustain the existing economic structure, and advised the Yeltsin government to do so, until it could be consciously and carefully privatised, rather than the disastrously rapid sell-off that actually occurred. The concessions on offer would have been the guarantee of the government’s attention.

Defence Industry

The United States, realising that Russia’s massive military industrial complex represented its only sound manufacturing industry and that it could easily represent a threat to the peace if left to itself, could have invested in industrial partnerships designed to convert large parts of this sector to civilian use, giving Russia the incentive of access to up-to-date computers and electronics. The remainder of this sector could have been safely sustained by giving it US defence contracts (in partnership with US firms). This would have benefitted the US military enormously by giving them cheap access to the systems they are most likely to face in future conflicts, as well as advances in areas such as ground-based surface-to-air and supersonic anti-ship missiles, artillery and so on in which the United States has always lagged behind. Imagine a defence establishment with the insight to redirect the billions of dollars wasted in the past two decades on cancelled and overbudget programs into partnerships with Russian industry, which had the foresight to buy Su-30s to supplement the USAF’s ageing F-15 fleet, which bought Sovremenny-class destroyers before China could get to them, which for a fraction of today’s defence budget had unlimited access to cheap, highly-effective systems. Russia would gain access to the world’s biggest defence market, all for the low, low price of first crack at every product they made and the occasional under-the-table veto of a purchase to a hostile country.

All of the above could have meant that American aid dollars, rather than doping the Russian economy, could have been used to sustain it until it reached profitability. Even if the project failed (and since trying to keep a lid on Yeltsin, let alone his various governments, would at best have been an exercise in bull-riding, it very likely would have), the United States could have bought itself enormous capital, and given Russia enormous face, by placing such importance in the project. Blame for any failure would have more than likely landed in Yeltsin’s lap, as long as the US were smart enough to make a point of deferring to him on a regular basis.

Face

Face is the important quantity here. Russia’s abiding inferiority/superiority complex is one of the more prominent and remarked-upon aspects of its national character. The country that built the world’s biggest submarine, biggest nuclear-powered cruiser, biggest ICBM, biggest strategic rocket force and biggest bomber has a burning need to be recognised as an equal among equals, to be respected. That is precisely what it did not feel during the 1990s, and it is that omission for which we are now paying.

It Couldn’t Have Happened

Of course, very little of the above would have been politically possible. Asking the US Congress to abandon pork-barrel politics long enough to place major defence orders overseas, asking the US to actually build up an economic competitor, asking France and Germany to risk adding Russia to the list of their competitors for EU leadership- it’s all quite impossible. So, you may ask, what is the point of this indulgence in counterfactual history if it couldn’t have happened?

Short-Term Thinking

The point is that the sort of strategic short-sightedness demonstrated by the United States in its relationship with Russia arises from the same political defects that continue to diminish its position in the world today. Anyone remember the Asian Financial Crisis back at the turn of the millennium? That was America’s golden opportunity to make friends in Asia. The US wasn’t paying attention, and it was China that swooped in and bailed out its neighbours, gaining very substantial goodwill and laying the groundwork for the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement. That agreement came about because China was willing to make substantial unilateral economic concessions, tailored country by country, on the basis of a principle called “giving six, taking four.” It was about the long game.

The entire scenario spelled out above was inspired by the strategies of the Chinese Communist Party, both in its internal economic policies and in its so-called “Charm Offensive.” These people are incredibly smart, enjoying the world’s oldest and most sophisticated strategic culture, and unlike the United States political establishment, they play the long game as a matter of habit. And yet, the West remains predisposed through political dogma to regard the Party as a relic, an impediment to China’s progress, rather than the architect thereof. All that the Party needs to continue winning in international politics is to continue being underestimated. It has found a basic weakness of the American system, and is both exploiting it directly, and profiting by the fruits of it- the Sino-Russian arms relationship has been a prime example. So long as the United States lacks the political will to address the strategic shortcomings of its current lucre-greased electoral system, any great power lacking that liability will be able to exploit it.

Global Financial Crisis Through Chinese Eyes- The Atlantic Interview

One of the best reflections out there on the Global Financial Crisis comes, unsurprisingly, from China. It is clear to anyone who has read the literature on the course of China’s economic development that the economic strategy and learning curve of China’s political class is quite formidible, and ironically immune to many of the ideological blinkers that hamper Western economics. Deng Xiaoping was the one who famously remarked that it doesn’t matter if the cat is white or black so long as it catches mice. This interview in the Atlantic with the American-educated Gao Xiqing, President of the Chinese Investment Corporation (which is heavily invested in the American economy) contains some of the most interesting insights into the Chinese view of the crisis I have seen, and many things which we ought to take to heart.

A Change of Thinking

Gao points to the skyrocketing leverage ratios of investment banks as evidence of a disturbing economic trend. “Thirty years ago, the leverage of the investment banks was like 4-to-1, 5-to-1. Today, it’s 30-to-1. This is not just a change of numbers. This is a change of fundamental thinking. People, especially Americans, started believing that they can live on other people’s money.”

As for financial derivatives- debt packaged for resale- he thinks this is an instance of collective irrationality for the economy. When called to give a presentation to the State Council under Premier Zhu Rongji, he explained derivatives using the metaphor of mirror images. You have a product with value, a book, and you sell that. Then you sell a mirror image of the book- the stock- in order to get money to make more books. Then you sell a mirror of that stock debt, and a mirror of the mirror of the mirror. Each individual product seems to make sense; collectively, the whole enterprise is inflationary.

A Broken Incentive System

Gao also sees a big problem with the compensation scheme for the financial sector: “People in this field have way too much money. And this is not right.” “It distorts the talents of the country,” since the allocation of compensation has the power to incentivise the expenditure of talent, in this case redirecting it from productive activities to ancillary activities. He cites friends of his who could have gone into productive scientific fields choosing finance or law instead, because they pay so much better. The result of this distortion of the country’s talent market is a whole culture of geniuses finding ever new and better ways to repackage debt into complicated financial products.

American power, he says, depends entirely on people telling the truth about the American system and the American ability to accept that truth and change in pragmatic ways. On the global level, America must accept responsibility for the system which supports it, and renegotiate that system. But, Gao warns, world confidence in that eventuality is waning.

China in the South Sea Islands: Pride Goeth (first published 7/23/12)

This article was written just before the recent announcement by China of its intention to garrison the Paracel Islands, and should be read accordingly.

When island standoffs come once every few weeks, and the grounding of Chinese frigates on disputed shoals is the expected order of the day, the question “Why the heck does anyone care?” moves to the forefront of the minds of most reasonable observers. What the Spratleys or the Paracels actually represent to China’s foreign policy from an internal perspective is a question comparatively ignored. Of course, answers of a sort to both questions are quick to hand. Resources, national prestige. But what does that really mean?

Energy

Is the CCP so worried about the vulnerability of their energy supplies, not to mention future shortfalls as development continues, that they are consciously risking the very considerable goodwill they had amassed in the past decade of Chiang Mai currency swaps, the China-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement and a carefully-strategized soft-power offensive on the geostrategic necessity of finding abundant, proximate oil and gas resources? There is reason to believe that China is deeply concerned about the vulnerability of its African oil supply to disruption en route through the Indian Ocean and the Malacca Straits. Further, the CCP has known for over a decade that it will have to dampen consumption levels and invest in sustainable technologies or risk outstripping the conceivable energy (and other) supplies available to them. However, it is quite likely that they have a few years left to go before that wall is in sight.

Prestige and Territory

East Asia is home to quite a number of ongoing territorial disputes, both maritime and continental, and China is involved in quite a few of them, yet life has somehow gone on without any hint of resolution. It could be that what China might have seen as pre-emptive actions in the region- notably Vietnam’s threat last year to grant oil concessions in the Spratleys- required a countervailing assertiveness for home consumption, and that the issue has snowballed. If this were the case, we could expect China to look for an opportunity to cool the issue down.

What Happened to the ‘Peaceful Rise’?

Why didn’t the recent ASEAN meeting show any sign of this? China wants all of these issues to be negotiated on a strictly bilateral basis. China has historically been quite careful about the limitations it might incur through multilateral commitments, and ASEAN can be said to bear much of the credit for acculturating China to the many multilateral organisations it has joined in the last decade. In the end, however, the strain of caution remains, and China may well see multilateral negotiation as a dangerous gamble particularly here, where they would have to be seen to play by ASEAN rules in the best case, and in the worst case the United States might try to muscle in, as it already has. Unfortunately, many ASEAN countries seem to have been driven beyond the point where the status quo is considered acceptable. The issue is live, and China may not be able to defuse it.

That is one interpretation. Another is that the CCP has yet again done too good a job substituting nationalism for Maoism. This has got it into trouble before. Widespread protests erupted within China in 2005 over Japan’s bid for a Security Council seat, and were immediately suppressed by an embarrassed Communist Party. It could be that popular opinion has swung through China Emergent all the way to China Triumphant. The tone of Chinese military rhetoric and building programs certainly suggests something of the kind. If so, then the secret fear of many China observers could come to pass: that a situation might develop in which the Chinese Communist Party feels that it cannot defy nationalist sentiment in the name of reason and will abandon its long policy of conflict containment in order to survive politically.

By far the worst case scenario is that the Party leadership, having decided that it cannot or will not clean up the internal corruption, political and labour scandals which have led to a constant, exponential annual increase in public protest since the 1990s, actually views these events as a useful distraction. This is the worst case, not because the Party is stirring up conflict as a distraction a la General Galtieri in the Falklands, but because if it has truly thrown in the towel and given into another generation of corruption under the Party “princelings” (and the structure of the new leadership suggests that possibility) then China surely is headed for a different kind of wall, a political wall in addition to a resource wall. It will surely take other countries with it.

The Tone of the Region is up to China

In any case, whatever the scenario we entertain, the significance of the island disputes is not in the disputes themselves- but that does not mean they are not significant. Every scenario points to the same choice. If China doesn’t find the will and the means to cool things off (and no one but China can), China may find itself crashing right through all its rhetoric of “peaceful rise” and all of its hard-won trust in the region. China can be either the nationalist bully, or the conciliatory regional power- but the choice is in play.

Afterword

When this article was first written, it concluded with the words “Hang on to your hats.” Little did it appear how apt that advice might be. The decision to garrison the Paracels comes after the installation of a municipal government for the islands’ sparse population, and announcements regarding the development of tourism and natural resources. By themselves, any of these could be seen as diplomatic manoeuvres, and the garrisoning of the islands, which were captured from South Vietnam in 1974, is not an entirely surprising extension of China’s military presence in the group. Taken together, however, all of these things indicate a disturbing assurance on the part of China that it can make a disputed island group its own simply by behaving as though it were. China either does not expect anyone to muster the force or the will to effectively contest such a policy, or wishes for such an incident in order to demonstrate the futility of any resistance to its territorial boxes.

Regardless of the military fact that China can indisputably win any conflict up to a regional war with any or all Southeast Asian countries, in either case, it is making a serious mistake. Even if everyone backs down, the results would undoubtedly polarise the region, and even if no one wanted to risk open conflict, this would be a definitive end to the friendly face of China’s rise, and the beginning of a path that might ultimately lead to a confrontation involving the United States, something that could not fail to be disastrous for everyone involved.

Welcome to BeyondDefence, Bringing You the Story Behind the Story

Defence and Security are political. We all know that the stories we read in the papers, magazines, news sites and industry journals only captures the top layer of trends which historians will later paint much differently. This site will bring you the social, economic, strategic and technological trends and realities that underpin security policy globally using a variety of lenses new to the field of security policy. Our mission is to provide you with different ways of looking at security policy questions that transcends existing political camps and will facilitate greater security through greater understanding.

While we get started, we’ll be reposting a number of articles from the old blog, swiftly to be followed by new content. Enjoy, and please remember to like and comment so that we can bring our content to wider audiences.