The Second Worst Scenario of a Sino-US Split
Momentary disruptions caused by a forced divorce with the US may be a catalyst for China to restore its historical position.
What is China’s historical position? Let’s examine some features which defined and sustained the ancient civilisation for most of past millennia.
First and foremost is defence capability.
China had never been a hegemonic empire, but it had long learnt that unarmed prosperity is an open invitation to invade; it had experienced this multiple times throughout its dynastic vicissitudes, most traumatically during the 19th century. Today’s Middle East is a sobering reminder that barbaric pillage has never stopped, just repackaged.
As a matter of priority, the People’s Republic has reestablished adequate defence against aggression. Presently, even America’s grotesquely oversized military, built at the expense of its education and health care systems, is no longer a credible threat. Lumbering USS carriers are fit only for a show, or mass burial of poor soldiers at sea, if they crossed China’s home-turf redline. Further afield, their destructive power remains predominant; but that is by now a familiar international menace which China alone can’t change.
The second is an effective political structure.
In ancient times, the Middle Kingdom’s advantage against nomadic adventurers was relative organisation. Nowadays, the Communist Party’s edge over imperial antagonists is relative rationality and long-term vision. Beijing has a coherent vision of the country in twenty, fifty, even a hundred years. Foresight of this magnitude is in fact necessary for any nation in our complex wold, especially when it comes to preserving planet Earth — our only home. Unfortunately, populist democracies can only see four years ahead max, less campaign time.
Some may argue that a Deep State with wider horizon is pulling the strings in major American policies, and that partisan politics is only a charade. But increasingly, the actors on stage are deviating from script. The director and producer, if they indeed exist, can only swear and jump backstage till the next act, or the curtain comes down.
Thirdly, ancient China was characterised by innovation, productivity, and a huge, vibrant, domestic market.
Since the Roman Empire, the traditional West had always wanted to trade with China, which treated international trade with reluctance, even suspicion and resistance at times. Periodically, China would close off its boarders completely without a press conference announcement. The Great Wall was not for tourism. The giant black swan of the industrial revolution changed all that, for a while.
When New China was established in 1949, the nation was battered and decrepit. Average life expectancy was 35, literacy had become rare, and national GDP stagnated below that of early Qing Dynasty in mid-seventeenth century. The country needed to rest in intensive care.
But in 1950, barely months after establishment of the People’s Republic, an alliance of sixteen Western nations, led by you know who, wasn’t going to let that happen. The People’s Liberation Army, armed with antiquated rifles, wearing green canvas liberation shoes which had recently replaced straw sandals, eventually pushed them back to the 38th Parallel in the Korean Peninsular. Many many died, in return for a few decades of lockdown recuperation.
Ancient empires wanted to trade with China for simple and pragmatic reasons: goods and market. They desired some of the goodies China produced, and wanted to sell their goodies to the giant vibrant market there. Whether they romanticised or demonised the Chinese was irrelevant.
Today, a similar commercial reality has again been created, with a globalised China. China is now the top trading partner of 124 countries
Today, a similar commercial reality has again been created, with a globalised China. China is now the top trading partner of 124 countries. It would take a lot more than Trump’s wishful thinking and histrionic tweets to change that fact.
EVEN if Trump’s impossible decoupling plan materialised, China will soon adapt. Presently, export makes up 17.4% of the country’s GDP. Nineteen percent of that goes to America. If export to the USA dropped to zero, the impact would be about 3.3%. Meanwhile, the Belt and Road economy and domestic demand, which have been growing impressively, will make up in no time.
Furthermore, 1.4 billion Chinese have been enjoying quantum leaps in living standards for a few decades now. A growth hiatus, even a period of manageable decline, would be beneficial to the country’s mental and physical health.
China is clearly well behind America in one area: international propaganda.
But with patience and perseverance, it may still be able to push the liars back to their parallel universe with boring facts and logic. Current asymmetry in this battlefield cannot be worse than that in the Korean Peninsular seventy years ago.
And so what if China lost the propaganda war resoundingly, and the Western masses started to loathe everything Chinese?
Australia, always a perfect example to illustrate befuddlement, is decades ahead of Trump and Pompeo in China loathing. Has it stopped buying everything made in China? Has it sailed a little gunboat over to lob cannon balls on us? In the end, it’s just meaningless spittle from a nation needing to recover from a historical inferiority complex, desperate for attention.
Out of Trump’s countless pouty threats, complete Sino-US decoupling in hi-tech areas is the most credible, and it’s happening. But that would likely be a development spur for China.
For decades now, China has been barred from anything NASA, including academic conferences. It’s also the only country not allowed anywhere near the International Space Station. Thanks to this stimulus, China now has the only quantum satellite up there, and visited the dark side of the moon. It’s also busy preparing to launch a space station.
China should feel ready for a Sino-US split, if that is what America really wants. From a longterm perspective, it may be a fortuitous turning point for the country.
However, this is only the second-worst scenario. The worst scenario is self-obliteration of suicidal Homo sapiens. In that event, Planet Earth will gradually recover its crystalline ocean and starry nights, but with nothing worth talking about from humanity’s point of view.
James Tam 2020.05.28