Two things are
impeding Chinese efforts to achieve superpower status; economic stability and a network of powerful and reliable allies. The problems with economic stability are linked to the more serious problems with establishing stable relationships with other countries.
Chinese tradition prevents both of these because China traditionally recognizes only enemies and subordinate foreigners. China does not do allies in the traditional way. Current Chinese “allies” include Russia, North Korea, Cuba, Venezuela, Turkey, Pakistan and Iran. These are not what most countries would consider reliable and useful allies. Turkey and Iran are not reliable or particularly dependable and useful. The other allies, including Russia, are more dependents than traditional allies.
Russia was, until 1991, a superpower and clearly superior militarily and economically to China. Since the 1990s
Russia has become economically dependent on China, especially during the last decade because of low oil prices and post-2014 Ukraine related economic sanctions. Russia and China often cooperate when dealing with their mutual enemies, which currently includes just about every other country on the planet. Yet Russia and China are unnatural allies because Russia has taken much from China in the past and China never abandoned it claims on those lost territories. This is not just about territorial disputes in the Russian Far East, but also past Russian wrongs done to China. One of the most prominent of these was how the 1950-53 Korean War included China because Russia (Josef Stalin) insisted. In 1950 Russia was an essential military, economic and political ally of China. Despite many misgivings, China complied, sending over two million troops to North Korea over the next three years. About a third of these soldiers were casualties. Some ten percent of the Chinese troops were killed and other 20 percent were wounded or disabled by disease, accidents or exposure. Exposure (to extreme cold) and disease was a problem, especially during the first year. Russia provided over 70,000 military specialists and technical advisors as well large quantities of material support. But only about one percent of the Russians involved were casualties.
Since the 1950s Chinese have regarded their participation in the Korean War a mistake. There was no victory. Over 200,000 Chinese died, including the sons of many prominent leaders. In return China got two Koreas to deal with. The one bordering China is a dysfunctional police state run by a local dynasty that cannot be trusted. Then there is South Korea, a prosperous democracy that, in contrast to North Korea, is a profitable trading partner of China. North Korea is a bottomless pit for Chinese money and an unrelenting headache for Chinese diplomats and leaders.
There are other unresolved disputes with Russia. In 1969 there was a bloody but undeclared border war that lasted seven months. Russia mobilized a force of about 600,000 well-armed and equipped troops. In contrast China could only send about 800,000 less well-equipped soldiers. There were a few skirmishes, causing about 500 casualties (40 percent fatal). Russia won these skirmishes and sought to make peace, which China was forced to accept. At the time China was still paralyzed by the “Cultural Revolution” that began in 1966 and was soon out-of-control. After about five years the Chinese radicals were disgraced and lost power to a more pragmatic leadership that tuned away from Russia and towards the West and more economic freedom.
In 1969 the fighting with Russian forces also reminded China of the old saying, “don’t get into a war you can’t win.” By the 21st century China had turned into a major military power and now has a major conventional edge over Russia. If those 1969 clashes were fought today the Russians would lose and it would again not make much difference. That is because both nations are nuclear powers and in the 1970s Russia seriously considered using its nukes against China before the Chinese became too powerful. Russian leaders found that going nuclear would make Russia a global pariah while Russian scientists pointed out that such a large-scale use of nukes on a neighbor would have adverse effects on Russia and everyone else in the northern hemisphere. That outcome still prevails but a weaker Russia invaded by superior Chinese forces might lead to rash decisions.
The Chinese assessment of this situation is even more troubling for Russia. The Chinese believe they won’t have to use their military superiority to take back their lost territories now called the Russian Far East. This is being done economically and Russia knows it can’t do much to stop this. China has the edge economically and militarily. Russians are big fans of chess and see this situation as an inevitable Chinese victory. The only question is how many more moves before Russia suffers mate in the far east.
Most other Chinese allies are more liabilities than assets. Turkey, Iran and Pakistani are trading partners who want more from China than they are prepared to give. The ancient Chinese custom of not recognizing allies, only subordinates, survives and the current Chinese government prefers it that way.
November 22, 2020: China has increased the economic pressure on Australia by refusing to accept coal they had ordered because of “quality” problems. There are no quality problems but there is over half a billion dollars’ worth of Australian coal stuck on 57 ships waiting for either side to back down. China is angry at Australia for cracking down on Chinese espionage and influence operations inside Australia as well as criticism of, and active opposition to Chinese claims in the South China Sea.
China is Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for about 36 percent of imports and exports. Until recently Australia had a very favorable trade balance with China as China bought far more (mainly raw materials) from Australia than the other way around. China accounted for 85 percent of the positive Australian trade balance and that has been going on for decades. This has made Australia immune to all the global economic recessions since the 1990s and given the Australian GDP and standard-of-living an unprecedented period of growth. Australia has found that this favorable situation came at a price. China expected Australia to do whatever China wanted. When Australia stuck with the United States over illegal Chinese trade practices China decided to teach Australia a lesson about who was in charge in the West Pacific.
As a result, Australia and China are engaged in a major power dispute. China is trying to use trade restrictions (reducing purchases from Australia) to coerce Australia into doing what China wants. Even though China is the largest customer for Australian exports, this coercion is not well received in Australia. One response from Australia was to repeat its accusations that Chinese claims in the South China Sea are illegal. At the same time Australia acknowledges that China has militarized its bases in the South China Sea and that makes it riskier for foreign warships that carry out FONOPS (Freedom Of Navigation Operations) there. Australia has increased its military spending because of the growing threat of attack by China.
Australia is not alone when it comes to Chinese economic pressure. Most of China’s neighbors have had a taste of this and that played a role in the formation of a local coalition opposed to the Chinese efforts at domination. This is a problem for China because this coalition does have the military capability to block Chinese forces. That coalition includes the United States, Australia, Japan and South Korea and several other local nations. For the moment it is a war of words and economic attacks and it’s up to China to escalate that to open warfare.
China has not opened fire since
1974 when they fought a naval battle with the South Vietnamese near the Paracel islands, and took control after sinking one of the four Vietnamese warships and chasing the others away. Since Vietnam was united in 1975 China has continued to claim areas within the Vietnamese EEZ and used intimidation to enforce those claims. China is willing to take it slow in the South China Sea. As long as their buildup there is not stopped, China is winning. The same tactic is being applied to Australia and experience (with similar earlier attacks made on South Korea and Japan) indicates that China will inflict as much economic pain as it can without causing more problems for China. The Australians are using the South Korean and Japanese playbooks in this respect but while this process is underway a lot of Australians are enduring the economic fallout.
November 16, 2020: In Africa Zambia officially defaulted on its major loans three days ago. Zambia owes a lot of money, especially to China. African diplomats speculate that China will demand access to Zambia’s mineral deposits since the country cannot repay the billions of dollars it borrowed. Zambia is on the verge of defaulting on most of its international debt. Zambia is the second-biggest copper producer in Africa and China is a major buyer. China is also a major international creditor. It is unclear just how much money Zambia owes international creditors. Estimates run from $12 to $15 billion.
November 15, 2020: Chinese academics claim that Chinese troops drove Indian troops off two hill tops on the Indian border (Indian Ladakh along the shore of Pangong Lake) using a microwave weapon. No details of the weapon were given but it was confirmed that Chinese troops were under strict orders to not use firearms. India denied that a microwave weapon was used. Such microwave weapons are not unknown. The U.S. Army developed the microwave ADS (Active Defense system) in the 1990s and it was scheduled for use in Iraq many times after 2003 but never made it. This was mostly because of bad image ("death ray"), and fear of the bad press they would get if the ADS were used, whether people died or not. There were also persistent reliability problems. The ADS is a non-lethal weapon that looks like a radar dish. The ADS "radar dish" projects a "burn ray" that is about 110cm (four feet) in diameter. It is effective in fog, smoke and rain. When pointed at people and turned on, it creates a burning sensation on the skin of its victims, causing them to want to leave the area, or at least greatly distracts them. The microwave weapon has a range of about 500 meters. ADS is carried on a hummer or any light truck. The proposed ROE (Rules of Engagement) for ADS was that anyone who keeps coming after getting hit with painful microwaves is assumed to have evil intent, and will be killed. The microwave is believed to be particularly useful for terrorists who hide in crowds of women and children, using the human shields to get close enough to make an attack. This has been encountered in Somalia and Iraq. Later a new, smaller, version of ADS, called Silent Guardian, with a range of about 250 meters, was developed for use in defending vital targets (like nuclear power plants) against terrorists. The manufacturer also pitched Silent Guardian to the navy (for ship protection), the State Department (for embassy protection) and organizations like the border patrol, or anyone looking for a non-lethal way to quickly disperse crowds. Deployment of ADS has been delayed for years because of concerns about how non-lethal it really is. ADS has been fired, in tests, over 3,000 times. Many of these firings were against human volunteers, and the device performed as predicted, without any permanent damage. But generations of exposure to lurid science fiction descriptions of "death rays" has made the defense bureaucrats anxious over the negative public relations potential if something like ADS was actually used. From a publicity perspective, using more lethal "non-lethal-weapons" is preferable to deploying something safer, but that could be described, however incorrectly, as a "death ray." China knew about ADS and had the tech to develop their own.
November 13, 2020: The latest commercial (Google, for example) satellite photos of Jiangnan Shipyard (outside Shanghai) revealed an enormous number of warships under construction or fitting out. These include a new aircraft carrier, three large (Type 55) destroyers, three smaller Type 52D destroyers and several support ships and at least one Type 726 hovercraft. Jiangnan is one of several large shipyards that produce commercial and military ships. All these yards began as commercial shipbuilders and have made China one of the largest ship builders in the world.
November 11, 2020: Chinese media revealed that in August
China had once more test fired several of its DF-21D ballistic missile from mainland bases into the South China Sea and nearby ocean areas. China claims that one of these missiles hit a moving ship. No comment from Western intel agencies that usually monitor these missile tests. The DF21D was designed to hit American aircraft carriers. Since 2006 there have been stories (in the West) about how China was working on targeting systems for its ballistic missiles that would enable them to seek out and hit aircraft carriers. Such sensors would use infrared (heat seeking) technology. This sort of thing had been discussed for decades, but China appeared to be putting together tactics and missile systems that could make this work. The key was having multiple sensor systems that could find the general location of the carrier, before launching the ballistic missile (like a DF-21, with a range of 2,100 kilometers). By 2010 the carrier killer missile was identified as the DF-21D. Since then this weapon has been tested at least once before, in 2019, when six were fired. The Americans did not release any data they might have had about how successful these 2019 tests were.
November 6, 2020: The China Central Bank reported that the costs of the 2020 covid19-related economic recession amounted to over half a billion dollars. For many larger firms, already carrying a lot of debt, are now on the verge of bankruptcy. The government is playing down the fact that bad (unlikely to be repaid) loans totaling several hundred billion dollars threatens the stability of the entire banking system. A growing number of large firms have been unable to repay bonds that came due recently. This sort of thing would not be ominous except for the fact that the defaulting firms are carrying dangerously high debts. Most of that debt is held by banks that have dangerously large amounts of bad debt. Worst case is a number of these debt-laden banks cease operations, causing other such banks to also fail. On paper China has the resources to handle this sort of thing but as a practical matter large cash reserves are only part of the rescue solution. A greater problem is that no one knows how much bad information many banks have been reporting. A banking crash would be an unpredictable collapse of banks and other financial institutions that could disrupt, or even paralyze, the Chinese financial system for an extended period. The government has tried to deal with this vulnerability gradually but that plan was disrupted by the economic costs of covid10 in China and within the larger trading partners.
November 5, 2020: The Philippines has decided to defy Chinese threats and proceed with oil exploration off Reed Bank, which is
148 kilometers west of the Philippines (Palawan Island) and well within the Philippines’s EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) that extends 360 kilometers from the coast. Although the EEZ is recognized by international law, and a treaty that China signed and uses to defend waters off its own coast, China says that does not apply here because all the islets in the South China Sea belong to China and there is no room for negotiation on that point. Most countries in the region, except Japan, which would rather not dwell on this, note that this was how Japan behaved before World War II.
Historically China has a weak claim because for centuries powerful Chinese empires ignored expansion into the South China Sea or any islands far from their shores. Official U.S. policy is to back international law and try getting everyone to calm down and be less provocative. American P-3C maritime patrol aircraft regularly fly over islands claimed by China and photograph Chinese installations and naval activities. This data is shared with the Philippines and perhaps others. China is the biggest offender in the Spratly Island disputes and shows no sign of slowing, or backing, down. Now China is warning the world that it is ready to escalate but is afraid that the world will call their bluff. The Philippines may be militarily weak, but has powerful allies and international law on their side. China used force to halt Vietnam and Malaysia from doing oil exploration within their EEZ zones but near areas claimed by China.
In mid-2020 the Americans took a stronger stand against Chinese aggression in the South China Sea by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea are completely unlawful, as is the Chinese campaign of bullying to control these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets you, at best 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOPswith warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission.
The FONOPS will continue, and probably become more frequent. More importantly the U.S. will now actively oppose all illegal Chinese claims that the 2016 court ruling agreed were invalid and not legally enforceable by China. The U.S. has already increased aerial reconnaissance over the South China Sea, which not only monitors what the Chinese are doing but also documents ongoing Chinese violations of international law.
Before this change in American policy China was confident it could bully the nations bordering the South China Sea that were suffering from the Chinese aggression. That bullying will be more difficult if the victims can call on the Americans for backup. Japan is now more confident in continuing its support for the South China Sea victims.
In light of the American pledge of support the Philippines is organizing CAAS (Cafgu Active Auxiliary Service), a naval militia meant confront the existing Chinese one. CAAS will not be as large as the Chinese militia but it will be large enough to confront and block some Chinese militia efforts. China could escalate and use force but that would be very risky with American naval and air forces in the vicinity.
The Chinese naval militia is much larger and has existed since the 1950s but was never used this aggressively until recently. For example, during the first three months of 2019 China deployed 900 navy, coast guard and naval militia ships around Pagasa Island to block access to fishing areas that Filipinos have been using for centuries. International law makes it clear that these are Filipino waters but the Chinese naval effort, and base constructed on Pagasa, challenge Filipino ownership blatantly and often physically. In the last five years China has hired several hundred Chinese fishing boats and their crews as a part-time naval militia to conduct a blockage of bits of land in the South China Sea that the Philippines physically occupies, hoping to block supplies and force the Filipinos to evacuate these outposts so that China can take possession.
Of all the nations involved with this Chinese aggression, the Philippines has the most to lose. In terms of land area, the 7,600 islands that comprise the Philippines amount to only 300,000 square kilometers (120,000 square miles) of land area. Compare this to China, with 9.6 million square kilometers of land. According to international law, the Philippines controls (via its EEZ or Exclusive Economic Zone) water areas covering 2.26 million square kilometers. By the same standards the Chinese EEZ waters comprises 877,000 square kilometers.
October 28, 2020: IMF (International Monetary Fund) economists see China overtaking Russia in some key economic areas. For example, Russian GDP has continued to fall as low oil prices and sanctions remained a problem. In 2013 Russian GDP per capita (person) was $16,000 compared to $7,000 for China. By 2019 it was $11,500 compared to $10,200 for China. These trends are expected to continue for the next few years and by 2021 or 2022 China will have a higher GDP per capita than Russia. In the U.S. GDP per capita is currently $65,000. In the EU (European Union) the average is $35,000, in the Arab countries it is $6,600 and the global average is $11,400. The average Russian is well aware of the falling living standards since 2013 and that fuels growing unrest against the government.
October 23, 2020:
Since the 1990s Western intel organizations willing to pay could reliably verify details about many things in North Korea. Naturally a number of entrepreneurs in northeast China have made a business of this. Although often a sideline, it is apparently lucrative enough to survive crackdowns by China and North Korea. This “information broker network” can even take requests for specific information but it often takes a lot of time, and money, to get responses out of North Korea. This is one reason why North Korea has been cracking down on people smugglers and information brokers moving people, data and other items back and forth across the China/North Korea border. So far, the North Korean crackdown has caused smuggler fees and delivery times to go up. As with the ancient Great Wall of China, it does not stop unwelcome invaders it just slows them down. Meanwhile a senior defector can provide valuable updates on loyalty and effectiveness among the senior leadership in North Korea. This sort of information crucial at a time like this, with growing signs of popular resistance to the Kim dictatorship and declining discipline among the few percent of North Koreans to keep the Kim government going. The fact that more senior people are defecting is significant by itself. China has its own intel sources inside North Korea, which are considered superior to what South Korea and the United States have and a new senior defector provides updates on what the Chinese situation is within North Korea. China will occasionally trade info with the Americans and South Koreans. After all, what goes on in North Korea is something of a mutual problem for the U.S., South Korea, China and Japan.
October 22, 2020: Japan launched the first (of seven) Taigei class submarines. These are successors to the twelve Soryu class subs. The last two Soryus made the Taigeis possible because these subs were called “Super Soryu” because of their new lithium-ion battery tech and the higher cost that went with this new feature. One of the Super Soryus is unfinished but expected to enter service in 2021. The first Super Soryu entered service in early 2020 and it was different because the last two Soryus had a number of improvements, aside from the lithium-ion batteries. The Taigeis are basically similar to the Super Soyus with some enhancements. The Taigeis are also 3,000-ton subs with a crew of 70, six torpedo tubes and a top speed of 37 kilometers an hour (submerged) and 24 kilometers an hour on the surface.
Several nations (South Korea, China, Germany and the United States) have been working on making lithium-ion battery technology work in subs and those efforts became particularly intense after 2015. The main obstacle was the safety of lithium-ion batteries in a submarine. Lithium-ion batteries are known to be dangerous under certain conditions. Consumer products like cell phones and laptops have had problems. Not a lot but enough of the hundreds of millions of cellphones and laptops using lithium batteries have burst into flames or exploded to make the general public aware of the risk. These overheating problems had to be minimized to levels that made lithium-ion batteries safer than the current lead-acid batteries used for over a century in submarines. Several nations believe they have achieved the needed safety levels and Japan is the first to put a lithium-ion boat into service. This is encouraging for China, South Korea and Germany who are planning on offering upgrades from lead-acid to lithium-ion for existing subs. Orders for such conversions have not been forthcoming because there have not been any military subs in service with the new battery tech. Now there is one boat and another will join it in 2021.