China looks forward to becoming the largest economy in the world during the next few years, and a military superpower a decade after that. Longer term the outlook is less promising.
Time is not on China’s side. There are numerous examples of this. One of the more obvious is the shrinking Chinese work force and population in general. The overall population growth rate peaked in 2016 at 0.59 percent and has been declining ever since. There is a worse problem with the shrinking labor force because of working age population declining. All this began in 2014 and will continue for decades. The biggest problem, though, is the growing shortage of workers. As the population ages, all those one-child families means there will be more elderly than the economy, and the shrinking workforce, can effectively support. Currently there are ten working age Chinese for every retiree. By 2050, there will only be two for each retiree. At that point retirees will comprise 30 percent of the population versus 15 percent now. Traditionally, children cared for their parents in multi-generation households. That model is dying out, and China is faced with huge pension cost increases at the same time they expect their economy to be the mightiest on the planet. But at that point the largest single government expense will be the care of the elderly, and this will impose crushing taxes on those of working age. Many working age Chinese are worried about this as there is no easy solution in sight. China tried (in 2013) to relax the one-child policy but the newly affluent Chinese are less eager than earlier generations to have a lot of kids.
To make matters worse there is not much in the way of pensions or health care for most of the elderly to begin with. The government recognizes this is a real problem but does not, and will not, have the cash to deal with it. The population shrinkage is accompanied by another problem. Since the 1980s many of those couples forced to have only one child aborted a child if it was a female, because much more importance is attached to having a male heir. There are nearly 40 million more males than females in China and the disparity is growing. These surplus males are coming of age, and the competition for wives is causing problems. Women are taking advantage of their scarcity but men are also going to neighboring countries to buy, or even kidnap, young women to be wives. This is causing ill will with neighbors, where females are enticed or coerced, often kidnapped by criminal gangs, to become wives of Chinese men who have no other options. It’s not just brides who are moving to China, foreign workers are being imported. These will not become permanent residents because China, like most East Asian nations, discourages that practice. There are still more Chinese leaving than foreigners entering as permanent residents. It’s these migrants, temporary or permanent, that will become increasingly important in the next few decades for dealing with the rapidly growing labor shortage.
It’s not just population growth that is slowing. A decade ago, it became clear that the years of ten percent a year GDP growth were ending. Not just because economic growth was slowing, but because the central government was finally forced to go public for first time about the false economic data that provincial officials had been sending to the central government for decades. Since 2014 Chinese officials became more open about the problem, and have gotten accurate economic information for such things like annual GDP and unemployment rates. Apparently Chinese GDP has not been growing steadily at near ten percent a year for decades. Chinese officials do eventually (months or years later) get more accurate data and while Chinese GDP has actually been steadily growing over the last three decades, it annual growth actually varied from 5-15 percent. Chinese official policy was to keep everyone calm by issuing less variable annual growth rates. In short, the official numbers were doctored. For more accurate and immediate indicators of economic activity, Chinese and foreign economists and business leaders use things like electricity production, railroad traffic and similar data that cannot be manipulated by local officials to make their city or province look more successful. Many financial exerts inside and outside China fear that all this official manipulation of economic data (an ancient practice in China, is masking some serious economic problems that could go sideways at any time, cause a banking crisis that would paralyze the economy for a while and cause political chaos. It’s very much a crouching tiger and hidden dragon situation. This is an ancient phrase warning that behind seeming success and talent lurks the possibility of imminent disaster. Chinese are ever mindful of this sort of thing.
The affluence has not just reduced the birth rate, but increased the drug addiction rate. China will not release official figures but it is estimated (using arrests, drug seizures and such) that there are over 20 million addicts in China and that this is rapidly increasing. This is happening despite vigorous government anti-drug efforts. Arrests for drug offenses have increased more than ten times in the past decade yet the drugs keep coming in (especially from neighbors like Burma, North Korea, Thailand and Afghanistan).
Since the Chinese Communist Party is under growing popular pressure to do something about the rampant corruption in China, and specifically in the Chinese Communist Party, it has been arresting and prosecuting a growing number of senior officials. New anti-corruption measures were announced in 2015, included more scrutiny of senior officials and large corporations, which are the ones that pay the largest bribes. For years most Chinese believed the anti-corruption effort was having little impact. But in the last five years there are some believable indicators of progress. This comes in the form of declines in gambling (a favorite activity of corrupt officials) in Macau, where most of the legal gambling takes place. For the first time in over a decade annual casino revenue declined.
It’s not just drugs and corruption the government is cracking down on. Visible dissent is also a major target. The government has rehabilitated some old Maoists and encouraged a new generation of communist zealots to find and crush criticism of the government. This includes unauthorized discussion of corruption, criticism of communism or the Chinese Communist Party. This thought control is becoming more of a nuisance to Chinese, which is not good news for the government of the world’s largest communist police state.
Victory At Sea
While the situation is bad at home, Chinese prospects outside the country are more promising. For example, China is catching up with the U.S. Navy in terms of quantity and quality of warships. Put another way, the U.S. Navy has suffered a major defeat in its effort to keep the American navy larger and more capable than the Chinese fleet. The problem is that the Chinese are building new warships much faster than the United States can and improving them with new technology, much of it stolen from the Americans. The Chinese warships cost less than their American equivalents and are delivered on time. For decades the U.S. Navy has seen less and less of that sort of performance in the United States. Since 2000 the decline of American warship construction capabilities has become painfully obvious and is now acknowledged as a major problem. Despite that nothing has been done to fix the problems.
Meanwhile the Chinese Navy because the largest in the world, at least by the number of warships in service. Currently the Chinese fleet have in active service two aircraft carriers, 75 subs including seven SSBNs (nuclear ballistic missile subs), eight SSNs (nuclear attack subs) and 60 SSK (non-nuclear attack subs). There are 300 surface warships including 50 destroyers, 49 frigates, 71 corvettes, 109 missile boats, 94 small ASW (anti-submarine warfare) ships and 17 gunboats. There are 75 amphibious ships including (in order of size) two LHDs, eight LPDs, 32 LSTs and 33 LSMs. There are 287 support ships including 36 mine clearing vessels, 19 oilers (for refueling ships far from a base), 30 coastal oilers, 27 fleet supply ships (for resupply at sea), six troop transports and a lot of harbor, training and medical support ships as well as intelligence collection ships, hospital ships and submarine rescue ships. The Chinese navy has also made arrangements with the operators of over fifty civilian cargo ships and ferries to make their vessels quickly available in the event of a major emergency.
All the above comes to 743 active ships with over sixty percent combat ships and the rest support vessels. That support force is the true mark of a major high-seas fleet. China is not just building a lot of new ships quickly, it is also sending them on unprecedented long voyages. This has been going on for a decade.
There are so many Chinese naval firsts now because for most of China’s history there was an attitude that there was really nothing useful beyond Chinese borders. Some ships were built for trade, but not on a large scale and never with a powerful navy to protect them. Then China began liberalizing and modernizing its economy in the 1980s which led to lots of exports and even more imports of raw materials and items that China did not make. That justified a larger, sea going, navy. China’s economic interests are now, for the first time, worldwide and so is its navy. As any naval historian can tell you, a navy becomes effective only by keeping its ships at sea a lot. That’s how Britain won and maintained global naval dominance from the 18th through the early 20th century. That was how the United States took over that role by the mid-20th century and that is what may happen with China sometime in the 21st century. Currently the Chinese expect their fleet to become dominant by 2040.
East Asian nations, including, China kept their covid19 infection rate low. That had little to do with being a communist police state because democracies like Taiwan, Singapore, Japan and South Korea produced verified results that showed how a disciplined response can keep covid19 infections and deaths and very low levels.
China claims it suffered fewer deaths per capita and much less economic disruption than Western nations. The lower economic disruption is obvious. The death rate is less so because the government is not cooperating.
While exact Chinese covid19 infections and deaths data cannot be verified, the low losses in Taiwan and South Korea can be. China, claiming three deaths per million, admits it was not as effective as Taiwan (0.4 deaths per million) but did better than South Korea (29 deaths per million) Japan (52) or Singapore (5). The world average is 303 deaths per million and Western nations average a thousand dead per million. Reports from China indicate that Chinese covid19 deaths were much higher than reported. Even with that most Chinese were confident enough to go back to work, and large public gatherings like mass transit or movie theaters. To maintain this covid19 advantage China still sharply restricts Chinese from travelling outside the country and quickly quarantines any areas where more covid19 appears. These lower infection and death rates are the result of populations accustomed to acting in a unified and precise manner when confronting an emergency. It’s a cultural thing, which is one reason why for the last few thousand years East Asia contained most of the world population.
February 10, 2021: Russian news agency TASS claims that mid-June 2020 fighting in southwest China (Tibet border with India) were more damaging to the Chinese than to the Indians. TASS reports 45 Chinese troops dead versus twenty Indian. The fighting took place on the shores of Pangong Lake. A 1996 agreement has troops from both sides entering disputed areas without firearms or explosives. The Chinese have taken to sending in their troops armed with wooden clubs and iron bars. This led to a battle on a ridge overlooking the Galvan River that was initially believed to have left at least twenty dead on both sides. Total casualties (dead, wounded, prisoners) were reported as at least fifty on each side. Currently both Indian and Chinese troops are moving back from the border Ladakh (India) area where they have been confronting, and occasionally fighting each other since May, 2020.
February 8, 2021: The China Ministry of Public Security released reported that there ten million births in 2020. This is 15 percent less than 2019 and continuing a downward trend.
February 6, 2021:
Two Chinese coast guard ships came into Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of one of the Senkaku Islands) and remained while attempting to force two Japanese fishing boats out of what China claims are Chinese waters. A Japanese coast guard vessel quickly arrived and the Chinese warships left. This is the fourth such Chinese intrusion off the Senkakus in 2021 and the first since China enacted a law authorizing their navy and coast guard to “protect” Chinese coastal waters off the Senkakus. Anticipating this, in early 2020 Japan established a military base on Miyako Island (between Senkaku Island and Okinawa). The Miyako and Senkaku islands are between Okinawa and Taiwan. All three of these island systems dominate the seas between Japan and Taiwan and China has been making claims to some of these islands, especially the Senkakus and indicating that all of these Japanese islands are actually Chinese. The new garrison on Miyako Island has 380 troops and is equipped with anti-aircraft and anti-ship missiles. Chinese naval ships have frequently entered Japanese territorial waters (within 22 kilometers of land) around the Senkaku islands and remained in Japanese waters for an hour or more. There have been over thirty of these incidents since 2017. Miyako Island is 210 kilometers from the Senkakus and Japan plans to put garrisons on more of these small islands.
February 5, 2021:
The U.S. Navy conducted another FONOP (freedom of navigation operation) in the South China Sea by passing near the Chinese occupied Paracel Islands. This FONOP was carried out by one American destroyer, trailed by Chinese warships acting as “escorts.” A FONOP means moving within the claimed territorial (closer than 22 kilometers) of some of the islands China now claims. China issues warnings and accuses the Americans of troublemaking because of these FONOPS. This was the first U.S. FONOP in the South China Sea for 2021. There were five South China Sea FONOPs in 2018 since 2015, when Chinese South China Sea claims became a major issue, the Americans have carried out more FONOPS in the South China Sea each year. By early 2019 China had moved more radars and EW (Electronic Warfare) equipment and guided missiles to the Paracel islands. China also declared once more that the Paracels were part of China and China would control its territorial waters. China took the Paracels by force in the 1970s. In 2012 one of the Paracel islands (Woody Island) was declared the center of Sansha, a new Chinese municipality (city). Sansha is actually Woody Island and dozens of smaller bits of land (some of them shoals that are under water all the time) in the Paracels and the Spratly Islands to the south. In fact, the new "city" lays claim to two million square kilometers of open sea (57 percent of the South China Sea). China continued its policy of not interfering with FONOPS but does sent warships to follow the foreign ships. There are two ways China can enforce its sovereignty and exert control over its territorial waters. The traditional response is to attack intruders with gunfire or missiles. Then there is the preferred Chinese method of swarming around the intruder with commercial, coast guard and even navy warships and combat aircraft. This has included causing collisions (often just “bumping”). China does not want a war with the United States, mainly because of the economic risks which could lead to more unrest inside China. Interference with seaborne trade and trading relationships in general would disrupt the Chinese economy and threaten CCP (Chinese Communist Party) control. What China has demonstrated is a willingness to do everything short of war, especially if they can remain able to claim victim status.
Playing the victim is hard to do when the Americans are the only naval power the Chinese are really intimidated by. When it comes to nations with legal claims on South China Sea waters China is more aggressive. Case in point is the recent standoff near Vietnam as a Chinese oil survey vessel sought to gather data on underwater natural gas deposits. China has forcibly prevented Vietnam from extracting gas in these waters and now Vietnamese warships are opposing the Chinese survey vessel. Vietnam complained that China was violating a 2011 agreement over how to handle these conflicting claims. That is a pattern for the Chinese; make agreements to settle disputes and then violate those agreements in the name of self-defense.
February 4, 2021:
Off the Taiwanese island of Matsu, 19 kilometers off the Chinese coast, Chinese sand-dredging boats have been told by their government that the Chinese coast guard will protect them is they seek to steal sand from the sandbar that serves as a natural barrier between the Matsus and the mainland. Many of the sand dredgers also steal sand from off-limits sandbars and beaches in China, so the government sees this new policy on the Matsu reef as a way to reduce damage to mainland sand resources. Several decades of heavy construction has caused a growing sand shortage.
Closer to the Chinese coast there are the Kimmen Islands, some of them only two kilometers from the Chinese coast. These islands were last heavily fought over (with artillery) in 1958 during a failed attempt by China to gain control. One these islands, Quemoy, became famous in the west as the scene of some of the heaviest Chinese attacks.
February 3, 2021: China has continued to expand its dominant control of African raw materials. Currently Chinese firms control about 70 percent of Congo’s mineral deposits and mining industry. Chinese state-owned firms own most of this, which includes substantial portions of the global supplies of copper and cobalt. Since 2012 Chinese companies have invested at least $12 billion in Congolese mineral assets. Some of those billions go to enrich Congolese officials who make possible Chinese ownership and protect it from local or foreign interference. The eagerness to gain control of so much cobalt is driven by Chinese plans to become the major producer of electric vehicles. Congo is the world’s biggest cobalt producer, each year producing between 55 percent or 65 percent of the world’s total cobalt. Chinese companies control around 40 percent of Congo’s cobalt deposits and means of extraction. Cobalt is critical as a stabilizer in rechargeable lithium-ion batteries. It takes about ten kg (22 pounds) of cobalt to manufacture an electric car battery. China is committed to producing electric vehicles (EVs) of all types. There is one type that has a particular political importance: the very small “city-town” mini-EVs that can go about 300 kilometers on one charge. The Chinese people want these, so the demand is huge. The deal the CCP makes with the Chinese people is they can have goodies if they don’t challenge the CCP dictatorship. The mini-EVs are a pay-off. Hence, the Chinese government wants to assure uninterrupted access to cobalt and other minerals used in producing electric devices. The world is paying attention to this because the price of cobalt has risen by 20 percent to about $35,600 a ton.
February 1, 2021: In the south, neighbor
Myanmar (Burma) is again controlled by a military government. China and Russia promptly used their veto powers in the UN to block UN actions against the new military rulers of Burma. The military move was a reaction to recent parliamentary elections that put into power a political party that pledged to reorganize the military to prevent another military takeover. The response of the military was not unexpected, because the civilian government knew that the Burmese generals maintained their connections in China and were the main reason China has sold $1.4 billion worth of military equipment to Burma since 2010. Russia sold $800 million worth. Together China and Russia accounted for over 90 percent Burmese spending on imports of military gear.
Before the local military gave up power in 2011 Burmese army officers made a lot of money allowing China to do business in the tribal north, often at the expense of local civilians, most of them tribal people. After the return of democracy in 2011, China no longer had as much freedom in the north. After 2011 China tried to maintain many of these economic projects by including them in the new CMEC (China-Myanmar Economic Corridor) agreement China and Burma signed in late 2018. That agreement called for both countries to begin detailed negotiations on where a 1,700-kilometer-long transportation corridor from southern China (Yunan province) to central Burma (Mandalay) and then west to the coast at the Kyaukpyu SEZ (Special Economic Zone) will be built and what it will consist of. The corridor would improve roads, railroads and build, as needed, pipelines and electrical transmission lines. This would be financed by China and built mainly by Chinese construction firms.
CMEC paid special attention to the risk of a “debt trap” where Burma might find itself with debt it could not repay unless it turned over new facilities to Chinese ownership or control. This has happened in other nations, most obviously in Sri Lanka. Burma needs the investment and since 1988 China has been the major foreign investor in Burma with projects totaling $20 billion so far. Burma told China it was working on special “debt trap” provisions and the main one is for China to allow foreign nations to provide some of the loans needed for the CMEC work. Details of this deal are still being negotiated. This explains why only a few of the 38 projects that comprise CMEC have so far been approved by Burma. Reaching agreement on the rest of those projects gave Burma some leverage over China.
CMEC is the Burma component of the massive Chinese BRI (Belt and Road Initiative) effort. Also called OBOR (One Belt, One Road), BRI is all about China building roads, railroads, pipelines and ports to make it easier for Chinese imports and exports to move around, from East Asia to Europe, Africa and more. Pakistan, Nepal, Thailand Sri Lanka and Burma are all BRI participants that are seeing billions of dollars in Chinese construction projects taking place and the terms of these deal tend to favor China, not the country where the construction takes place. Not surprisingly many people in these BRI countries see the Chinese investments as another form of colonialism. China prefers not to call it colonialism but rather seeking to expand its commercial activities. All the disagreements over border security and CMEC have not slowed down the growth in trade with China. In 2019 that trade increased 38.5 percent over 2018 to $17.7 billion. That is huge considering that the Burmese GDP is $67 billion. That trend continued in 2020, despite covid19 problems.
In early 2020 t
he Chinese leader made a two-day state visit to Myanmar. This was mainly about discussing matters of mutual interest with Burmese leaders. There a lot of things to discuss, including the Rohingya refugees, tribal rebel violence on the Chinese border and Chinese investments in Burma. China has been protecting Burma in the UN, where there are calls for punishing Burma over the Rohingya mess. The tribal rebels are largely an internal Burmese matter. Burmese negotiations with the tribal rebels have been heavily influenced by China. That is because China is part of the problem. This state visit was to try and get Burmese leaders to be more cooperative with Chinese investors. That did not happen. There were some token concessions but Burma remains wary of Chinese investments. For that reason, the quick Chinese moves to protect the new military government were not a surprise. The question for Burma is whether there be a civil war. That threat played a major roles in persuading the military to all democracy to return in 2010.
January 31, 2021: China won’t admit defeat in its trade war with Australia but the stark reality is that they have lost. Australia has found other markets for the coal exports that long were monopolized by China. This comes after a late 2020 Chinese effort to increase 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. When other buyers for the stranded Australian coal showed up, and China was unable to scare them off, the Chinese knew they were beat. They would not admit it but at least lowered their media animosity towards Australia and increased the tonnage of iron ore they have to keep buying from Australia because there is no other supplier so close and so capable of providing what the Chinese cannot afford to lose.
China is also 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 still Australia’s largest trading partner, accounting for over 30 percent of imports and exports. Australia still has a 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 engaged in a major power dispute. China tried using trade restrictions (reducing purchases from Australia) to coerce Australia. Even though China is the largest customer for Australian exports, this coercion was 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.
January 28, 2021: The U.S. effort to block illegal Iranian oil exports have noted that since late 2020 there has been a lot more Iranian oil going to China. This usually involves transferring cargoes at sea while one or both ships have their AIS (position transponders) turned off to avoid detection. Despite such deceptions more and more Chinese tankers are being caught in the act. Also caught are illegal shipments to Syria and Venezuela (which needs light oil to make its heavy oil usable). China apparently believes it is worth the risk to leave Chinese oil smugglers alone because there is an expectation that the new American government will, one way or another, lift the Iranian sanctions.
January 27, 2021: Corruption remains a major problem for China and years of well-publicized efforts to deal with it have failed and that can be seen in the international surveys of nations to determine who is clean and who is corrupt. For 2019 China ranked 78th out of 180 nations in international rankings compared with 80th in 2019.
These ratings and ranking are updated each year for the annual
Transparency International Corruption Perception Index. Corruption is measured on a 1 (most corrupt) to 100 (not corrupt) scale. The most corrupt nations (usually Yemen/15, Syria/14, South Sudan/12 and Somalia/12) have a rating of under 15 while of the least corrupt (New Zealand and Denmark) are both 88.
The current Chinese score is 42 (versus 41 in 2019) compared to 65 (65) for Taiwan, 40 (39) for Turkey, 40 (41) for India, 30 (28) for Russia, 61 (57) for South Korea, 42 (41) for China, 18 (14) for North Korea, 36 (37) for Vietnam, 85 (85) for Singapore, 74 (73) for Japan, 37 (40) for Indonesia, 38 (38) for Sri Lanka, 34 (34) for the Philippines, 31 (32) for Pakistan, 26 (26) for Bangladesh, 25 (26) for Iran, 19 (16) for Afghanistan, 28 (29) for Burma, 71 (71) for the UAE, 61 (61) for Israel, 15 (15) for Yemen, 67 (69) for the United States, 33 (35) for Egypt, 25 (26) for Nigeria, 44 (44) for South Africa, 21 (20) for Iraq, 40 (39) for Turkey, 53 (53) for Saudi Arabia, 33 (30) for Ukraine, 47 (45) for Belarus, 56 (58) for Poland, 80 (80) Germany and 25 (28) for Lebanon.
The Chinese corruption score has not changed much since 2012 when it was 39. Despite CCP claims to reducing corruption significantly, most Chinese, and foreigners consider the Transparency International data a more reliable measure of corruption in China.
January 26, 2021:
Japan defense continuous annual increases. A record $51.5 billion will be spent during 2021. That’s an increase of three percent over 2020. The military had asked for $55 billion. Either way this is the ninth year in a row that Japan has increased defense spending and it is all about North Korea and China. North Korea openly complains about how unfair and unfriendly these increases are but they are a direct result of the increasing threat from North Korea. Both Japan and South Korea each have annual defense spending that is more than a third larger than the annual GDP of North Korea. That is one reason North Korea spends about a third of GDP on defense compared to 1.2 percent for Japan and nearly three percent for South Korea.
January 23, 2021: China, Afghanistan and Tajikistan have created a joint border force of 150 personnel that monitors border threats and coordinates responses by all three countries. This was organized because China asked for such a force and provided generous financial support. Recently Afghans noted that there were now more border guards on the Tajik side of the border closest to China as well as more Chinese forces along the smaller Chinese border. The Tajiks border force now have much better weapons and equipment, courtesy of China. The Tajik border with Afghanistan is 1,357 kilometers long while the Chinese border is only 76 kilometers long. This is the gateway to the 350-kilometer long Wakhan Corridor that is only 13-35 kilometers wide. And the only direct access between Afghanistan and China. There is no high speed (railroad or highway) passing through the corridor and China bans foreigners from the corridor unless they have been authorized. The corridor is thinly (10,000 people) populated and t
he key bottleneck passage between Afghanistan and China is the 4,923 meter (15,261 feet) high Wakhjir Pass. The Wakhan Corridor area has never been very violent, and escaped most of the fighting that has torn apart Afghanistan since the 1970s. For a long time, China refused to open its border with Afghanistan, fearing complications with the mainly Moslem Uighur population on the Chinese side of the frontier. There are other problems with this border. There are no roads through the pass, only trails. The pass is closed five months of the year by snow. For several more months the pass is closed intermittently by bad weather. The Wakhan Corridor itself was once part of the Silk Road, but only when weather allowed caravans through. The Chinese Wakhan Corridor border has been closed to traffic for over a century and China considers it too difficult and expensive to build a road or rail line through it. North of the corridor there is a year-round road between Afghanistan and China via Tajikistan. The longer road route via Tajikistan works because it is open all year and safe. Google Earth images have shown that China built a new road to the border area, along with additional guard posts after 2010. The Chinese road was only built to make it easier to move border guards, and their supplies, to the frontier. That is more of a danger to China than the Wakhan Corridor and the main reason for the joint border force. China provides economic aid to Tajikistan and Afghanistan mainly to purchase cooperation along the border.
January 22, 2021:
China enacted a new law authorizing their navy and coast guard to use lethal force to “protect” Chinese coastal waters, including those that are disputed by nations. In other words, Chinese coast guard and navy vessel commanders have the authority to open fire on trespassers, even when international courts have declared it is the Chinese who are trespassing. That was the case with the Philippines, which brought the issue to an international court with jurisdiction. In 2016 that United Nation backed Permanent Court of Arbitration 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. At first 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 FONOPs with 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. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression. Until the new “permission to open fire” law, Chinese armed coast guard and navy vessels had only been used to intimidate “trespassers” and have never opened fire. There has been violence in the form of bumping or even ramming “trespassers”. This has led to the countries being threatened to send their own warships to defend their territory. Until now this would usually cause the Chinese warships to back off. But the new low allows Chinese captains to order crews to prepare for combat and use the fire control radars to concentrate on possible targets. In the Chinese playbook this means the Chinese want to goad someone else to open fire first, which would make China the designated victim (according to Chinese media) and justified in unleashing violent and probably overwhelming retaliation.
January 19, 2021: Japan decided to proceed with a two-decade old plan to design and build its own stealth fighter. Since the 1990s Japan has been concerned with the growing belligerence of China and North Korea, plus a simmering territorial dispute with Russia. More warplanes, and the modern ones at that were needed, just in case. The rapid Chinese development of its new stealth fighter, the J-20, also alarmed the Japanese. The delays in the F-35 program proved to be minor compared to the problems the Chinese and Russians encountered with their first stealth fighters. South Korea had the same idea, having also obtained nearly as many F-35s as Japan and also planning to develop their own stealth fighters.
All this is bad news for China, Russia and North Korea because if you do the math it is clear that the modern warplanes available and planned for the local anti-China coalition (Japan, South Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, Australia and a growing number of South-East Asian nations) matches what China has and once you add American forces deployed in the Western Pacific, China is at a disadvantage. This coalition developed because China has been making territorial claims on many of the coalition members or otherwise threatening them. Absent that aggression there would be no coalition or arms race.
January 11, 2021: Chinese leader Xi Jinping sent a congratulatory message to Kim Jong Un on the occasion of Kim being elected chairman of the WPK (Workers Party of Korea). This message was important because it was a public demonstration that China still approved of Kim Jong Un, despite the fact that the economic, security and political conditions inside North Korea continue to deteriorate. Perhaps China was encouraged by the promotions given to Kims younger (31-year-old) sister Kim Yo Jong, who stepped up when her brother underwent heart surgery in early 2020 and was out of action for several months. Kim Yo Jong was decisive and suitably vicious in the Kim tradition. During that period. she received several promotions and was portrayed as a senior official who was making a lot of decisions. Now she has more promotions.
January 10, 2021: In Angola China has granted the country three years of debt payment relief. Angola is Africa’s second-largest oil exporter. Angola owes various Chinese organizations over $20 billion, with the China Development Bank holding about 70 percent of that debt. Angola is seeking more aid for the International Monetary Fund. Meanwhile, the Angolan government continues its anti-corruption drive. Last year the government began moving assets seized from corrupt entities and politicians into Angola’s central bank.
January 9, 2021: In northwest India
(Ladakh State/Tibet border) China began withdrawing about 10,000 troops it had brought up to the India/Tibet border in early 2020. The departing troops did not take all their heavy equipment with them, an indication that they would be back. Both India and China brought up about 50,000 troops to a border area where China is aggressively claiming Indian territory. This withdrawal is probably weather related and the Chinese troops will return with the warm weather.
January 8, 2021:
China is still seen as a major threat to the Philippines. China tries to placate Filipinos by offering useful aid. The latest example is offering 25 million doses of the Chinese covid10 Sinovac vaccine. Not as effective as Western vaccines, but China gave the Philippines a discount and promised delivery beginning in February but not completed until the end of 2021. The government has also ordered an Indian vaccine and a British one (from AstraZeneca) and is seeking vaccines from two American firms (Pfizer and Moderna), Russia (Gamaleya) and a second Chinese vaccine (Sinopharm). Because of past misbehavior the Chinese vaccines are regarded as less effective, something which China admits but at the same times the Chinese vaccines are seen as at least fifty percent effective. The government admitted that it had already obtained some of the Sinopharm on the black market and used it to vaccinate soldiers and other officials most exposed to the virus.
January 7, 2021: China has cancelled $30 million worth of Congo’s interest-free loans, specifically the loans that matured in 2020. Most of these loans were for infrastructure development related to China’s Belt and Road Initiative.