The View From Olympus: The China Threat

The December 4 Wall Street Journal’s op ed page headlined a piece by John Ratcliffe, U.S. Director of National Intelligence, titled “China is National Security Threat No. 1”.  Mr. Ratcliffe concluded his op ed by writing,

This is a once-in-a-generation challenge.  Americans have always risen to the moment, from defeating the scourge of fascism to bringing down the Iron Curtain.  This generation will be judged by its response to China’s effort to reshape the world in its own image and replace America as the dominant superpower.  The intelligence is clear.  Our response must be as well.

As is usually the case with op eds signed by prominent federal officeholders, the purpose of this piece is budget justification: intelligence agencies recently received a big budget boost for spying on China.  And Mr. Ratcliffe is right with respect to some aspects of our relationship with China.  It is an economic competitor, one that has pitted the enriching economics of mercantilism against the impoverishing economics of free trade.  More the fools us for allowing it to do so.

But on the whole, Mr. Ratcliffe and the rest of the dragon puffers are wrong.  They are wrong not because of bad intelligence about China, but because they miss the fact that for all Great Power rivalries, the context has changed.  Contests between Great Powers are no longer the primary force shaping the world.  Rather, what now shapes the world is the growing weakness of most states as the state itself faces a crisis of legitimacy.  Great Power contests now take place within this context, which means such contests are themselves counter-productive to all involved because they further weaken states, certainly the loser and often the winner too.  In effect, victories in state vs. state contests will henceforth almost always be Pyrrhic.

Just as Washington does not get this change in strategic context, neither does Beijing.  For China, which is, as Mr. Ratcliffe writes, attempting to become the top Great Power, the new context has at least three major implications:

  • First, as it penetrates other parts of the globe through initiatives such as its “Belt and Road” project, it will find its presence there undermined and its goals blocked by increasing disorder.  As states weaken, Fourth Generation war spreads, and Chinese efforts in the face of constant attacks by non-state elements will simply become unprofitable.  This mirrors the European colonial experience but will occur much faster.  In fact, it is occurring now, as China’s penetration into much of sub-Saharan Africa finds its efforts swallowed by spreading disorder.  Where states are weak or merely fictions, one gang among many, efforts by outside powers will produce only a bottomless investment pit.  The cost/benefit calculation will be as red as the east.
  • Second, where states are struggling to hold on to at least some shreds of legitimacy, an increasingly obvious Chinese role will threaten that legitimacy.  This, again, is already happening, especially in Africa.  Because one of the main factors driving Chinese expansionism is the need to provide jobs for Chinese people, Chinese projects hire little local labor.  That, plus a general resentment against outsiders, will also bog down, then reverse Chinese penetration.  The ugly Chinaman will get booted out, just as were the ugly American and ugly European.
  • Third, because the legitimacy of rule by the Chinese Communist Party depends on rapid economic growth in China, China too may suffer a crisis of legitimacy of the state.  Like most authoritarian regimes, China’s Communist government is strong but rigid.  It will seem impervious to disorder right up to the point where it collapses.  China seems to think it has tamed the business cycle, but neither it nor anyone else has done so.  History’s rule seems to be that if a government can prevent frequent, fairly small economic downturns, it gets less frequent but larger ones instead.  Anyone looking at the house of cards that is China’s public and private debt can see what is coming.  And China has a long history of internal fractioning.  No Chinese state can assume it will always hold together.  Were the Chinese state to fracture, that would not only be a disaster for China but for the rest of the world as well, including the United States.  Once again, the new context touches and changes everything.

China appears to be repeating the mistake Japan made in the 1930s.  Japan attempted to build an empire just as European states had done, by conquest, but that era had passed.  China now seeks in similar fashion to become the top Great Power when that position has lost much of its meaning and will soon lose the rest.  Spreading state failure endangers the state system itself, and a successful defense of that system requires an alliance of all states, an alliance that must begin with the three current Great Powers, the United States, China, and Russia.  Russia acts as if it may have at least some understanding this is the case, while Washington and Beijing show none.  Nor does Mr. Ratcliffe, the Director of U.S. National Intelligence.  Is there in fact any intelligence in U.S. National Intelligence?

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