As we’ve explained before, when a conflict arises, the possible positions to be taken in regards to it, its memetic frame, is previous to the choice of sides by the participants. Geopolitical discussions are no exception. The polarization is magnified by the great amount of information available, the infinite ways in which that information can be interpreted, and the connection geopolitics has to many other subjects in which people are emotionally invested. So, naturally, when China-as-Future-Power is brought up, people are very fast to jump into the trench they instinctively recognize as their own.
One of such trenches is the one occupied by people who are deeply skeptical of China’s actual and potential power – let’s call them Geopolitical Change Deniers. This train of thought usually argues that the threat China’s ascent is blown out of proportion. President Trump’s confrontational rhetoric is explained as a propaganda strategy to obfuscate who the US’s true rival is. Usually, the Russian Federation is given this adversarial role, which follows the logic of classical geopolitics, enshrined somewhat poetically in the Sea versus Land paradigm. For a naval empire such as the US, foreign policy has to be focused on hampering the consolidation of continental power. In practice, this means antagonizing the most powerful player in Eurasia, using secondary actors to create a balancing counter-power.
One of the main arguments Geopolitical Change Deniers have to disparage China’s growing power is its economic dependency of the US. According to this line of thought, the Middle Kingdom relies on the American Empire to keep running. The idea goes something like this: if the US stops supporting China, the Chinese economy collapses; if China stops supporting the US, the Chinese economy also collapses. Thus, any diplomatic measure by the US against China is interpreted as a yanking of the leash to remind the dog who its master is.
This claim is disputable to say the least: although the US is indeed China’s greatest buyer (20% of Chinese exports go there), the combined value of exports to Asia and Europe triples that of products destined to America. This is a trade sphere which every day grows more detached from the US-protected trans-Pacific routes, especially as China develops its land communications and its own maritime security with its aggressive artificial island policy. On the other hand, 22% of foreign products arriving in the US come from China. At the same time, a third of US exports goes to the same Asian market China is trying to claim as its own. America cannot find an easy substitute for Chinese cheap supplies. It also cannot afford to lose the Asian market to China, who has obvious cultural and geographical advantages in accessing it. So who owns who?
The meme of China as a giant economy slave to the US, always on the verge of collapse, is a bastard scion of the Triangular Policy initiated by Kissinger in the Nixon era. This policy, devised in a time of relative weakness of American political influence, intended to drive a wedge between the two communist (and continental) powers of China and Russia. By exploiting their rivalry, US diplomacy hoped to avoid the creation of a united block capable of driving America out of the World Island. But the US has been cutting the Chinese too much slack, and as the world changes, it’s time to pay. China has made enormous inroads in Europe and in Africa, and even if the local powers don’t trust them, they will have to comply with Chinese influence if the US does not show up as a power player. There has been some talk of expropriating Chinese assets with the excuse of coronavirus reparations, but it’s difficult to imagine any country willing to assume the diplomatic cost this would entail, and that includes America. The People’s Republic is a permanent member of the UN’s Security Council, a nuclear and space power, and controls vast amounts of strategic resources, like rare earth minerals. It also has enormous pressure tools at its disposal, trade not being the least of them.
Another argument to support the Geopolitical Change Deniers claim that China is indeed a giant with clay feet, is the supposed threat of internal rebellion. The authoritarian Communist-Capitalism of China is seen as so oppressive, that to the West’s eyes a revolution is expected at any moment. Setting aside the possible hypocrisy of such a statement (looking at you, Google), the Deniers assume that a vacuum of power in China would be filled by Russia and Central Asian islamists. In their interpretation the US government is actually protecting a puppet China from its inner demons to avoid chaos in the region. While Chinese collapse would certainly be more dangerous to World stability than the current status quo, it is not such a safe bet to claim that Russia is ready –nor willing– to step in its place. The Russian Federation has profound demographic problems which make it barely able of holding its territory together, let alone occupying Manchuria. In fact, it is actually China who threatens Russia, with both its GDP and its population surpassing Russia’s by a factor of ten. The threat of Central Asian islamism is also overblown. Islam is not a new phenomenon in the region and hasn’t made gains in centuries. It has plenty of fertile ground to expand in other areas ripe for the taking, from the Sahel all the way to Indonesia.
The only argument in favor of a supposed US-China collusion is based, perhaps surprisingly, on ideological grounds. China inhabits the dialectic synthesis of Capitalism and Communism. It’s a vision of the Future, free at last from its human and religious/ideological drag. It’s not Late Capitalism what we’re seeing, but the early lights of Capitalist Revolution, at last led to triumph by its Communist elite. If after 70 years in power the Communist Party ends up collapsing, it will not be substituted by freedom-loving, religious “natural conservatives”, but by an even stronger and more materialist establishment, more certain of its superiority to the West than the Communists were. We’ve explored this subject in the past and we will explore it more in the future, so we’ll leave it at that for now.
So, in summary: it’s not for nothing that the US is willing to change its warfighting doctrine to adapt once again to the South Pacific. Redesigning training plans, acquiring and developing new technologies, cultivating alliances in the region… All of this requires an important effort, which would be an enormous waste if it was only a matter of propaganda. As we’ve seen, China can be a problem to the West by being too strong, but also by being too weak. You can make a bonfire and stomp it down whenever you want, but you still have to watch it so it doesn’t burn your house down by escaping your control. Foreign policy does not have an auto-pilot mode, and the roof might be on fire.