After two hundred years of global ascendancy, the West is in rapid relative decline to (re)emerging Asia, which is mounting a steady “Great Reconvergence”. Likewise, the legitimacy of today’s “neoliberal internationalist” order promoted by the West is being questioned by the more statist, neo-Westphalian visions of the leaders of the Rest, the so-called BRIC’s. This has already led to the emergence of a “world without the West” – a parallel international system based on the principles of state sovereignty, hard power, and bilateral trade relations.
The most powerful and influential member of this new world is China, which has become the “workshop of the world” since its graduated opening up from the late 1970’s. Accounting for half of global steel and cement production, China has built up an enormous infrastructure of roads, railways, and ports to support its mercantile expansion. In 2009 it became the world’s largest automobile market. Furthermore, China is now advancing higher up the ladder of added-value industries by expanding into hi-tech areas such as commercial aircraft, renewable energy, and supercomputers.
One of the most important factor making China’s rise all the more significant is that it is concurrent with the accelerating decline of Pax Americana that is spurred on by the end of cheap oil, US economic weakness, and regional threats to American hegemony from the “challenger Powers” (e.g. Russia, Iran, and China itself). Should the current international order suffer a “cascading collapse” – which is not unlikely, given the brittleness of the world financial and energy system – then it is possible that China will emerge as an equal, or even superior, pole to the US superpower as soon as 2020.
The Inevitability of China’s Return to Hegemony
Critics aver that ordinary Chinese remain much poorer than Americans, but they miss the obvious fact that with its 1.3bn+ population, China needs only a Romanian level of per capita economic output to equal the US; should they reach Portugal’s level, China’s economy would be double America’s size. (Economic power underpins military power). Nor is there any reason for supposing that China’s growth will soon falter due to social and regional inequality, environmental degradation, bad loans, population aging, or social unrest (though it may well experience a Malthusian collapse along with the rest of the world by 2050). For a refutation of the major concerns, see my old post A Long Wait at the Gate of Delusions, or in summary:
- Regional disparities. The sharp divide between the affluent coastal and poorer internal regions is not new in Chinese history. In the absence of firm central control, this has in the past led to fragmentation – coastal administrations orientating themselves to foreign commercial interests, the interior sinking beneath a morass of poverty and corruption. However, modern China is not the ailing China of the 19th century in the throes of Malthusian stagnation. It is now a proud and rising Great Power, its regional separatist movements are quelled, and it is under the firm control of the CCP. As such, the chances of a jaded Japan or declining USA successfully exploiting this divide are very slim.
- Income inequality. There is also a great deal of inequality between China’s urban and rural, between its new oligarchs and itinerant indigents, and between the privileged and non-privileged. However, this is entirely typical of capitalist societies at the height of the industrialization drive, and levels of inequality tend to fall once a more affluent state decides on expanding social welfare schemes to contain labor unrest. As will be covered in a later, related post on China’s internal debates, the ideological underpinnings for such a shift are already coming into place with the concept of the “Harmonious Society“.
- Environmental degradation. A major problem. An innovative attempt to start measuring economic performance with “Green GDP” (accounting for pollution costs) was quietly squashed when it indicated that China had almost no real growth. That said, localized pollution per se, like city smog or collapsed ecosystems, won’t bring about China’s fall just as they haven’t led to the fall of any other post-agrarian society. The same certainly cannot be said for anthropogenic climate change, whose effects will become devastating to China by the 2030’s (floods, droughts, desertification, dust storms, etc). The most ominous prospect is the melting of the Himalayan glaciers, though some point out that this may be a centuries-long process. Nonetheless, these potential disasters won’t come in time to prevent China’s assumption of its superpower mantle, which I predict for 2020.
- Bad loans. A valid point, but they only tend to result in – or more accurately, contribute to – long-term stagnation by the time high growth rates falters, such as when a developing society nears convergency with the rich world (e.g. Japan in the early 1990’s). South Korea got a severe economic shock in 1997 stemming from its structural weaknesses, but respectable rates of growth continued up until the 2008 economic crisis. Speaking of which, Western critics should be doubly cautious now when criticizing China for its bad loans. As recent history might have proven, investing in industrial overcapacity may be rather less useless than building suburbs with no future, printing money under euphemisms like quantitative easing, or whatever the latest bondoogles are.
- Will China get old before it gets rich? The concerns over aging are ridiculous because 1) China’s TFR is at a respectable 1.8 (OK, more like 1.6-1.7 if one accounts for their skewed sex ratios, but still…), 2) its labor force will continue growing until 2030, and 3) it still has massive labor armies locked up in the countryside which can be drawn into higher-added value economic sectors. The real problem cases in the aging department are Central Europe, the Mediterranean, and Japan. See Will China Grow Old Before Getting Rich? (Goldman Sachs) for a more comprehensive analysis which reaches the same basic conclusion.
- Excessive export dependency. Frankly, I’ve always thought the image of the heroic American consumer saving the world by kindly consuming much of what the the world produces to be somewhat ridiculous – and this image is already being revealed for the hallucination it really is, thanks largely to US fiscal profligacy, imperial overstretch and peak oil. But I digress. First, China’s export dependency is nowhere near as high as suggested by the official figures because much of its exports are merely assembled in China from parts made in and imported from Korea, Japan, etc. Whereas gross exports are near 40% of GDP, net exports are at just 7% of GDP. In 2008, China clocked up a respectable 8% GDP growth rate (albeit, one only enabled by prodigious credit infusions), even though its exports fell by 20%. Second, the main reason for Chimerica – Chinese saving / production – American dissaving / consumption – in the first place was it allowed China to acquire the foreign currency to pay for resource imports, build up its industrial base, and acquire advanced technologies, while the US got back cheaper goods to cushion its rising inequality and industrial stagnation. But China interest in this deal is flagging. It already has by far the world’s largest industrial base by volume and it has bought up, or stolen, most of the key technologies needed for advanced industrialism. From now on, growth will be slower as it is curbed by stagnant world demand, accumulating bad loans, diminishing returns, etc, – it will likely be around 5-7% a year in the 2010’s, rather than the 10% typical of the 1980’s to 2000’s. Nonetheless, growth should continue at a fast enough rate to soak up the new landless labor, ease social tensions and enable China to launch a geopolitical breakout. The inevitable transition from a centrally-weak, disbalanced and commercialized nation-state, to a more centralized, balanced, hegemonic empire will not be smooth, but China’s forward momentum is simply too large to derail its rise to superpower status.
- Social unrest. Unlikely to happen in a big way as long as fast economic growth continues, which it likely will for the next decade. China still has plenty of room for economic convergence, and its investments in human capital are going to be paying off handsomely in this period – “during the past decade, China has produced college and university graduates at a significantly faster pace than Korea and Japan did during their fastest-growing periods” (Goldman Sachs). Nor are resource or ecological limits to growth likely to intrude in the next ten years. Of course, this situation won’t last forever and by 2030 at the latest, China will be forced to radically reform its model to hold together, e.g. to nationalist expansionism or ecotechnic dictatorship.
- China’s monolithic and non-democratic nature. Though the CCP projects an image of internal unity on the world, under its placid exterior there is a flux of dynamic debates about how China should reconcile growth with environmentalism, capitalism with socialism, democracy with stability, and cultural influence with military strength. The necessity of liberal democracy for success is a figment of the Western end-of-history mentality, and will be recognized as such by the time the West realizes history doesn’t end.
In conclusion, China has the tools at its disposal to become the world’s last industrial superpower (the US and Japan are in relative decline, Russia has too few people, India is coming to the party too late). The creeping dissipation of the global financial system will remove the US from its position as the system’s intermediator, and with it will go a key pillar of neoliberal internationalism. This will clear the foundations for the emergence of a new symbiosis between the oil-exporting nations of the Middle East and a China which can provide them with cheap consumer goods and security guarantees in place of a deindustrialized, unpopular, and increasingly insular America. These trends will become the conventional wisdom by 2020.
China and the World: Coal, CO2, and Geopolitics
By that date, the age of scarcity industrialism will be in full bloom. Three issues will come to the forefront of all discussions about China’s global significance.
First, the impact of 1.3bn people enjoying rising levels of personal affluence on the global environment. Its electricity generation fueled almost entirely by coal, China has recently overtaken the US to become the world’s biggest CO2 emitter. Today, given the absence of any egalitarian, spiritual, or ultra-nationalist ideology keeping the country together, China requires rapid growth to prevent spiraling unemployment and social unrest. The CCP wants to remain in power, and for that it needs stability, and that needs growth, and that needs more and more coal plants every year. Hence the reason for China’s unwillingness to agree to any but the weakest CO2 emissions targets – i.e., a non-binding resolution to a 45% reduction in Co2 intensity per unit of GDP by 2020 from the levels of 2005. However, since China’s GDP is expected to treble or even quadruple from 2005 to 2020, its emissions will grow by 50-100% even if it achieves this non-binding target. Needless to say, this will be catastrophic for our efforts to contain climate change to a global temperature rise of below 2C, at which point runaway dynamics are expected to become predominant. As the last superpower, I expect China to take the lead in any global or national “final gambit” at geoengineering our way out of runaway climate change.
Second, China’s ability to generate industrial growth from its own resources is shrinking. It is already a major oil importer and its grain production is on a slowly dipping plateau, thanks to increasing urbanization and environmental damage (desertification, salination, depletion of fossil aquifers, etc). It is already restricting exports of the strategic Rare Earth Metals that constitute key components of hi-tech devices such as hard drives, wind turbines, and electric cars. This is a major problem for the world outside China, since China accounts for a stunning 95% of global REM production. It will take a decade to reopen the old mines, and in the interval the West could experience a severe “tech crunch”.
Since the bulk of Chinese electricity consumption comes from coal and its geo-economy is not structurally dependent on cheap oil on the same massive scale as the US, China will not be as hard hit by peak oil as the Anglo-Saxon world; besides, its manufacturing prowess and foreign currency reserves will allow it to outbid most competitors for the black gold. However, the downside to using coal is that it too will peak – in China’s case, perhaps within 10 to 15 years, after which it will go into a rapid decline. As such, China can be expected to “lock in” foreign energy supplies with long-term contracts, increase exploitation of unconventional fossil fuel sources such as coal seam gas, and accelerate its current attempts to force through a renewable transition. In 2009, China became the world’s largest producer of both wind turbines and PV panels; however, they have made nary a dent in its CO2 emissions, and are unlikely to do so any time soon. Coal is much cheaper and more importantly, provides the vital base load power that intermittent wind and solar flows cannot.
Third, China’s military power and neo-colonial influence is set to increase in the coming decades. After suppressing military spending from the late 1970’s to the early 2000’s in order to free up its energies for rapid economic growth, the People’s Liberation Army is now being paid back handsomely for its patience. A prescient quotation from the Economist in 1986, from the days when the magazine was still worth reading:
For China’s military men with the patience to see the economic reforms through, there is a payoff. If Mr. Deng’s plans for the economy as a whole are allowed to run their course, and the value of China’s output quadruples, as planned, between 1980 and 2000 (admittedly big ifs), then 10 to 15 years down the line the civilian economy should have picked up enough steam to haul the military sector along more rapidly. That is when China’s army, its neighbors and the big powers will really have something to think about.
That time is now. Defense spending is now rising faster than GDP, as China intensifies military modernization and acquires new capabilities in electronic, information, and anti-satellite warfare. The overall strategic balance has also changed. The dissolution of the Soviet Union meant that the old Chinese fear of a tank invasion from the north has dissipated; coupled with the growing importance of maritime trade and foreign energy supplies, this has produced a reorientation to coastal defense and broader power projection to the south and east. China’s most ambitious military project is its decision to embark on the construction of a real blue-water navy, a vital tool in the renewed “gunboat diplomacy” we are likely to see in the years ahead.
In the short term, this has extended to China acquiring Russian weapons such as four Sovremenny-class guided missile destroyers, twelve Kilo-class diesel-electric submarines, and advanced anti-ship missiles and supercavitating torpedoes such as the Sunburn, Sizzler, and Shkval. Domestic production of naval vessels is expanding rapidly: whereas US shipbuilding is withering away, China now accounts for a third of global shipbuilding and “is in the midst of a shipbuilding and acquisition craze that will result in the People’s Liberation Army Navy having more ships than the U.S. Navy sometime in the next decade”, including four aircraft carriers by 2020. China’s military modernization has already tipped the regional balance of power. A recent RAND study indicates that China is already be able to establish air superiority over Taiwan in the event of a hot war over the straits, and on current trends it will probably be able to conquer it outright within the decade.
In tandem with its military modernization, which is mostly geared to fighting and winning possible local wars in south-east Asia (Taiwan, Spratly Islands, Vietnam), China is pursuing a far-sighted “string of pearls” strategy of naval base construction on its outlying coastal islands and friendly nations such as Myanmar, Sri Lanka, Bangladesh, and Pakistan. They will host radar stations and anti-ship batteries, and will form logistics hubs for naval operations. The underlying strategy is to reinforce China’s coast against foreign encroachment and to protect its sea lines of communication (SLOC) – especially the vital energy routes supplying it with Middle East oil.
Finally, the broadest form of China’s projection of influence is its rush to buy out mines, arable land, oil field concessions, and foreign national elites, from Australia to Brazil to Ukraine to Angola; indeed, Africa is a focal point of interest, with up to half a million Chinese already working on building up the continent’s industrial infrastructure and tapping its energy and mineral wealth. Closer to home in South-East Asia, most nations are both appreciative and fearful of China’s rise, bandwagoning with the US on security while engaging with China economically. The fact of America’s accelerating decline means that this state of affairs is not permanent. Any future “downsized” US empire will have minimal interests in East Asia, and will concentrate its energies on the Americas, Africa, and perhaps the Middle East (though it will be largely displaced by Turkey and China there).
The second greatest East Asian Power, Japan, will have neither the will to mount a serious challenge to China’s emerging hegemony, nor the strategic foundations. Japan is almost entirely reliant on foreign supplies of energy, and as soon as the PLA Navy surpasses the Japan Maritime Self-Defense Force, it will be utterly eclipsed by China. Why struggle, when Japan can instead exist as in a comfortable symbiosis with a China whose post-1978 growth it actively nourished – spats over their wartime history to the contrary? Japan is capital-rich, China is labor-rich; both share Asian values based on paternalism, state capitalism, and national sovereignty… Japan has two choices. It can try to construct an encircling alliance encompassing Russia, Korea, India, and the US to contain China, but this is a truly ambitious undertaking because 1) Russia has – and by that point the US will have – no overriding reason to confront China, 2) the “pan-Asian” appeal of China, 3) Japan has territorial disputes with Russia, whereas Russia in turn has close if suspicious relations with China through the SCO, and 4) as argued by the late Samuel Huntington, Asian societies have a tendency to bandwagon with the leading regional power – now it’s the US, in the future it will be China. The other alternative, and I would argue the likelier and more natural one, is for Japan to acknowledge Chinese regional hegemony. Once Japan takes this plunge, every other nation in in the region will follow.
It is no exaggeration to say that whither goes China goes the world. It is already the world’s greatest industrial power, at least as measured by physical throughput, energy consumption, and pollution emissions. Though still technologically backward, it is much less so than 10 years ago. China’s purchases of foreign technology, copying, and industrial espionage are rapidly closing the gap, and China’s rapidly expanding R&D workforce will be able to successfully hit the ground running once there arises the need for indigenous innovation.
The extent to which China will be able to solve its energy, minerals, food, and water problems will have major impacts domestic and international, and its success or lack of at reducing – or mitigating – its greenhouse gas emissions, is probably going to determine whether the world as a whole will be able to wriggle out of its Limits to Growth predicament. Finally, China’s cultural, economic, and neo-colonial influence is going to metastasize – in the process transforming it into an East Asian regional hegemon and primary pole in world geopolitics.
China’s greatest challenges lie in geopolitics (how to manage its own rise?), coal (how to power growth?), and CO2 (how to grow, or just stay still, sustainably?). The answers to these questions will determine its future political, social, and economic trajectory. It is therefore vital to to find out how its elites are planning to stand up to this panoply of perils and opportunities, which will be the subject of my next post on China.