Has China Just Made Its Big Geopolitical Break? Or Is It about To?

Probably the best map to illustrate China’s perspective and the geopolitical importance of the Philippines for it. Map: Geopolitical Futures

China might have achieved a major geopolitical breakthrough mainly thanks to domestic shifts in some of the top US allies in the Asia-Pacific region. If it permanently secures them on its side, this might be a game changer for the geopolitics of the entire globe.

 

China’s economic rise is by far one of the most startling global stories of the past 50 years.

As of the beginning of 2017, for the first time, China’s economic significance might have become truly reflected in its geopolitical surroundings as strategically positioned countries such as the Philippines, Malaysia, and possibly Singapore seem to be embracing Beijing, shifting from long-time alliances with the United States.

If this proves to be a sustainable trend, it would spell very tough times ahead for the United States and its remaining allies in the Western Pacific.

Economic and ideological considerations aside, it is crucial to note that from a geopolitical point of view, China has been in the same position for millennia.

It doesn’t really matter that historically it was imperial China with its cycles of concentration of power and relative disintegration, or that today China is nominally communist, run by the Chinese Communist Party, but with a booming capitalist economy, the second largest in the world (third if you count the EU, which you both should and shouldn’t).

China’s thousands of years’ worth of history of great power rise and fall (the Chinese seem to think about their place in the world in terms of centuries rather than years or decades) exhibit common patterns with respect to the country’s both continental and maritime geopolitics.

In these patterns, China is essentially an island of sorts relatively isolated from the rest of the Asian continent with deserts, mountains, and jungles.

It does have a long coastline, however, which is vulnerable to blockade because of the numerous peninsulas and island chains surrounding it (the old “Island Chain Strategy” invented in the 1950s by John Foster Dulles for containing not just China but the USSR and North Korea in East Asia).

Just as startling as the story of China’s recent economic rise has been the question of whether this change will end up being peaceful or whether the country is going to seek a global superpower status equal to or surpassing that of the United States.

Part of this trillion-dollar question’s answer might lie with one of the most striking but overlooked aspects of the story of China’s rise (in addition to its leadership’s decision back in the 1970s to open it up economically and to provide favorable conditions to foreign investors, a policy that’s turned it into a global factory).

To a great extent this has been a story in which Western, and especially American, businesses (capitalism) have not just transferred to China enormous amounts of investment capital but have also carried out possibly the largest transfer of technology in human history.

They have traded the largest transfer of technology ever in exchange for several decades of cheap labor. Several decades, first, because the wages tend to rise as labor becomes more knowledge-intensive, and, second, because, well, the Chinese have been smart.

They required the transfer of technology and have been making good use of it, already launching efficient peer competitors to leading American / Western multinational corporations.

This symbiotic relationship in which the Americans give the investment cash, the Chinese make the products, sell them to the Americans, and use the money to buy American government debt so that the Americans can continue to buy from them still seems to be stable in economic terms.

The Americans need the cheap(ish) goods, and the Chinese need their client, at least until they develop a sufficiently huge domestic consumption so as not to be so dependent on exports and the clients buying them (their other main client in addition to the US being the EU).

One would think that as a buyer and a seller of enormous proportions located on two opposite sides of the globe, the US and China might have good reason to strike a grand bargain making sure that any potential conflicts between them are avoided.

However, geopolitics is a realm of both geographic determinism and self-fulfilling prophesies. This grand accord, the Chimerica, the G-2 that could have been, has never materialized politically.

Some 40 years into this giant US-Chinese economic exchange under President Xi Jinping, China appears to be somewhat more adventurous abroad (well, with respect to some island chains).

And after 40 years of massive private sector transfer of American technology to China, the previous US President Barack Obama figured it was time for “a pivot to Asia”—shifting US attention and resources to the Asia-Pacific so that China’s rise could be contained or managed.

Go figure why the US needs to contain politically and militarily a power to which it has been feeding investment and technologies for decades…

This lack of consistency probably shows the detachment of the private and government sectors in the US.

Or maybe it just means that that bush-bearded grandpa who inflicted Marxism (and by implication its later genocidal interpretations) upon humanity, Karl Marx, was right, and capital(ism) has no nation.

By the time Barack Obama is now making way for Donald Trump in the White House, Washington and Beijing already seem to be embroiled in a tension spiral of a self-fulfilling prophecy that they were bound to clash one day.

After China’s intensive actions in the South China Sea dispute over the Paracel and Spratly Islands, it already seems useless to ask whether it might be natural for the Chinese to be assertive now that they have a GDP of 11 trillion USD, and their leadership needs to back its legitimacy in case of an economic slowdown, environmental problems, or a disparity between the rich coastal regions and the interior.

China of 2012 or 2017 is not the China of 1999 when NATO bombed, allegedly by mistake, it embassy in Belgrade, killing the Chinese ambassador.

Nonetheless, little by little a picture has emerged of the US containing China, at least on the perception level, together with long-term US allies such as Japan and South Korea, and the Philippines and Taiwan (ah, Taiwan…), and newer allies such as communist Vietnam and possibly even India.

These Asian countries may actually have been forming a coalition to balance the rise of China out of their own security concerns.

Because of its sheer size, its history of dominating its region, and the wealth that it amassed recently, China has been viewed with growing suspicion by almost all of its neighbors, so much so that until recently it could rely on just a few allies such as Pakistan, Cambodia, and Myanmar (and North Korea).

None of these, however, control the major sea routes for its industrial exports and energy imports, or the potential island and strait chokepoints that can be used to deny access to China to the global ocean in times of hostilities.

In 2016, it seems that China might have achieved a major geopolitical breakthrough mainly thanks to domestic shifts in some of the top US allies in the Asia-Pacific region: namely, with the election of Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, who announced his country’s “separation” from the US; and with Malaysian Prime Minister Najib Razak, also deciding to side with the Chinese. Then there is the curious case of Singapore, which still seems “to be playing” both China and the US.

The only big uncertainty here is if this is a real, long-lasting development, or perhaps China is yet to build robust alliances with the Philippines and Malaysia. If it permanently secures them on its side, this might be a game changer for the geopolitics of the entire globe.

China may have scored a big victory in the quest to secure its access to international waters, and efforts to “contain” it, whether by the US or a coalition of Asian states, from here on would be much costlier and way less efficient.

Sure, major Asian powers such as Japan or India can probably balance China even without US support, even without a joint coalition, even on their own.

They can stand up to Beijing if it decides to bully them. (Remember the stone-cold faces of Xi and Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe at their meetings. That says it all.)

And it is not that with the Philippines on its side, China has overwhelmed the “First Island Chain,” and that with Malaysia and possibly Singapore it can secure the Malacca Strait.

It is just that more Asian countries may flip sides, and the US allies in the Asia-Pacific region might end up in the minority.

The new US presidency, the Trump Administration, doesn’t seem to have an answer to this potential trend, which may signal the beginning of the end of American primacy in the Asia-Pacific.

The new US President Donald Trump seems to have a weird China policy, both on trade and the “pivot to Asia,” of irritating China while creating vast new opportunities for it.

He’s threatened tariffs on Chinese imports while calling Taiwan on the phone and killing the hard-gained Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), which would have benefited the US (maybe not the rustbelt workers, but the US as a whole).

Trump’s decided to cozy up to Russia, and Russia has been far more “assertive” than China, to put it mildly, in the past three years.

Russia is an unlikely US ally against China as the Russian leadership is becoming more and more dependent on the Chinese, and doesn’t seem to mind it as long as it can continue to lash out at the West.

At the same time, the new US president dispatched his Defense Secretary James Mattis to reassure Japan and South Korea of the American commitment to their security in what has been the first foreign trip by a senior member of the Trump Administration.

While China may end up being vulnerable because of some its domestic weaknesses, in geopolitical terms, such as flipping US allies, better security, and its access to the global ocean, it may already have scored big victories, or might be just about to do so.

Donald Trump’s moves so far don’t seem to make up any consistent strategy toward China as a peer competitor.

Of course, China and the US really need not fight one another. They have plenty of shared interests, an unprecedented degree of economic interdependence, both are huge and powerful enough, and half a world away. Yet, if they are considered to be embroiled in a hyperpower rivalry, China may have just made a big breakthrough.

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*Note: An earlier version of this article appeared on intelligencerpost .com.

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