Disorder Under Heaven

Explaining Xi Jinping’s China

On a bad day, the soup of pollution is thick enough to obscure the red flags hanging limp on the Tiananmen gate, the gate below which tanks rolled toward student protestors on their deadly mission in June of 1989. It’s the same gate beneath which millions of Red Guard students, Mao’s Little Red Books held aloft, swarmed some 20 years before that, preparing to destroy the old traditions, along with their teachers, leaders, and nearly all of China. The Tiananmen gate has stood sentinel above a lot of chaos since Mao Zedong declared a new China from atop it in 1949, and while the stinking mist that now floats around it on bad days might not fill the air with the same staccato immediacy as shouted slogans or bursts of gunfire, the smog speaks loudly enough to China’s Chairman Xi Jinping: Disorder is all around.

For some, the concentration camps in Xinjiang, the mushrooming military installations and belligerent ships in the South China Sea, the tightening wall of internet censorship, and the expanding police state demonstrate hopes dashed for a liberal, responsible global stakeholder. China is a bad actor, they say[i], Xi its nasty helmsman, authoritarian and power drunk.[ii] After decades of economic growth, China is stronger than ever and ready to take over the world, unless the United States and its partners at last “get tough on China.”[iii] The opposite is true. China is hemmed in by grim geography, by long and leaky borders, and by frontiers peopled by what its leaders see as dangerous would-be separatists. Those leaders, from Deng Xiaoping to Xi Jinping, have understood their nation’s geostrategic precarity. Moreover, each lived through the chaos that engulfed China during Mao’s Cultural Revolution, and each came away determined, though by different means, to keep it from coming apart again. Deng would let the people grow rich but keep his Party always in control, even if it meant sending in the tanks. Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao would keep China on a steady, boring course, even if it meant ignoring dark clouds brewing all around. And Xi Jinping would see the multitude and depth of those clouds—the corruption, pollution, economic weakness, ethnic unrest, and geostrategic danger—and decide China could no longer ignore them; that with an iron grip on the till, he, but only he, could steer China to safety. Rather than power hungry and pugnacious, Xi’s China is a nation besieged by disorder, creeping, like that Beijing smog, into everything.

China is in a difficult spot. Its 18,000-kilometer border, shared with 14 other countries, is the longest in the world.[iv] Two other borders—Hong Kong and Macau—are pseudo-autonomous territories once carved away by foreign powers, remnants of China’s century of humiliation when Western powers, Russia, and Japan converged on China’s geriatric final dynasty and tore off chunks and privileges. Of its other terrestrial neighbors, since 1949 China has fought wars with India, the former Soviet Union, Vietnam, and against the Americans in North Korea. Across the mountain borders of the various Central and South Asian states, traders and nomads of no clear national identity have roamed back and forth for centuries, a migration that troubled China’s leaders after exodus and uprising shook China’s control of Tibet and Muslim-majority Xinjiang in the 1950s and 60s.[v] Rumbles of discontent continue to this day, and global outbursts of Islamic extremism have not lessened concerns about instability and violence in China’s most remote regions, regions that have not always been part of China and that have seen their share of foreign meddling. The 1959 uprising in Tibet, for one example, received support from the United States and Taiwan’s Nationalist government, one of their various attempts to destabilize the communist regime and prepare the way for a future reconquest of all China.[vi]

Taiwan hasn’t gone anywhere, either. With American backing, it still sits unconquered off the Chinese coast, a reminder of not only the bloody civil war between the communist and nationalist forces, but also of Japan’s terrible war and the decades before it, when warlords joined with the imperialists to throw the Middle Kingdom in to chaos and carve it into fiefdoms. Japan, too, sits out there in the ocean, pacific for now, but the atrocities it committed and danger it poses to China not forgotten. The Japanese islands are part of a string of islands—many of them American allies or partners—that stitches China in along its entire seaboard from Russia to Vietnam. Through that South China Sea—contested by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Taiwan—sails the majority of the trade and oil resources that have enabled China’s decades-long rise.[vii] The United States, which now talks of getting tough on China amid an escalating trade war, guarantees freedom of navigation there. It is a guarantee of little reassurance for Xi Jinping and his compatriots.

Those external geostrategic realities and uncertainties are stark enough. But as its modern leadership well knows, internal disorder often poses even greater danger to China. From 1966 to 1976, China came apart. In the name of Cultural Revolution, China’s youth stormed through their cities, tearing down Old China, beating and torturing their ideologically impure comrades, and dragging all progress to halt. There was chaos under heaven, and China’s leaders lived it.

In 1966, Deng Xiaoping—a CCP stalwart, bona fide revolutionary, and high-level Party official—was denounced as a “capitalist roader,” stripped of his government positions, and purged from the Party ranks. Humiliated, for the better part of the next decade Deng fixed tractors and farmed vegetables in a rural backwater, while “rampaging youth militia” reduced his country to ruins and tossed his son from the roof of a Beijing University building. Deng Pufang, back broken and denied hospital admission, would never move his legs again. Disorder had wrecked Deng’s life, his family, and his country. So when Mao, who died in 1976, called him back to power in 1974, Deng set out to repair China and keep it moving forward. China needed to “put things in order,” he said, and over the next 15 years as he led China from behind the scenes, Deng prioritized stability, science, and gradual economic reform to let the people learn from foreigners and get rich while doing it. The Party, meanwhile, kept all under control.[viii]

Deng’s “Reform and Opening Up” succeeded. From 1979 onward, China grew at an astounding rate as its agricultural system decollectivized and its coastal cities opened to trade and investment. The Party, as many see it, pulled hundreds of millions out of poverty. But in 1989, other parts of the communist world began revolutions of their own. China watched as democratic movements in Eastern Europe shucked off communist masters and pushed toward political reform.[ix] When Chinese political reform champion Hu Yaobang died in April of that year, China’s own student-led memorial-turned-protest broke out on Tiananmen Square, and by May when Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Beijing to normalize long-gelid bilateral relations, the mass movement had swelled to some 100-million across China. Chaos had returned, and Deng had seen where student movements lead: to broken backs and broken countries. Deng, however, was no Gorbachev. On the night of June 3, Deng sent in the tanks, and thousands died. Two years later, the Soviet Union was gone; Deng’s China was not.

For 20 years, China’s next two leaders let Deng’s reforms run their course as China grew stronger, Jiang and Hu’s bland personalities and collective leadership style the antithesis of both Mao and what was to come.[x] In March 2013, Xi Jinping took over as leader of China. Xi, too, is a child of the Cultural Revolution. His father, a revolutionary hero and ranking official, was purged and disgraced, and Xi, a young privileged princeling, forced to eke out a brutal life in a dystopic Beijing until he was sent to live in a countryside cave and labor alongside the peasants.[xi] It has become apparent that Xi—once an unknown thought to be a bland administrator with business acumen—learned his own lessons during Cultural Revolution: bide your time, consolidate power, and trust only yourself. He has applied the lessons learned in chaos to China.

If Deng planted China’s economic seeds, Jiang and Hu nurtured them, but alongside progress sprouted disorder: corruption, pollution, slowing growth, unrest, and treacherous neighbors.[xii] Jiang and Hu let disorder grow; Xi will not. He has promised national rejuvenation, a fulfilling of a “Chinese Dream.”[xiii] If Xi is to deliver, China cannot return to weakness and humiliation, nor to the nightmare of revolution. It cannot be dragged back into chaos. After decades of waiting and working, Xi neutered his rivals, constructed a cult of personality, and appointed himself head of everything. He has shut up dissent and arrested tens of thousands, not only activists but also corrupt officials, many of them rivals. He has secured the frontiers, and he has ordered islands built and sea lanes protected.[xiv] China must look after itself.

Xi’s China cannot grow strong and safe if its slowing economy puts millions in the streets. It cannot rejuvenate if foreign adversaries choke off its trade and energy, foment revolt, and threaten its borders. It cannot help its people achieve their dreams if corrupt officials steal from the nation, undermine order, and threaten Xi’s vision. It cannot survive if pollution poisons its soils, slicks its waters, and chokes the air in its skies.

Disorder swarms the Tiananmen gate once again. Like Deng Xiaoping before him, Xi Jinping believes he must tame it.

[i] Pence, Mike, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy Toward China” (delivered to the Hudson Institute, 4 October 2018).
[ii] The New York Times Editorial Board, “Xi Jinping Dreams of World Power for himself and China,” Feb. 27, 2018.
[iii] Donald Trump on Twitter.
[iv] Zhihua Shen and Julia Lovell, “Undesired Outcomes: China’s Approach to Border Disputes during the Early Cold War,” Cold War History, 15:1 (2015), 89-111.
[v] Sulmann Khan, Muslim, Trader, Nomad, Spy: China’s Cold War and the People of the Tibetan Borderland (Durham: University of North Carolina Press, 2015).
[vi] Ibid.
[vii] RAND Corporation, “At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China and the Developing World” (October 2018), 42.
[viii] Ibid, 323-339.
[ix] Mary Elise Sarotte, “China’s Fear of Contagion: Tiananmen Square and the Power of the European Example,” Quarterly Journal: International Security, Vol. 37, No. 2 (Fall 2013), 156-182.
[x] Sulmaan Khan, “Placing Xi Jinping”, Lecture at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy (March 2019).
[xi] Evan Osnos, “Born Red: How Xi Jinping, an unremarkable provincial administrator, became China’s most authoritarian leader since Mao,” The New Yorker (April 6, 2015).
[xii] Sulmaan Khan, “Placing Xi Jinping.”
[xiii] Even Osnos, “Born Red.”
[xiv] Ibid.


Dangerous Waters: Reassessing Conflict in the South China Sea

These days, all is not smooth sailing in the South China Sea. Despite violence throughout Asia during the decades-long Cold War, the South China Sea remained calm. But starting in 2010, with the rapid economic and military rise of China and the United States’ so-called “pivot to Asia,” the waters that lap the shores of China, Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, Indonesia, Brunei, and Taiwan have grown choppy. From harsh words to physical confrontations, the situation is tense. In response, some conventional discourse today argues that China’s aggressive pursuit of territorial control in the South China Sea results from a Chinese long-game desire to replace the United States as the sole hegemonic power, first in the region, then in the world.[1] Many also argue America should – indeed must – adopt a confrontational approach in the South China Sea, empower its small allies and partners in the region, squash Chinese ambitions, and protect American interests and prestige—even if it leads to war.[2]

Those interpretations and policy approaches are incorrect and dangerous. First, China’s expansion of power and development in the South China Sea should not be seen primarily as an outward-looking attempt to usurp global U.S. power but rather, as V.I. Lenin would have it, part of an ongoing, inward-looking attempt by China’s leaders to find an outlet for excess domestic capital. The countries that rim the South China Sea, along with other nations around the world that form links of China’s amorphous and ever-ballooning Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), form major outlets for the over-productive forces at work within China. For China, military development in the South China Sea guarantees protection of the trade and investments necessitated by internal economic pressure. It does not advance revisionist designs for global domination. China worries unless it can solve the structural problems that plague its economy, economic crisis could destabilize the communist regime.

Nevertheless, the growing power and prestige that enable China’s imperialist projects in Southeast Asia signal a growing disequilibrium in the world. Concerned U.S. policymakers, instead of falling for the popular, incomplete, and misleading “Thucydides Trap” analysis,[3] should turn to Robert Gilpin’s theory of hegemonic transition and war for a more complete understanding of the international forces at work in the South China Sea. While a great power sea change does seem to be occurring in Asia, the United States can avoid hegemonic war there by understanding Gilpin’s thesis and pursuing a careful policy of appeasement and accommodation in the South China Sea. To do otherwise could be disastrous for the global stability.

These dual reexaminations of the situation in the South China Sea could calm the waters there and avoid a capsizing of both American and Chinese power.

Nature and Scope

The 1.4-million-square-mile South China Sea is some of the most important maritime territory on planet Earth. More than $3.3 trillion of trade sailed through its island-speckled waters in 2016, as well as 40 percent of the world’s global liquified natural gas. Beneath waters sit an additional 190 trillion cubic feet of natural gas and 11 billion barrels of untapped oil, according to the Council on Foreign Relations. [4] Bilateral trade between China and Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), meanwhile, hit $514.8 billion in 2017, up 13.8 percent on the year, continuing a trend of rising trade between China and its neighbors around the South China Sea. Of that, Chinese exports accounted for $279.1 billion, 9 percent growth year-over-year, for a Chinese trade surplus with ASEAN of $43.4 billion in 2017.[5] Twenty-one of China’s 39 maritime trade routes and 60 percent of its trade passes by the South China Sea’s contested Spratly Islands, claimed by China, Malaysia, the Philippines, and Vietnam. [6] Tellingly, as of Spring 2018, the Spratlys are home to Chinese missile systems.[7]

Adding to the South China Sea’s economic importance, nearly all of China’s oil arrives through Southeast Asia from the Middle East via Malaysia’s Strait of Malacca. According to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, in 2015 nearly one-third of the world’s liquid petroleum products transported by sea moved through the Strait of Malacca, which is only about 1.7 miles wide.[8] Four-fifths of all China’s ship-transported oil arrives through those straits and then the South China Sea. [9] China, which cannot prevent other international actors from disrupting its sea lanes and which must rely instead of the United States to guarantee freedom of navigation,[10] tends to view its trade and oil security “through the prism of American-Japanese containment.”[11] It worries that a terrorist attack, natural disaster, or most likely a military crisis with the United States over Taiwan could close straits throughout Southeast Asia’s waters, cutting off China’s oil supply and trade routes and disrupting its economy.

Lastly, investments in the region are a burgeoning piece of China’s global investment portfolio under its BRI and 21st Century Maritime Silk Road. Chinese outward foreign investment in ASEAN countries amounted to $14.7 billion dollars in 2017. Chinese investment and construction projects have flowed into all Southeast Asian countries, made possible by those trade and energy links through the South China Sea. Key partners include Malaysia, Thailand, Vietnam, and Indonesia. [12] They form the beginning of an over-sea economic chain China intends to link to the Middle East and Europe. China is now the third largest global investor in ASEAN behind Japan and ASEAN countries themselves,[13] and analysts expect Chinese investment in Southeast Asia to continue to grow, even as US investment declines as a share of the total.[14]

China’s military capabilities have exploded in the South China Sea alongside its investments. In 2009, China released maps showing an ambiguous “Nine-Dash Line” encompassing most of the South China Sea.[15] Although the meaning and legal basis of the line are unclear, the line created an outcry among Brunei, the Philippines, Malaysia, Taiwan, and Vietnam, all of which contest some of China’s territorial claims in the sea. Indonesia does not claim any territory there, but the nine-dash line does overlap with its exclusive economic zone.[16] In the years after 2009, China began building artificial islands – 3,200 acres of new land by 2018 – on reefs and rocks throughout the area encompassed by the dashed line, some of them military installations with missile launchers, hangars and runways, ports, and barracks. It also beefed up its coast guard and naval capabilities.[17] China now challenges foreign traffic in the area, including American military boats on freedom of navigation exercises and American reconnaissance flights.[18] China insists foreign vessels get permission before entering the area, and Chinese craft have intercepted American air force planes and forced American navy ships off course.[19] Chinese coast guard vessels have even run local fishing boats out of contested territory.[20] The U.S. insists all these activities violate freedom of navigation principles that are instrumental to ensuring unobstructed trade worldwide. Those principles, perhaps not incidentally, also guarantee U.S. military access to the region.[21] A 2016 United Nations court ruling in favor of the Philippines against China under the 1982 Law of the Sea Convention did not stop China’s projects in the disputed areas. Instead, China doubled its efforts to build better diplomatic relations with the Philippines and other affected countries while it continued to build.[22] Although China assures the United States it will not interfere with “innocent passage” of trade vessels through its claimed territory, the militarized South China Sea is now effectively China’s.[23]

“In short, China is now capable of controlling the South China Sea in all scenarios short of war with the United States,” Admiral Philip S. Davidson told Congress in May 2018.[24]

But why does China want to control the South China Sea?

Island Building: The Highest Stage of Capitalism

Although geostrategic concerns do play some part in China’s development of the South China Sea, a more important aspect of China’s activities there is its attempt to stave off a domestic economic crisis. China needs adequate outlets for overcapacity in its industrial sector and for its over-accumulating capital. China, V.I. Lenin, would argue, has reached the highest stage of capitalism: imperialism.[25]

In his outline of the origins of imperialism, Lenin argues capitalism – and despite its moniker, China’s ruling Chinese Communist Party is at this point unabashedly capitalist – invariably leads to imperialism.

“Economically, the main thing in this process [of capitalism transforming into imperialism] is the substitution of capitalist monopolies for capitalist free competition. Free competition is the fundamental attribute of capitalism, and of the commodity production generally. Monopoly is the exact opposite of free competition; but we have seen the latter being transformed into monopoly before our very eyes, creating large-scale industry and eliminating small industry, finally leading to such a concertation of production and capital that monopoly has been and is the result: Cartels, syndicates, and trusts, and merging with them, the capital of a dozen or so banks manipulating thousands of millions.”[26]

Free competition, as the traditional capitalist means it, has never really existed in the PRC’s major industrial sectors. But what is the Chinese state, with its massive state-owned enterprises, if not a cartel, syndicate, or trust? And what is the Chinese financial sector, with its massive, state-owned banks manipulating thousands of millions, if not a financial capital monopoly?

China has massive excess savings and foreign reserves produced by its 1980s and 1990s manufacturing and export-driven economic boom. China’s state-owned enterprises are “sitting on piles of cash”, according to one recent study.[27] Since 2014, China has been the world’s top exporter of capital,[28] and in 2009, government-controlled state-owned enterprises made up $38.2 billion (67.6 percent) of China’s total outward direct investment.[29] Those trends have been driven by the rapid growth of the Chinese economy that concentrated capital in the large state-owned enterprises. That pattern led to several structural economic problems, most notably for our purposes, over-production and excess capital accumulation.[30]

The surplus capital sloshing around China made it necessary beginning in the 1990s for China to seek new avenues through which to direct its capacity and capital. At first, China embarked on massive in-country infrastructure projects and waves of urbanization.[31] Once internal growth slowed, those projects triggered over-capacity in China’s industrial sector, especially coal and steel, and so in 1999 China launched its “Going Global” policy of seeking external outlets for investment.[32] That search for external outlets has only intensified over the last decade as China has grown increasingly concerned its rent-seeking producers and excess capital might cause a destabilizing economic crisis. Its ill-defined Belt and Road Initiative is the now the primary, centrally directed mechanism to prevent an economic crisis and promote the internationalization of the economy.[33] BRI, then, is definitively imperialist, as Lenin defines it. “Under modern capitalism,” Lenin writes, “when monopolies prevail, the export of capital has become the typical feature.”[34]

Viewed through Lenin’s lens, it becomes clear what China is up to in the South China Sea. Southeast Asia is a key link in China’s BRI, specifically its 21st Century Maritime Silk Road, which aims to link China’s southern provinces to Southeast Asia via ports and railroads and then to the Middle East’s oil reserves and the Mediterranean Sea. BRI is the critical outlet for China’s outward investment. China plans to invest more than $1 trillion in the its Belt and Road routes, including high-speed trains, power plants, port expansion, highways, and other infrastructure investment as it seeks to resolve its chronic over-production issues and find an outlet for its excess capital.[35] Aside from infrastructure and investment, China also hopes to create special industrial zones throughout Southeast Asia and to enhance economic integration and interregional trade.[36] Like Lenin’s reviled banking conglomerates, one of the chief financing mechanisms behind the entire BRI project is the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank founded by China, which contributed $29.78 billion starting capital and has effective veto-power in the AIIB.[37] BRI is Lenin’s imperialism in 21st-century action.

Easing excess capital accumulation has not been the only goal of these external investments, either. Chinese companies have worked to secure throughout Southeast Asia the raw materials and energy resources necessary to continue to grow.[38] Among these are the potential gas and oil resources that sit below the waves of the South China Sea, as well as the mineral resources of some ASEAN countries. This too aligns with Lenin’s thesis of imperialism. “These monopolies are most firmly established when all the sources of raw materials are controlled by the one group. And we have seen with what zeal the international capitalist combines exert every effort to make it impossible for their rivals to compete with them; for example by buying up mineral lands, oil fields, etc. … Finance capital is not only interested in the already known sources of raw materials; it is also interested in the potential sources of raw materials, because present-day technical development is extremely rapid, and because land which is useless today may be made fertile tomorrow if new methods are applied.”[39]

Furthermore, as China transforms from an industrial state to a creditor state, it’s military plays an important enforcement role. Like other creditor nations before it, China profits doubly off the loans it extends to its more-impoverished Southeast Asian neighbors.  As Lenin puts it, “The increase in exports is closely connected with the swindling tricks of finance capital, which is not concerned with bourgeois morality, but with skinning the ox twice—first it pockets the profits from the loan, then it pockets other profits from the same loan which the borrower uses to make purchases”—now from Chinese companies.[40] This has been the case throughout Southeast Asia and the South China Sea. Moreover, countries like the Philippines now find themselves in debt traps that risk turning Chinese infrastructure projects built with Chinese materials into Chinese colonial possessions under the guns of Chinese boats. Much like Great Britain or America before it, China’s coast guard and navy “plays here the part of bailiff in the case of necessity.”[41]

“Great Britain’s political power protects her from the indignation of her debtors,” Gerhart von Schulze-Gaevernitz wrote.[42] Today, so does China’s.

Considering all these factors, China’s aggressive build up in the South China Sea is a natural outgrowth of its imperial policy and follows in the footsteps of empires before it. It is nothing if not a timeworn imperialist tradition. If China cannot guarantee control of the shipping routes in Southeast Asia, it cannot guarantee its lucrative investments, energy resources, and trade networks there. With its economy and the well-being of its party monopolists so reliant on external investment, resource development, and international trade, what choice does China have but to expand its military presence and capabilities in the region? Control of the South China Sea is a must.

Morality aside, China’s attempts to control the South China Sea are nothing the world hasn’t seen before. They are plain, old imperialism. And as with prior empires, they derive primarily from economic pressure inside its borders.

A Hegemonic Sea Change?

China, which believes it is the rightful imperial heir to the Southeast Asian sphere of influence, insists that its imperialist projects around the South China Sea align with its principle of “peaceful coexistence.” But Lenin was correct when he said “there can be no other conceivable basis under capitalism for the division of spheres of influence, of interests, of colonies, etc., than a calculation of the strength of the participants in the division … and the strength of these participants in the division does not change to an equal degree, for under capitalism the development of … countries cannot be even.[43] And so the South China Sea, now in disequilibrium because of China’s imperialist expansion, has been set up for a calamity.

In his book War and Change in World Politics, Robert Gilpin argues the world is traditionally organized by one of three structures: a single hegemonic power, a bipolar arrangement, or a multipower arrangement characterized by multiple powers in balance-of-power situations. Since the fall of the Soviet Union, the world has been organized by a single American hegemon that has been largely able to shape or influence the world according to its interests, including free trade, and to enforce those interests primarily through its overwhelming naval power. Since the 2008 financial crisis, however, the world has slipped into a bipolar arrangement with the explosion of the Chinese economy and the subsequent growth of its military and political power and prestige. A bipolar order, Gilpin says, is the most unstable and short-lived of world organizations and quickly slips into disequilibrium and, often, war.[44]

Two factors determine a country’s status in the world order: power and prestige. Power accounts for a nation’s economic, political, and military capacities to directly shape the world, while prestige accounts for the perceptions of other states regarding a nation’s willingness and capability to exercise its power.[45] China’s power and prestige have both been supercharged, especially in Asia, surprising much of the world.

The rise of a new power often startles the world and particularly the dominant power. Leon Trotsky explains that new powers do not – indeed cannot – follow the same developmental trajectory as the old. Instead, they borrow the technology and knowledge of those powers which have gone before to rise rapidly and shake the global order. As Trotsky says:

“Although compelled to follow after the advanced countries, a backward country does not take things in the same order. The privilege of historic backwardness – and such privilege exists – permits, or rather compels, the adoption of whatever is ready in advance of any specified date, skipping a whole series of intermediate stages.”[46]

China, in 1978, had the “privilege of historic backwardness.” Over the course of Deng Xiaoping’s Opening and Reform that began that year, however, China launched itself out of backwardness and into the ranks of the world’s advanced, or at least advancing, countries. It skipped the intermediate stages of development, borrowing instead economic, technical, and military ideas to go, in the span of 20 years, from Asian backwater to Asian power. Its power has grown by the year, especially in relative terms after the 2008 financial crisis devastated the global economy outside of China.[47] Gilpin argues that “as power of a state grows, it seeks to extend its territorial control, its political influence, and/or its domination of the international economy,” exactly what China has done in the South China sea since 2009.[48] China, in its growing self-confidence, claims new territory in the South China Sea by bringing to bear its political power because of its desire to control the economy in Southeast Asia. This, in turn, further enhances its political power and prestige in the region as the smaller countries come to grips with China’s goals and prestige – its willingness to do whatever necessary to achieve them. As Philippines President Rodrigo Duterte recently told Reuters about a conversation he had with Chinese Chairman Xi Jinping regarding competition for oil resources in the South China Sea, “We’re friends, we don’t want to quarrel with you, we want to maintain the presence of warm relationship, but if you force the issue, we’ll go to war.”[49] There is nothing the formerly bellicose Duterte can do about it.

China’s actions and attitude in the South China Sea illustrate Gilpin’s theory that “as relative power increases, a rising state attempts to change the rules governing the international system, the division of spheres of influence, and most important of all, the international distribution of territory. In response, the dominant power counters this challenge through changes in its policies that attempt to restore equilibrium in the system.”[50] Contemporary China ignores previously established rules governing freedom of navigation in the South China Sea, claims and builds new territory, and enlarges its sphere of influence in Southeast Asia. Those actions directly challenge the supremacy of the author and protector of the current order: The United States. The old status quo in the South China Sea favored the United States and its interests. Maintaining that status quo grows more difficult for the United States as, faced with diminishing returns, competing with China in Southeast Asia requires much greater financial costs to contest China’s ambitions with adequate power. It is not easy or cheap to control a sea on the other side of the world in the backyard of a rising power. “The principal external factor undermining the position of the dominant state is the increasing costs of dominance … Increases in the numbers and strengths of rival, challenging powers force the dominant state to expend more resources to maintain its superior military or political position,” Gilpin writes.[51] “There is a tendency for the economic costs of maintaining the international status quo to rise faster than the financial capacity of the dominant power to support its position and the status quo[52] … In these situations, the disequilibrium in the system becomes increasingly acute as the declining power tries to maintain its position and the rising power attempts to transform the system in ways that will advance its interests. As a consequence of this persisting disequilibrium, the international system is beset by tensions, uncertainties, and crises.”[53]

What is to be done, Mr. Gilpin?

The United States, Gilpin would argue, is now faced with two choices to resolve the global disequilibrium: appeasement or war.

For a declining power, Gilpin says the most attractive response to the rise of a challenger is to “eliminate the source of the problem. By launching a preventative war, the declining power destroys or weakens the rising challenger while the military advantage is still with the declining power … however, besides causing unnecessary loss of life, the greatest danger inherent in preventative war is that is sets in motion a course of events over which statesmen soon lose control.”[54] War cannot, or should not, any longer be an option for the United States. Power in the South China Sea has shifted too far in China’s favor. Against the military installations built up on islands through the sea as well as China’s swelling coastal naval capabilities, the United States stands to lose countless lives and waste uncountable sums in a full-scale war. While the United States’ military power undoubtedly still goes unrivaled in absolute brute force, the costs imposed by a status-quo maintaining war would be so high they would likely destroy the status quo anyway, leaving a void for a different power step into. Regardless, in the nuclear age, no one can afford to “lose control” of events. A hegemonic war between the United States and China in the South China Sea would certainly re-shape the status quo but not in a way either could predict or benefit from.

Gilpin offers a better, more difficult choice, one that would allow the United States to keep its power and most of its prestige and continue to maintain beneficial elements of the current world order—if Americans have the stomach to face the new reality in Southeast Asia. “The third means of bringing cost and resources into balance is, of course, to reduce foreign policy commitments. … The most direct method of retrenchment is unilateral abandonment of certain of a state’s economic, political, or military commitments … the third and most difficult method of retrenchment is to make concessions to the rising power and thereby seek to appease its ambitions.”[55] This the United States’ best course, though it is not an easy one to navigate.

It is time for the United States to give up on the South China Sea. It should shore up Taiwan, cede navigational control to China, and allow China to pursue its imperialist economic projects in Southeast Asia. As we have seen, China’s ambitions in Southeast Asia are primarily economic, not geostrategic. China seeks in the South China Sea to ensure its economic well-being and prevent an economic crisis that would harm China and the rest of the world. China’s designs, while not necessarily benevolent, nevertheless have largely positive impacts on the region, where it is simply replacing the United States as a dominant economic actor. As Gilpin predicts joining Lenin, “Although capitalist economies had an incentive to colonize the world, they also had an incentive to develop it.” That is what China is doing in Southeast Asia along its Maritime Silk Road. By retrenching at home, America can appease China’s ambitions, shore up America’s own economic situation, save lives and treasure, and begin finding its place in a new global equilibrium. It is not the easy choice, but it is the smart one.

Gilpin, however, might not be optimistic about the prospects:

“Throughout history the primary means of resolving the disequilibrium between the structure of international system and the redistribution of power has been war, more particularly, what we shall call a hegemonic war. … A hegemonic war is the ultimate test of change in the relative standings of the powers in the existing system. … The conclusion of one hegemonic war is the beginning of another cycle of growth, expansion, and eventual decline. The law of uneven growth continues to redistribute power, thus undermining the status quo established by the last hegemonic struggle. Disequilibrium replaces equilibrium and the world moves toward a new round of hegemonic conflict. It has always been thus and always will be, until men either destroy themselves or learn to develop an effective mechanism of peaceful change.” [56]

With a proper, Leninist view of China’s imperialist economic ambitions in the South China Sea and a better understanding based on Gilpin’s theory of global hegemonic transition, however, this time could be different.

[1] See for example, Phillip Chertoff’s “Behind China’s Ambitious Plan to Reshape World Power” (The Aspen Institute, May 7, 2018) or Michael Pillsbury’s The Hundred-Year Marathon: China’s Secret Strategy to Replace America as the Global Superpower (London: St. Martin’s Press, 2015).
[2] Pence, Mike, “Vice President Mike Pence’s Remarks on the Administration’s Policy toward China,” speech at the Hudson Institute (October 4, 2018).
[3] Allison, Graham, “The Thucydides Trap: Are the U.S. and China Headed for War?” (The Atlantic, September 24, 2015).
[4] Council on Foreign Relations, “Territorial Disputes in the South China Sea”, December 10, 2018, https://www.cfr.org/interactives/global-conflict-tracker#!/conflict/territorial-disputes-in-the-south-china-sea, accessed December 12, 2018.
[5] Xinhua, “China-ASEAN Trade Volume Hits Record High in 2017”, January 28, 2018.
[6] RAND Corporation, “At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China and the Developing World” (October 2018), 42.
[7] CNBC, “China Quietly Installed Defensive Missiles Systems on Strategic Spratly Islands in Hotly Contested South China Sea”, May 2, 2018.
[8] The U.S. Energy Information Administration, “The Strait of Malacca, a Key Oil Trade Chokepoint, Links the Indian and Pacific Oceans”, https://www.eia.gov/ (https://www.eia.gov/todayinenergy/detail.php?id=32452, accessed December 4, 2018)
[9] Steinberg, David I., and Fan Hongwei. Modern China-Myanmar Relations: Dilemmas of Mutual Dependence (Copenhagen: Nordic Institute of Asian Studies, 2012), 168-169.
[10] Hongyi Harry Lai, “China’s Oil Diplomacy: Is it a Global Security Threat?” (Third World Quarterly, Vol. 28, No. 3, 2007), 534
[11] Lee, Pak K., “China’s Quest for Oil Security: Oil (Wars) in the Pipeline?” (The Pacific Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, June 2005), 289.
[12] RAND Corporation, “At the Dawn of Belt and Road: China and the Developing World” (October 2018), 42.
[13] South China Morning Post, “South China Sea is Beijing’s Top Foreign Policy Priority with Developing Nations, US Think Tank Says”, October 17, 2018.
[14] Nikko Asset Management, “The Rise of Chinese FDI in ASEAN”, October 5, 2017.
[15] U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” (2018), 12-13.
[16] Ibid, 12-13.
[17] The New York Times, “China’s Sea Control is Done Deal, Short of ‘War with the U.S.’”, September 20, 2018
[18] Ibid.
[19] BBC, “South China Sea: Chinese Ships Force U.S. Destroyer Off Course”, October 2, 2018.
[20] Reuters, “Philippines Accuses China of Turning Water Cannon on Its Fishing Boats”, April 21, 2015.
[21] The New York Times, “China’s Sea Control is Done Deal, Short of ‘War with the U.S.”.
[22] [22] U.S. Office of the Secretary of Defense, “Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China” (2018), 12-13.
[23] CATO Institute, “A Balanced Threat Assessment of China’s South Sea Policy,” August 28, 2017.
[24] The New York Times, “China’s Sea Control is Done Deal, Short of ‘War with the U.S.”
[25] V.I. Lenin, Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism (New York: International Publishers, 1939)
[26] Lenin, Imperialism, 88.
[27] Lehmann, Tavares, Teresa, Ana, and Lehmann, Fredrick. “Outward Direct Investment by Chinese State-Owned Enterprises” (Competitiveness Review, Vol. 27, Issue 3, 2017) 231-52.
[28] Götken, Kerem, “One Belt, One Road: Capital Export with Chinese Characteristics” in Economic Issues in Retrospect and Prospect (London: IJPOEC Publications, 2018), 15.
[29] U.S.-China Economic and Security Review Commission, “Going Out: An Overview of China’s Outward Direct Investment” (March 30, 2011), 6.
[30] Götken, “One Belt, One Road: Capital Export with Chinese Characteristics,” 15.
[31] Ibid, 15.
[32] Ibid, 5.
[33] Götken, Kerem, “One Belt, One Road: Capital Export with Chinese Characteristics”, 24.
[34] Lenin, Imperialism, 62.
[35]Götken, Kerem, “One Belt, One Road: Capital Export with Chinese Characteristics”, 19-20.
[36] Ibid, 19-20.
[37]Ibid, 19-20.
[38]Ibid, 17.
[39] Lenin, Imperialism, 82-83.
[40] Lenin, Imperialism, 116.
[41] Schulze-Gaevernitz, Gerhart von, Britischer Imperialisms (cited in Lenin, Imperialism, 101).
[42] Ibid, 101.
[43] Lenin, Imperialism, 119.
[44] Gilpin, Robert, War and Change in World Politics (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983), 29.
[45] Ibid, 31.
[46] Knei-Paz, Baruch, The Social and Political Thought of Leon Trotsky (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1978), PAGE)
[47] Despite a drop in its GDP growth rate, China continued to grow at nearly 10 percent through 2009. The United States shrunk 2.78 percent and the world 1.74 percent, according to data from the World Bank.
[48] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 106
[49] Reuters, “Duterte says China’s Xi Threatened War if Philippines Drills for Oil”, May 17, 2018.
[50] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 187.
[51] Ibid, 168-169.
[52] Ibid, 156.
[53] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 197.
[54] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 191.
[55] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 191-193.
[56] Gilpin, War and Change in World Politics, 197-198.