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06 April 2021
2061 words / 7 minute read

Waves of War

Australian coal vessels An artificial island in the South China Sea

A core theme of the 2006 film Letters from Iwo Jima directed by Clint Eastwood, which portrayed that brutal battle from the Japanese perspective, was the sheer industrial might of the United States. In one scene, General Kuribayashi who had previously spent time in the United States, remarks on his having to watch for automobiles when he crosses the street in America. So many cars, such massive material and industrial capacity. While the outcome of the war has long since been decided, the Japanese continue the fight in the name of honour and empire.

History rhymes

For some time now Ray Dalio has maintained that, for economic as well as geopolitical reasons, the current period most closely reflects that of the 1930s. This point is missed for the most part in Destined for War by Graham T. Allison who presents an awfully simplistic view on the rise of China in the context of American hegemony. While Allison did present an interesting list of case studies of similar situations that have occurred throughout history. It’s most significant oversight was the resemblance of today’s world to the 1930’s, but in more than an economic sense. The massive Russian and Chinese diaspora at the respective doorstep of each is more akin to central and eastern Europe prior to World War II. The current global political environment’s similarities are only underpinned by the rise of populism and recent anti-globalisation forces. Since my first visit to China in 2011, the country has exhibited a growing confidence and emerged from under the leadership of President Xi with a more ethno-nationalistic core.

Since returning to Australia in December, discussion of Chinese interests in Australia have been noticeably more prevalent than when I left in 2016. The pandemic, the fate of Hong Kong, India border skirmishes, incursions into Taiwanese airspace and a generally more assertive China further underpin a feeling that the more open China that the corporate West had hoped for has been slow to arrive, or rather, will no longer be arriving. China knows that at a corporatist West worships at the shrine of money, and has made an example of Australia through bans on coal and wine accordingly. Commentators and military experts in Australia laugh these actions off as weak, and claim China lacks sophisticated technology or projective force capabilities, and will therefore poses a only minor nuisance rather than a major threat. An ignorance not dissimilar to that prevailing on the side of Axis powers in World War II. China is not weak but rather the factory floor of the world, and much like Japan in 1941, the West - that is to stay the United States and her allies such as Australia - are the economic underdog. Despite China detractors best efforts to assure us of our invincibility, China is capable of occupying all major Australian cities and all critical infrastructure within three months. Although I sincerely hope they do not take such drastic measures, were the boot on the other foot, I have no doubt our democratically elected leaders might strongly consider such an effort a wonderful idea.

In Purchasing Power Parity terms China’s GDP is more than 20% larger than the United States. But this doesn’t tell us the full picture. The economy of the United States has seen almost no real wage growth for 40 years, and its once great manufacturing base has been eroded paving an electoral path victory for Donald Trump across the rust belt in 2016. While Trumpism may have stoked a short-term economic bump, the trade deficits have continued to grow, and America’s role as the world’s useful idiot consumer has been solidified. A democratic regime that bows to the cancel culture mob is unlikely to arrest this trend.

Never bet against an American

Usually, in times of crisis, the Americans have rallied, the good patriots as they once were, behind flag and country. This was true of the Great Depression, World War I, World War II, September 11 and even the Vietnam war to some extent. Never bet against an American, so the saying goes, and for good reason, American’s entrepreneurial and creative attitude has got them out of more than one difficult situation. Covid-19 should have been this moment for the United States, but instead the division that has manifested itself in the decades since the Cold War ended - and perhaps earlier - has further raised its ugly head. There is no consensus, except at the top, where both parties are for all intents and purposes completely alike, and competent only in matters pertaining to personal gain of wealth and power. This phenomenon is sadly not unique to the United States.

Whether you like it or not, if you were born in the English-speaking West, then this is your team and the United States is a prism through which to judge the state of affairs within this realm. And was a dreadful state of affairs it is. Each of the other Five Eyes members have, to some extent at least and often eagerly, imported the social woes and divisions that should more often be unique to America. In his book published in 1996, A Mig-15 to Freedom, No Kum-Sok documents his daring defection to the South during the Korean for which he received US$100,000 and a new life in America. In the book, No comments on how well run the United States was in the 1950’s and laments the current state of affairs at the time of writing - has it improved? While it’s false to say that the United States is worse in every respect, it has been afflicted by a diminishing middle class and lessening societal cohesion - much like other parts of the English speaking world.

“We have only to kick in the door, and the whole rotten structure will come crashing down.” - Adolf Hitler, underestimating the USSR

More often than not, the China’s detractors point to simmering economic and societal tensions within mainland Chinese society. The whole thing will fall down under it’s own weight they argue - much like the USSR did (in the end). But more often than not, their criticisms of China could equally be charged towards the Anglo-sphere. The CCP is a gangster organisation they argue, with a select few benefiting from China’s monumental economic achievements. This is sadly also true of Australia however, where home ownership is more difficult to attain than at any time in recent history, or in Italy where the economy has languished for almost two decades since it’s adoption of the Euro in 2002. And that is the deal after all, the government provides the economic growth, the people suck it up. While this point is openly acknowledged in China, is it really so different in the West? The massive collective power of Silicon Valley tech makes dissenting opinions costly, and while you might not get sent to the gulag, most people don’t feel comfortable voicing their opinion freely. So where is the economic prosperity you might ask? Finally, chatter about the treatment of minorities from Xinjiang to Tibet has been making the rounds lately. I’m not sure why it was conveniently looked over by the corporatist media for so long while the Foxconn factories were rumbling away, if you know, PM me. Of course this is terrible, and having brought so much peace and freedom to the middle east in the post-Cold War era, its definitely something we in the West are qualified to lecture China on.

China has every right to be proud of its more than 5,000 years of uninterrupted civilisation, its re-emergence as the worlds preeminent economic superpower, and its regained sway in the world. In many respects China mirrors Germany prior to World War II, albeit on an entirely different scale. In the world we live in today, it is easy to forget this as the end of the war instigated massive ethnic migrations across the European continent. Much like in Europe at the time however, the Chinese populations in Malaysia, Thailand, Australia, Indonesia, Singapore and beyond, even if in no way associated with Communist China, might not be seen in that light by the CCP.

The enemy of my enemy is my friend

In a recent interview the Singaporean Prime Minister, Lee Hsien Loong recapitulated Singapore’s desire to maintain good relations with both superpowers. Such a strategy seems never to have been considered by Australia who have repeatedly poked the Chinese bear and appear hell bent on confrontation. Universities are signing up Indonesia for fresh new faces to rip off in exchange for a sub-standard education. India meanwhile, for all its woes, is being held up as the next China and expected tighten the slack in demand created by China’s various tariffs and import bans on Australian wine, coal and otherwise.

One might argue that China is in fact surrounded, that the free world is more than just the 5 eyes community. Japan is an easy example to concede. It is absolutely true that Japan, still one of the world’s largest economies despite its decades of economic malaise, sits firmly in this Western camp, and has enough skin in the fight, as well as geographical proximity and historical gripe to possibly tip the scales. Europe on the other hand is tired and far away, shackled mentally by its history and at a loss when it comes to it’s much needed ambition. A dearth of leadership has led to a long muddling trudge apparently void of any desire for self-preservation. If the Eurozone crisis, Brexit, the migrant crisis and Covid-19 haven’t killed it, then perhaps nothing will. But ultimately surviving and thriving are entirely different things.

A few years ago while living in Beijing, I was invited to the Polish embassy where a talk was being held on how India should counter China’s rise. Poland was one of the first countries to recognise Communist China and was subsequently allocated formidably large spot within Beijing’s diplomatic sector hosting a cinema in the basement, along with all kinds of extensive amenities within its grounds. Poland also, at least to the Chinese, is far enough away and irrelevant enough to hold such a discussion without much fuss. Trump’s term was well underway at the time, and the American’s were in no short supply. Initially the presentation, by an Indian-Frenchman I should add, focused on economic growth and positive developments in India. However, as questions arose around the presenters arguments, he increasingly alluded to India’s relationship with the United States. If I learned anything that evening, it would be that all of India’s hopes are pinned on America and the West. With that in mind, I concluded that it might not be the best idea to pin all of one’s hopes on a country that is pinning all of its hopes on you.

“Everyone thinks of changing the world, but no one thinks of changing himself.” - Leo Tolstoy

Over time, the atmosphere I experienced on visits to China changed. Perhaps it was that I began to understand China better, or perhaps things really have evolved for the worse. The smiling faces and admiration of the West were for the most part harder to find when I was last there in 2019. China no longer respects the West. While once seen through the prism of Ronald Reagan’s shining light on a hill, a generation of students that have studied in the West are all too aware of our shortcomings. China’s world class infrastructure, futuristic cities and economic miracle are completely at odds with the homelessness of LA or San Francisco, the dilapidated streets of New York, violent crime in Chicago or decay of once great cities like Detroit. There is more to China than meets the eye, there is excruciating poverty in the interior and corruption is rife. But it is equally true that the West is in many respects just as corrupt, and suffering from massive societal issues and imbalances. China however passes one simple test, was this year better than the year before, will next year be better than this year. In my lifetime China has passed this test year after year, placing it in an exclusive group that Australia might also belong to. Perhaps we should think about why.