East Asian Worries
By Sol W. Sanders*
Monday, January 27th, 2014 @ 10:30PM
Anonymous leaks from Chinese spokesmen along with mistaken translations of Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s private remarks at the gathering of our lords and masters at Davos World Economic Forum are alarming.
Bombastic comments from the Chinese-including the military as well as the controlled government media-are nothing new. And interpreting the Japanese has always been an art form never developed by the West and is most especially lacking in American media and most U.S. politicians.
But if you add to these mutterings the growing lack of influence of a befuddled Obama foreign policy, it is as some would have it the makings of new and extremely dangerous possibilities in East Asia. It may not be 1914, 1936 or 1941 but with growing antagonism and friction between the two most important players in the region, it is a worrying moment and needs the required defusing of an incipient crisis.
The background, of course, is that the Chinese Communist regime is in deep do-do. The fantastic growth of the last two decades is now behind them. Rapid economic growth with its enormous rewards for the elite has been the Communists’ answer to their abandonment in all but name of Marxist-Leninist-Maoism. The capitalist formula for a truly great leap forward-the introduction of outside capital and accompanying technology and the enormous expansion of the infrastructure-is coming to a close. Despite propaganda by the regime, too often echoed in the world media, China is in another transition with the outcome very much in doubt.
In fact, it’s been success (as so often happens) that has been the death warrant for the strategy of the past three decades. Rapid domestic changes in the leading coastal cities, including a diminishing of what has been until now an unlimited pool of cheap rural labor, are ending. It is one of the results of the one-child birth control policies. A sputtering recovery among its main international customers, particularly the U.S., plus competition for exports is squeezing even the modest profit margins. The lower end of their factory to the world is being drained off to other low-wage economies and the galloping increases in productivity brought on by new technology in the West and Japan limit movement to higher profit products. All this will trim the expansion of exports. Growing anxiety over debt, particularly by local governments that have exhausted their use of land sales to finance often overly ambitious projects, is ending the resort to the infrastructure gimmick.
So far the Party’s response has been to talk about “reforms”. But except for minor chipping around the edges, the leadership has not been able to dramatically reverse old policies and their results.
Nor is there much hope of further future implementation of these so-called reforms, all of which have been talked up for years, even in the controlled party organs. For one thing omnipresent corruption-both gross and sophisticated-blocks what all agree ought to be done. For example, the switch to a more balanced economy with a growing consumption sector rather than unlimited investment is easier said than done. Recent shifts are now reversing, if those damned statistics can be believed. (Again we have that problem, for example, of provincial GDP figures not jibing with the national claims.) Without expanding the accompanying social services to include millions of temporary workers in the large cities who in effect are there illegally, that kind of consumer market can not exist. But to move on the question of the part-time city dwellers would be to abandon the kinds of population controls which have been basic to the system of political repression by the regime.
By “sophisticated” corruption is meant the built-in interest groups that have developed alongside the hell-bent-for-leather economic expansion. For example, ending at least partially the one-child program, which has now been decreed (however corrupted it has become at the lower echelons) is difficult if not impossible because of a powerful bureaucracy which has developed over several decades to enforce it. The problem of pollution of land, water and air is so gigantic that under the best of circumstances it could not be solved for decades and it will take enormous investment to do so.
The lament among some Western observers that Chinese nationalism is being purposely stimulated by the officialdom as a direct response to these growing economic problems is a misinterpretation. The kind of nationalism that almost destroyed European civilization in two World Wars does not now, nor did it ever exist, in China. That Chinese world of more than 1.3 billion is so vast with so many ethnic, regional and linguistic competitions and conflicts, that only a few detribalized students pick up a Westernized nationalist flag.
But there is another very real element that is more dangerous. Chinese military expansion is accelerating. It seems likely that however ambitious it may be, it is not as competent as its announcements suggest. (Consider the episode of losing a balloon over the contested East Sea/Japan Sea rocky shoals difficulties. The further embarrassment was the chief of Chinese ballooning had to be picked up out of the water by the Japanese Coast Guard who made less of it in propaganda than they might have.)
But there is no doubt that a lot of young and ambitious soldiers and sailors have new toys they would like to play with, many the applications of American technology sold to or stolen by Beijing. Nor can military anomalies be excluded by a U.S. military often complacent given its more than half century of total world dominance. (One remembers the stories of how the Japanese Zero fighter was described as being put together with string and paste in the pre-1941 period, only to turn out to be one of the best fighter planes in World War II.)
It’s a slippery slope, as all characterizations of national character are, but there is another element: the Chinese have a sometimes fatal attraction for gambling. (All you have to do is look at the faces at the Las Vegas tables, or the gambling megametropolis of Macao). By extension, recent Chinese history is replete with enormous political gambles, often failed ones, costing millions of lives in Mao’s time. For an important if unnamed spokesman at Davos to be quoted as saying a Chinese strike at the contested rocky shoals in the East China Sea could be effective before a Japanese (or U.S.) response is just that sort of gamble.
Into this mix comes a new Japanese turn. For the first time in several decades a strong Japanese prime minister would like to restore a modicum of national resolve to a population decreasing at a catastrophic rate but still hanging on to one of the world’s largest and most sophisticated economies. That is going to mean, incidentally, throwing off some of the vestiges of the U.S. Occupation which tried to remold a more than usually tradition-bound society. Beijing, using the echo chamber of Western media and some U.S. scholars and politicians recalling the horrors of World War II, is trying to inhibit this resurrection of its old rival. Nor does the possibility even surface of comparing notes on Japanese wartime deprivations and the murder of a hundred million Chinese by the Maoist regime to which the current leadership still pays homage. The fact that China still depends to a considerable extent on imitating “the Japanese model” and the importance of Tokyo’s transfers of technology is more evidence of Beijing’s internal unresolved strategic conflicts.
Add to this the wandering strategies of the Obama Administration and the now challenged “traditional” role of the U.S. Navy to keep the seas open around the whole Eurasian land mass and you get some ugly possibilities. The Obama Administration, rather than playing a more substantial public role as an ally of Japan, has taken it on itself to be the part-time mediator between the two East Asian rivals. That not only befuddles Tokyo but obscures the issues, which at this time and place, is the aggressive Chinese demands. Beijing is being led to believe Washington will eventually accede to the expansion in its vast claims to areas which it believes can be restored to old traditions of East Asian suzerainty to the first centrally governed state in the region (and perhaps the world).
The American ambassador, an inexperienced Kennedy scion despite her attribute of a name that does have panache in Japan, is seemingly spending more time worrying about porpoises. The defense secretary refuses to cope with the anomalies of the troubled Tokyo-Seoul relations which are currently the chief obstacle to any regional stand-up to the Chinese. Washington is therefore counted among the missing. Its attention appears hung up somewhere between its Mideast fiascos, its domestic health care muddles, and a much publicized but unsubstantiated “pivot” to concentration on Asia.
* A version of this column will be published at yeoldecrabb.com on Monday, Jan. 26, 2014