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Artyom Lukin

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the Department of International Relations of the Eastern University – School of Regional and International Studies of the Far Eastern Federal University

Andrey Gubin

PhD in Political Science, Assistant Professor at the International Relations Department of Far Eastern Federal University, RIAC Expert

What will “post-war” China look like at the turn of the 22nd century? We can with a certain amount of confidence say that the “Celestial Empire” will retain its place on the global political map, unlike many states that exist today but will sink into oblivion. The postmodern era will finally be ushered in. But it will be a specifically Chinese style of postmodernism, one that may be far removed from its western antecedents.

Among the key issues and challenges that will shape the future of China in the 21st century, the following are often cited:

Will the Chinese economy maintain its rapid pace of development? Or will it slow down to stagnation?

Will China be able to demonstrate the capacity to produce breakthrough scientific and technological innovations? Or will it continue to largely copy western products and technology?

What will the political structure of the country look like? Will single-party autocracy continue? Or will we see movement towards democracy? Which will be the preferred model: the soft authoritarianism of Singapore or the pluralistic democracy of Taiwan?

Will China be able to cope with the impending demographic crisis brought about by an ageing population?

All these questions are, of course, extremely important. However, we believe that the most important variable in the infinitely complex equation of the future China is nationalism. This paper attempts to answer the question: What role could nationalism and the conflicts it provokes play in the fate of China and the Asia-Pacific Region?

China’s Future in Europe’s Past?

Today’s China bears a number of resemblances to Germany under Wilhelm II: it is an economic powerhouse that has growing geopolitical ambitions and is backed by an ever-strengthening military.

If we are to believe former Prime Minister of Singapore Lee Kuan Yew, then “the 21st century will be a contest for supremacy in the Pacific… If you do not hold your ground in the Pacific you cannot be a world leader.” [1] However, the key to understanding Asia’s – and thus China’s – future could lie in the history of Europe. As Barry Buzan and Ole Weaver have pointed out, Asia right now is similar to Europe in the 19th century [2]. According to Aaron Friedberg, Europe’s past could become Asia’s future, where Asia will become “the main theatre of conflict for the great powers.” [3]

Politicians are similarly unafraid of drawing historical parallels. For example, Prime Minister of Japan Shinzo Abe announced that the growing animosities between China and Japan are reminiscent of the competition between Germany and Great Britain before the First World War [4].

The balance of powers in the late 19th century was disrupted by Germany’s growing influence. Imperial Germany had become a dominating power in Europe and it demanded to be treated as such. This meant that the other leading players on the continent – primarily the British Empire, but also Russia and France – would have to make room for the country, which, of course, they were not prepared to do.

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Today’s China bears a number of resemblances to Germany under Wilhelm II: it is an economic powerhouse that has growing geopolitical ambitions and is backed by an ever-strengthening military. China is located at the heart of Asia, just like Germany was located in the centre of Europe. This gives it a geostrategic advantage in terms of its axial position, but at the same time makes it vulnerable to being enclosed strategically and to the threat of fighting wars on several fronts (which is very similar to Germany’s “coalition nightmare”).

Just like Europe 100 years ago, China and the majority of Asian countries are experiencing a rise in nationalism. Having pushed Marxism deep into the background, nationalism has as good as become the main ideological foundation of the Communist Party of China. General Secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of China Xi Jinping declared the “great revival of the Chinese nation” as the main slogan of his time in office. Two other key Asian states, India and Japan, are currently led by politicians with a penchant for nationalism (Narendra Modi in India and Shinzo Abe in Japan). There is little doubt that whoever replaces them will also actively promote the idea of a “great nation”, whether it be Chinese, Japanese, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, etc.

The Westphalian principles have moved from Europe to Asia.

This intense nationalism is largely due to the fact that the process of creating modern nation states is still going on in Asia, and China is no exception. The process started much later in the East than it did in the West, and it is possible that Asian countries are now at the stage that Europe found itself at the turn of the 20th century. In Europe it was a time when the classic Westphalian state based on the principles of unlimited sovereignty and aggressive nationalism had reached the peak of its development. The era of the absolute rule of the Westphalian order came to an end in the West after 1945, largely as the result of two horrendous wars. However, the Westphalian principles have moved from Europe to Asia. According to Muthiah Alagappa, “among all the countries in the world it is the Asian states that most closely resemble the Westphalian model.” [5] Henry Kissinger agrees with this assessment, believing that the principles of sovereignty prevail in Asia “to an even greater extent than on the continent where they were developed.” [6]

Nationalism has already become the main factor determining political behaviour in China, and it will remain so for a number of decades to come at the very least.

The Westphalian system of sovereign nations combined with the phenomenon of mass nationalism leads to the aggravation of international conflicts. Europe experienced this in the worst possible way in the first half of the 20th century, with practically every European country being involved. There has not yet been a “pan-Asian” war, but there have been conflicts that are directly related to the clash of “sovereign nationalisms”. Relations between China and Japan were peaceful for centuries. It was not until the end of the 19th century, when both countries set about building modern states, that animosities began to creep in. India and China coexisted for millennia before they each turned from civilizational empires into nation states in the Westphalian mould. Nobody was interested in the reefs in the South China Sea, but they have become a bone of contention ever since the coastal states started to spread Westphalian principles of territoriality to the oceans off their shores, understanding them as sacred “blue national soil” [7].

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Nationalism has already become the main factor determining political behaviour in China, and it will remain so for a number of decades to come at the very least. Modern-day Chinese nationalism differs from traditional Sino-centrism, which, to begin with, was exclusive to the elites (the peasant majority had little concern for such matters) and, secondly, emphasized the superiority of the Middle Kingdom rather than geopolitical dominance. Chinese nationalism today looks more like British jingoism or the chauvinism displayed by the Russian Empire a century ago, both of which infected the educated elites and the semi-literate common people in equal parts. It is noteworthy that the advent of mass printing – daily newspapers and popular fiction – gave rise to a significant amount of nationalist sentiment in Europe at the turn of the 20th century. A similar role is played by the internet in China today, with the Weibo social network being a good example.

The Road to the War of Asia

The minute that China achieves military parity with the United States we are likely to see the country’s foreign policy become far less accommodating.

The rise of nationalism, the strengthening of China’s integrated power, the counter-nationalism of the country’s neighbours, and the reluctance of the world’s current hegemon, the United States, to make meaningful compromises with Beijing – all this has created conditions for the “perfect storm” [8].

The storm is unlikely to break out in the near future, however. China will tread carefully, as it understands that it is still the weaker side. Beijing has learned from Japan, which in December 1941 attacked the United States despite the fact that its position was demonstrably weaker.

First of all, China’s armed forces still lag way behind those of the United States. It could take the country another 15 to 20 years to achieve military parity with the U.S.–Japan alliance in East Asia [9]. Secondly, despite all the talk of economic independence, China depends on the United States far more than the United States depends on China. China relies on the United States and its European and Japanese partners as its main export markets and as a source of high technologies. What is more, because China imports a significant amount of vital raw materials and transports them primarily by sea, the country is extremely vulnerable to naval blockades. And the United States could very well resort to this tactic should a major conflict with China arise [10].

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Strengthening the strategic partnership between China and Russia and promoting European integration in the form of the Silk Road Economic Belt are intended, among other things, to make the country less dependent on sea trade, which is controlled by the U.S. Navy, and create a continental market of its own. Transitioning from an export-oriented development model to one driven by domestic demand would also be beneficial. However, all these measures taken by Beijing will not bring about the necessary effect straight away; it will take many years for them to be implemented in full.

We can assume that a decisive shift in the balance of forces will not happen before 2030. The minute that China achieves military parity with the United States, at the very least in the Western Pacific Ocean, and eliminates the asymmetrical dependency on Western economies, we are likely to see the country’s foreign policy become far less accommodating. If the United States and its allies do not make significant concessions, then an out-and-out conflict may be unavoidable. And the United States is unlikely to give ground any time soon. Unlike its postmodern European partners, the United States is in many ways still tied to its classical Westphalian model of governance. American nationalism is no less militant than Chinese nationalism, perhaps even more so. What is more, as Aaron Friedberg warns, treating Beijing as the enemy will sooner or later make that the case [11].

If things continue the way they are, then a war could breakout at some point between 2030 and 2050.

According to the well-respected Australian analyst Hugh White, Washington and Beijing’s behaviour towards one another is likely to have disastrous consequences [12]. If things continue the way they are, then a war could breakout at some point between 2030 and 2050. Any of the following conflicts, or a combination of them, could serve as a casus bellum: the Taiwan question, territorial disputes in the South China and East China seas, China–India antagonism, and the Korean crisis. And there is always the possibility of a new dispute emerging, one that no one could have predicted in 2015.

By 2030, the United States will most likely have formed an Indo–Pacific equivalent to NATO that will include Japan, India, the Philippines, Vietnam and Australia. A war between China and one of these states will mean a war with all of them collectively. However, Beijing may lean towards a Eurasian alliance that would include Russia, Central Asian states and Pakistan, which would provide it with a secure rear and limited military support.

Will a Nuclear Weapon be Launched in Asia?

By 2030, the United States will most likely have formed an Indo–Pacific equivalent to NATO.

The war of Asia will be the first ever in which major nuclear powers clash directly. Possessing nuclear weapons and strategic delivery systems is reason enough to maintain a continuous dialogue at the highest level, not to mention a powerful deterrent. As Avery Goldstein noted, nuclear deterrence significantly reduces the threat of China becoming a global power, as its behaviour will be more predictable [13]. But right now the United States and China are not locked in such a stalemate. China’s strategic nuclear forces are limited in both quality and quantity by technological barriers, meaning it is of greater benefit to China to not mention its own nuclear weapons when conducting political dialogue. Beijing has also promised that it will under no circumstances use its nuclear weapons first, which it sees as a guarantee against a nuclear strike [14].

The situation could change dramatically by 2030 as a result of China’s forced policy of building up its strategic nuclear forces. For all the attractiveness of the “global zero”, it is unlikely to be achieved even in the 21st century. By 2030, however, Russia and the United States will most likely have reduced the number of warheads deployed on strategic delivery systems to 500 each. China will have caught up with, and possibly even overtaken, these countries by that time, because it has not taken part yet in the process of reducing strategic offensive weapons in accordance with Article VI of the Treaty on the Non-Proliferation of Nuclear Weapons [15]. The 2013 White Paper on Defence can be considered evidence that greater political significance is being given to improving the technological base of strategic nuclear forces. The document no longer mentions the no first use (NFU) nuclear policy. There is merely a section stating that China will under no circumstances threaten a non-nuclear state, or states within non-nuclear zones, with a nuclear weapon [16].

China is already putting new submarines with ballistic missiles and mobile ground-based missiles equipped with multiple independently targeted re-entry vehicles (MIRVs) into service [17]. In the near future, the potential of the strategic nuclear forces will be enhanced by medium-range missiles capable of reaching Guam and the territories of all the United States’ allies in East Asia [18]. Work is being carried out in the field of advanced systems – hypersonic missiles and ballistic missiles capable of striking sea-based targets. Research and development is focused on overcoming the missile defence capabilities of potential enemies. Manoeuvrable re-entry vehicles, light and heavy decoys for intercontinental ballistic missiles (ICBM), and submarine-launched ballistic missiles (SLBM) with MIRVs are being developed for this purpose. The Chinese military–industrial complex is working on improving the accuracy of strategic and non-strategic weapons systems, including astronavigation and control systems.

Experts at Jane’s Defence Weekly believe that ICBMs with MIRVs on mobile platforms and China’s new ballistic missile submarines, which currently patrol the waters, pose the greatest danger to the United States. According to them, China’s strategic nuclear forces could seriously disrupt the United States’ strategy of deterrence as early as 2020, render Japan’s strategic nuclear forces inept, and put paid to the “unsinkable aircraft carriers” of the United States’ military bases in Northeast and Southeast Asia. China’s satellite fleet exceeds 100 units, which significantly strengthens its C4ISR architecture and increases the effectiveness of the armed forces as a whole [19].

In a situation where China is flexing its “nuclear muscles” and the issue of North Korea remains unresolved, Japan, South Korea and possibly even Australia could decide to develop their own nuclear arsenals, which would complicate matters in the region no end.

Aware that exchanging thermonuclear strikes will lead to mutual annihilation, the warring sides will likely refrain from using their nuclear arsenals and other types of weapons of mass destruction. It will be very similar to the situation during the Second World War when the countries involved decided not to use chemical weapons against each other.

At the same time, we cannot disregard the nuclear factor completely. The United States will strengthen its missile defence potential significantly by 2030: a large part of its territory will be protected by Ground-Based Interceptors (GBI) in Alaska and California, while its overseas military facilities and parts of its allies’ territories will be covered by a sea-based component based on the Aegis Combat System, the ground-based Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system (THAAD) and the Patriot surface-to-air missile system. As a result, the Americans may develop a feeling of impunity: their defence systems will technically be able to intercept part of China’s first-strike strategic potential, but the Prompt Global Strike system does not allow for the weapons used to be reloaded and used again. However, it is difficult to predict what will be more effective in a traditional confrontation in 2030 – hi-tech anti-missile systems or “smart” nuclear warhead delivery systems. What is more, in a situation where China is flexing its “nuclear muscles” and the issue of North Korea remains unresolved, Japan, South Korea and possibly even Australia could decide to develop their own nuclear arsenals, which would complicate matters in the region no end.

Nuclear pluralism and the uncertain chances of winning a nuclear conflict will likely reduce the scale of conventional military operations. Realizing that potential enemies will deploy their nuclear arsenals as a last resort – if their territories are invaded or their major cities bombed, for example – the sides will confine their actions to peripheral, sparsely populated or even uninhabited regions. The main battle will unfold in the sea (and in the air above the sea), the mountain regions, space and cyberspace.

The modernization of the People’s Liberation Army of China (PLA) is being carried out in accordance with the doctrine of limiting access to certain territories (anti-access/area denial – A2/AD). This is an asymmetrical response to the United States’ concept of “air-sea battle”. China is building a High Seas Fleet at a lightning pace, which the Zhongnanhai (the central headquarters for the Communist Party of China) sees as a powerful instrument for defending its interests in the Asia-Pacific Region. The PLA’s navy will become the dominant force, ahead of the United States and its allies. By 2020, Beijing plans to have the capability to counter the United States’ naval forces in the “middle zone”, that is, the Sea of Okhotsk, the Sea of Japan and in the areas up to the Mariana and Caroline Islands. After that, it hopes to develop the potential to counter the U.S. fleet in the “outer zone”, which runs as far as Hawaii [20]. These actions will undoubtedly elicit a response from the United States and its allies.

The War of Asia could last only a few weeks or months. Intense and large-scale battles in various sections of the Indo-Pacific theatre of war will end in a decisive victory for one side, or a compromise draw. The war could just as likely drag on for years, even decades (a new Thirty Years’ War). If this is the case, the conflict will most likely be drawn out and sluggish and not particularly intense. This will mean that the states involved will be able to avoid the complete mobilization of economic and human resources for the war effort. Diplomacy and international institutions will continue to function during the War of Asia, maintaining communication between the warring sides. They may even continue to have trade relations, carrying out transactions through neutral countries (South Korea, Singapore). A conflict in Asia will resemble wars of the 18th century (the War of the Spanish Succession or the Seven Years’ War, for example) more than they do the First or Second world wars. But it will be a war nevertheless, with human casualties, material damage, constant fear and the threat of nuclear escalation.

After the War

In the final analysis, it is not important who wins the War of Asia – whether it is China or whoever China is fighting, or whether it ends in a draw. What is important is: will the war have the same kind of transformative existential effect on Asia that the First and Second world wars had on Europe? Will it manage to do away with the aggressive Westphalian nationalism on the Asian continent?

A heated war in Asia could be followed by a cold peace. The Asia-Pacific Region will continue to be split into hostile blocs. Nationalism will remain, waiting for the right moment to instigate a new war.

There is hope, however, that a large-scale war in Asia will discredit nationalism as an ideology, and that its confrontational logic will be abandoned completely. And just like post-war Europe, former enemies will form a lasting peace and create an Asian community. China and India will be the leaders of such a union, just like two formerly bitter enemies in Europe – France and Germany – spearheaded the process of European integration.

What will “post-war” China look like at the turn of the 22nd century? We can with a certain amount of confidence say that the “Celestial Empire” will retain its place on the global political map, unlike many states that exist today but will sink into oblivion. The postmodern era will finally be ushered in. But it will be a specifically Chinese style of postmodernism, one that may be far removed from its western antecedents.

1. Lee Kuan Yew on Charlie Rose, 22.10.2009. URL: http://leewatch.info/2009/10/22/lee-kuan-yew-on-charlie-rose/

2. Buzan B., Waever O. Regions and Powers: The Structure of International Security. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003, p. 174.

3. Friedberg A. L. Ripe for Rivalry: Prospects for Peace in a Multipolar Asia // International Security. 1993/1994 (winter). Vol. 18. No. 3, p. 7.

4. Perlez J. Japan’s Leader Compares Strain with China to Germany and Britain in 1914 // The New York Times, 23.01.2014. URL: http://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/24/world/asia/japans-leader-compares-strain-with-china-to-germany-and-britain-in-1914.html?src=rechp&_r=0

5. Alagappa M. Constructing Security Order in Asia // Alagappa M. (ed.) Asian Security Order: Instrumental and Normative Features. Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2003, p. 87.

6. Kissinger H. On China. N.Y.: Penguin Press, 2011, p. 527.

7. Will G. F. The “Blue National Soil” of China’s Navy, 18.03.2011. URL: https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/the-blue-national-soil-of-chinas-navy/2011/03/18/AB5AxAs_story.html

8. The term “integrated power” is used in China to represent the totality of the State’s geopolitical levers and resources, above all its military might, its economic scientific and technological potential, and its political and diplomatic influence.

9. Swaine M. D., Mochizuki M. M., Brown M. L., et al. China’s Military and the U.S.–Japan Alliance in 2030: A Strategic Net Assessment. Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, May 2013. URL: http://carnegieendowment.org/2013/05/03/china-s-military-and-u.s.-japan-alliance-in-2030-strategic-net-assessment/g1wh

10. On the concept of a naval blockade of China, see, for example: Mirski S. Stranglehold: The Context, Conduct and Consequences of an American Naval Blockade of China // Journal of Strategic Studies. 2013. Vol. 36. No. 3, pp. 10–11; Hammes T. X. Offshore Control is the Answer. U.S. Naval Institute, December, 2012. URL: http://www.usni.org/magazines/proceedings/2012-12/offshore-control-answer

11. Friedberg A. A Contest for Supremacy: China, America and the Struggle for Mastery in Asia. N.Y.: W. W. Norton & Company, 2012, p. 5.

12. White H. Why China and America are Headed Toward a Catastrophic Clash // The World Post, 06.02.2014. URL: http://www.huffingtonpost.com/hugh-white/china-america-relations_b_5412014.html

13. Goldstein A. Great Expectation: Interpreting China’s Arrival // International Security. 1997/1998 (winter). Vol. 22, No. 3, p. 70.

14. General Characteristics of China’s Nuclear Policy. URL: http://www.pircenter.org/static/obschaya-harakteristika-yadernoj-politiki-knr (in Russian).

15. Each of the Parties to the Treaty undertakes to pursue negotiations in good faith on effective measures relating to cessation of the nuclear arms race at an early date and to nuclear disarmament, and on a treaty on general and complete disarmament under strict and effective international control. URL: http://www.un.org/ru/documents/decl_conv/conventions/npt.shtml (in Russian).

16. Yunzhu Y. China Will Not Change Its Nuclear Policy // China–U.S. Focus, 22.04.2013. URL: http://www.chinausfocus.com/peace-security/china-will-not-change-its-no-first-use-policy/

17. See, for example: Annual Report to Congress: Military and Security Developments Involving the People’s Republic of China. 2014. URL: http://www.defense.gov/Portals/1/Documents/pubs/2014_DoD_China_Report.pdf; Gertz B. China Tests ICBM with Multiple Warheads // The Washington Free Beacon, 18.12.2014. URL: http://freebeacon.com/national-security/china-tests-icbm-with-multiple-warheads/

18. “Guam Killer” Missile Inadvertently Revealed in China: Report // Want China Times, 11.09.2014. URL: http://www.wantchinatimes.com/news-subclass-cnt.aspx?id=20140911000065&cid=1101

19. Command, Control, Communications, Computers, Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (C4ISR); Malenic M., Hardy J. Chinese Strategic Capabilities Expanding, а U.S. Government Reports Warns // IHS Jane’s Defence Weekly, 20.11.2014. URL: http://eibencleo516.blogspot.ru/2014/12/chinese-strategic-capabilities.html

20. Arbatov, A. The Asia-Pacific’s Strategic View is Changing Rapidly // Nezavisimoye Voennoye Obozrenie (Independent Military Review), 21.02.2014. URL: http://nvo.ng.ru/realty/2014-02-21/1_asia.html (in Russian).

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