Potentials of War in China
China is the nation out of Asia that is most likely to trigger a major war, jumping past even the Middle East, which is largely already at war. The reasons why come down to two factors: the psychology of the Chinese Communist Party and Xi-Jinping, and the Chinese reliance on the rest of the world for its wealth, energy, and food.
Despite what all the state-run propaganda will tell the world, the CCP’s first and foremost goal is the consolidation of their own authority, not the wellbeing of China. And they know exactly how to do that, because they’ve studied China’s history of dynastic cycles, and what previous dynasties did wrong to be destroyed.
The most fundamental factor of China as a state, throughout history and up until today, has been the mandate of heaven. This is the idea that if a Chinese government rules the state to the people’s satisfaction, the people will not protest, rebel, or question the government. If the government fails to live up to the people’s expectations, that’s when the Chinese people begin rebelling, often violently, in their quest to create a new government. But what did the Chinese public historically expect from its government? Human rights? Better infrastructure? Military expansion? No, the most important thing to the Chinese public has been their living standards, or more specifically, the economy.
In China, aside from outright foreign conquests or an overabundance of corruption that grinds the bureaucratic system to a halt, economic woes were the primary reason for dynasties falling into popular revolt. The Yuan, Ming, and Qing, all owed a significant portion of their downfall to natural disasters that wreaked havoc on the peasants’ livelihoods, and over-taxation and inflation which collapsed the economy. Peasant rebellions in China, because of these things are a tale as old as time. When you ask regular Chinese people today what they think about the CCP, answers range from absolute adoration to a reluctant, “I know they’re authoritarian, but at least we’re living well.” That has been the prevailing attitude of the Chinese people towards their government for the past 2,000 years.
In this context, everything Xi and the CCP need to do is steer clear of foreign conquests(which no neighbor of China can do anyway), make the public believe corruption is being eradicated, and avoid an economic recession. But economic recessions are an inevitability; it’s even healthy for a country to have a little recession every once in a while so that holes in the economy can be identified and fixed. China, however, has seen boundless growth since the 2000s, its GDP growing a whopping 20% annually(at its greatest height), with no stumbles or pitfalls to even slightly decelerate its growth. Even the Coronavirus pandemic was not able to throw the country into a recession(at least on paper) like it did for most countries around the world. And yet the cracks are beginning to show. The Evergrande collapse exposed how much the Chinese real estate market has been inflated; in fact, Chinese construction has built so many excess residential buildings that it can fit 90 million people in them. While this isn’t to say the Evergrande collapse will lead to a recession, it’s indicative of the state of the Chinese industry as a whole. The country’s capitalization process was designed to maximize short-term profit, disregarding everything else; Chinese business owners understood that China opening up was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, and that, more than likely, the CCP would close the country off again soon. Their plan was to make as much money as possible and flee to another country with their wealth before the CCP could intervene. The CCP understood this but gambled that they would be able to keep the businessmen and their wealth in China while growing the country’s economy. So the CCP bailed out Chinese companies every time they were in trouble, which eliminated the need for businesses to be smart and competitive. This led to Chinese companies overflowing the domestic market, which was reflected in China’s recent real estate bubble, and even overflowing the international market, making other nations’ products less competitive. While this was happening, the CCP put regulations on transferring large amounts of wealth outside the country, while putting travel restrictions on retired businessmen. When business leaders tried to protest against these sorts of policies like Jack Ma did in 2020, they “disappeared” for a while, and when they came back, they pledged their undying loyalty to the CCP. In this sense, the CCP won, it had outwitted Chinese industrial leaders. But to get here, they created an economic system built on sand.
The important thing here is how the CCP will react when the recession hits China because it will happen; generally speaking, recessions are unavoidable. Undoubtedly there will be protests when people find it hard to feed themselves and their families, and the CCP will view this as a threat to their authority. That’s why Xi has put three contingencies into motion: the creation of the surveillance state to whip people into line, the enacting of stricter restrictions on Chinese companies to keep financial disasters from occurring, and the increase in nationalist propaganda with the ‘common prosperity’ campaign to unite the nation.
The Chinese surveillance state is unprecedented in human history. There is not a street in Beijing that doesn’t have CCTV aimed towards it. When people jaywalk cameras register the offender’s face and display it on a screen for all to see to shame them. Surveillance is so extensive that it enables a social credit system that determines a citizen’s ‘uprightness’ or ‘degeneracy' to function nationwide. Depending on your ‘uprightness’, you might not have access to public transport, airplanes, or even a bank deposit. Not only this, on the digital front, the “Great Firewall” prevents the Chinese public from using the Internet freely, and gives the CCP power to censor websites and posts that question the party’s authority. While the CCP justifies the surveillance by claiming it’s for the security of its citizens, what it’s really for is the 24/7 spying of the entire population to make sure no revolts or protests can be organized in the first place. The social credit system scares people into doing what the CCP deems good, lest they risk having their basic rights taken away, and if that isn’t enough, security cameras and internet surveillance will detect and expose anyone trying to plan a demonstration. The CCP is trying to cut the flower at its stem, rather than the head. All of this is in preparation for the day the Chinese people revolt, which the CCP knows all too well is coming.
The second contingency of the CCP is its efforts to turn China’s companies inwards and exact tighter control on them. The Evergrande debacle, and how the CCP refused to save the company, was a warning to other Chinese businesses that the freedoms they enjoyed since the 2000s will no longer be tolerated. This has led to a diaspora of China’s elite to hightail it out of the country to Western nations like the US before the claws of the CCP could claim their wealth in the name of national prosperity. While the effects of this diaspora are currently unclear, it's possible that the absence of experienced businessmen and their wealth could lead to significant problems in China’s industry and economy. Nonetheless, the CCP is going forward with this campaign to a) assure the Chinese public that Evergrande will never happen again, and b) to make sure an Evergrande-like bubble will never happen again.
The third contingency of the CCP is the ‘common prosperity’ campaign. The ‘common prosperity’ campaign’s scale is so enormous that it's difficult to imagine. It ranges from the herculean task of trying to fix China’s declining birth rate through the ‘three child policy’, to an overhaul of China’s education system, to seemingly trivial matters like banning the airing of ‘effeminate men’ on television. While these policies are very varied, they have one thing in common: they are all designed to boost national pride and turn the country inwards, and revert to a 1950s-60s Mao-style China.
Policies like the ‘three-child policy’ and the restriction of online video game time for children are meant to reinforce the idea of the traditional Chinese family. Have more kids, and have these kids play fewer video games and spend more time with their parents.
The overhauls in education, like the removal of English as a curriculum, the introduction of ‘Xi-Jinping thought’ as a class, and the limitations put on after-school academies are meant to cultivate a generation that is loyal to the CCP. Who needs to learn the devilish-capitalistic English language in glorious China anyway? The surrender of English makes no sense if a nation wishes to conduct international business, as English is the primary language used in the business world unless that country has no regard for large-scale international trade in the future. The introduction of ‘Xi-Jinping thought’ is an obvious attempt to create a Mao-like cult of personality around Xi. And the restriction on after school academies is a propaganda coup to convince the public that the CCP’s China is a fair nation, and doesn’t allow richer families to gain an advantage by giving their children more education than poorer ones(even though rich families have found a way around this by hiring tutors instead of sending their kids to academies).
The CCP has begun a cultural crackdown as well. It’s banning of ‘effeminate’ or ‘sissy’ men has been targeted at K-pop and pop idols as a whole, while its resolve to air only ‘healthy cartoons’ has led to the removal of popular Japanese kids show Ultraman. Other shows can be expected to be deemed unhealthy in the coming years. On top of this, the CCP has also prohibited the showing of Marvel films in Chinese theaters after Marvel hired a pro-Hong Kong director for one of its films. The banning of Korean music, Japanese shows, and American movies is an effort to expunge China of foreign cultures, shut itself off from the rest of the world, and promote the greatness of Chinese culture in the process, which further instigates Chinese national pride.
So the CCP has implemented various ways to clamp down on dissidence, but also increase nationalism. What do all of these new policies have to do with China potentially starting a war?
Everything that’s been described so far has been the CCP’s effort to keep China united and the public from rioting, and the CCP is leaning heavily on the idea of nationalism to hold the country together(evidenced by the CCP’s efforts to win over the Chinese public’s heart), and associating themselves with the idea of China as a country. China = CCP. The thing about nationalism, however, is that it often gives way to war. Afterall, nothing bonds people together like a common enemy. This has been proven in almost every modern war in history, from the First Sino-Japanese War, to the Falklands War, to the Yugoslav wars; nationalism almost always invites war, since war unites people. China is doing the same thing by skirmishing with virtually all of its neighbors.
It spent the majority of the 2010s building artificial islands in the South-China Sea, protruding into the maritime borders of South-East Asian states. It has also been establishing a presence in the China-India border, known as the LAC, by building villages and outposts in the area. The LAC has been heavily contested ever since Mao Zedong waged war against India to take that land in the 50s. The climax of this recent effort was a border clash in late 2020 between Chinese and Indian troops, and while the official numbers are unknown, the death toll may very well be over a hundred. Bhutan has seen its borders being slowly pushed back by China as well. Meanwhile, in Taiwan, China sent a record number of some 100 jets into Taiwanese airspace as a show of force in 2021. Against nations like Japan and South Korea, China has claimed their islands as their own. Most notable of these is the Ryukyu islands of Japan, and although no physical action has been taken, Japan found the threat grievous enough that it has decided to increase the military budget, and guarantee Taiwan's independence should China strike at them.
While it may seem like China’s foremost objective in these actions is to bully it’s neighbors and expand its borders, other than the South-China Sea skirmishes, the lands China is desperately fighting for simply aren’t worth it. With India and Bhutan, the land in question is barren, mountainous, and generally useless. It has virtually no economic value, and very little military value other than deterring a potential transfer of aid from India to a Tibetan independence movement. Against Taiwan, military shows of force do nothing more than encourage the Taiwanese to resist China, and convince the rest of the world that China is an expansionist threat, all without yielding any actual results in terms of annexing Taiwan. The case is the same with China’s movements against Japan and South Korea. All this effort does very little to expand China’s borders, in fact, it’s more detrimental to that goal than it is helpful. The only thing it does is convince the Chinese people that China is strong, and that the rest of the world is out to get them.
The Resource Crisis:
On top of the fact that China is trying to whip it’s public into a nationalist frenzy, it also has a potential crippling food and energy crisis on its hands, which, historically, has been the basis for many nations to start a war, along with a totalitarian government that can and likely will start it.
If humans have Maslow’s hierarchy of needs(the theory that humans require certain needs before they can afford to be altruistic), so too do modern nations have such hierarchies. The foundations on which this hierarchy stands is: the nation’s ability to provide water and food to its population and its ability to produce sufficient energy to run its industry. If even one of these is in jeopardy, the country is likely to fall into anarchy as everyone begins panicking and looks to secure their necessities before others.
Germany by 1918 is a perfect example of this anarchy. Due to the British blockade preventing the importation of food, Germany suffered a mass wave of looting, strikes, and revolution among its populace. While it wasn’t the sole reason for the Entente’s victory in that war, it had a significant impact on pressuring the German government to make peace.
Because of that threat, a state’s first and foremost priority is securing food, water, and energy. When a state can’t secure these resources via diplomacy and economics, that’s when a state uses war to forcefully take what they need. And wars are decided by, or started over the securement of these basic necessities.
Look to early 20th century Japan, for example. Its colonization of Manchuria in the 1930s was to gain farmland, and its decision to strike at South-East Asia during WWII was to secure its rubber and oil from Indonesia. Nazi Germany’s decision to attack the Soviet Union was motivated by a similar desire. The Nazis were worried about their reliance on the Soviets for their natural resources after the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and so decided to take it from them before the Soviets could cut it off first. Even in WWI, although Imperial Germany’s initial goal against Russia was to simply knock it out, the objective changed to securing its arable land to feed the starving German populace.
China is no exception to these insecurities.
On the food and water front, China is, technically speaking, secure. China enjoys many freshwater rivers, most of which flow downward from the mountains of Tibet, and although China has dammed many, many rivers in an effort to keep people employed with government construction projects, it can quench the thirst of its population. For food, if every person in China eats only grain products, they won't be starving. The food self-sufficiency programs in the 2010s have made sure that if the worst comes to worst, China can feed its population.
But China isn’t sitting comfortably with this issue. In 2018, a study found that around 15% of China’s freshwater was unsuitable for any use due to its contamination from pollution. Likewise, much of China’s land has been polluted or used to build factories; the arable land per capita ratio is 0.21 acres, meaning that every person can enjoy a measly 0.21 acres of food. And while the grain is somewhat secure, China imports much of its meat, and travels extremely far for its fish due to the depletion of marine life along the Chinese coast. 38% of the world’s distant-water fishermen are Chinese, and many of these fishermen operate illegally within other sovereign nations’ waters. Argentina, for example, has had to sink multiple Chinese fishing vessels that were operating within its waters. China is also the world’s largest importer of soybean. Soybean is essential for a variety of things like cooking oil, animal feed, biodiesel, candles, particleboards, and more.
The energy situation in China is the worst by far. China is the number one importer of crude oil, importing 8.4 million barrels per day in 2017, its primary sellers being Russia, Brazil, and the OPEC nations, like Saudi Arabia. Further, as of October of 2020, China has suffered from North Korea-esque power crunches, where factories and houses have been unable to keep the lights on due to a lack of coal. This comes months after China slapped Australia with a trade embargo, in which China refused to buy the Australian coal it was so dependent on. Because of this lack of energy, China has been forced to increase its import of coal from Mongolia and Russia, while trying to increase its own coal output in the Inner Mongolia area. China may be able to feed and hydrate its people(by a slim margin), but it is very import-dependent for its energy.
Of course, all of this isn’t to say that purely because China lacks these resources it will go to war. But the point is that this lack makes China very viable to start a war, along with one other factor that makes this even more so: the totalitarian nature of the Chinese government. If China’s resource insecurity is a barrel of oil(harmless on its own), the CCP is the match required to ignite the barrel into a global conflict.
Totalitarian governments almost always go to war. The 20th century has been home to the worst set of totalitarian governments the world has ever seen, mainly: Nazi Germany, Imperial Japan, Soviet Russia, and Maoist China. Out of these four, the first two were destroyed by WWII, while the other two engaged in wars that saw hundreds of thousands, if not millions, of people lose their lives, i.e. WWII, the Winter War, Soviet-Afghan war, for the Soviets, and the Chinese Civil War and the Korean War, for the Chinese. This is no coincidence, there’s an underlying reason for this trend to exist.
The fundamental flaw of totalitarianism is that the leadership is too often deluded by their own propaganda with no one to call them out on it. Take Imperial Japan for example. Imperial Japan by 1941 was a military state where all national affairs were handled by the Emperor and the military high command. The civilian government had been regulated to a passive role, and most matters were out of its hands. At this point, the nation had been fighting a brutal slugfest in China since 1937, and to make matters worse, the Allies had decided to embargo Japan of precious resources like oil and rubber, which Japan needed desperately, since the Japanese isles itself has no natural resources. The solution the high command came up with? Take the resource rich Dutch East Indies and British Malaya, and cripple the American fleet in Pearl Harbor so that if the Americans wanted to retaliate for those invasions, they couldn't.
On paper it's easy to see who would win in a war between Japan and the US. The American GDP in 1942 was 6 times bigger than that of Japan, its factories were more modern, it had twice the population to call upon for active service and labor, its natural resources, particularly oil and food, were much more abundant as well. The Americans were the best fed troops in WWII, while it’s estimated that ⅓ of all Japanese military deaths were from starvation. While it could be argued that the Pacific was a much closer conflict than the number suggests due to US commitments in Europe, Japan too had other fronts in China and South-East Asia.
Not only did the numbers indicate Japanese defeat, the strategy was questionable as well. Japanese strategy hinged on the destruction of the American Pacific Fleet, a rapid string of victories across the Pacific, and hope that the Americans would be so demoralized that Japan could sue for peace from a position of strength. But even if those Japanese victories had come(which it didn’t, at least not to the extent Japanese planners had hoped; the Pacific Fleet survived Pearl Harbor and destroyed the Japanese navy at Midway, from which Japan would consistently see their armies pushed back), there were no guarantees that the American public would demand peace. This idea largely came from the Japanese idea that the Americans were a party-loving people with no guts for war, a misconception formed by American party culture during the Roaring 20s.
Yet in the face of all those overwhelming numbers and shoddy strategy, Japan declared war. The reason was that the country was run by a dozen men who were out of touch with reality and too much into their own propaganda. The Japanese high command were high on Japanese successes since the Meiji Restoration in 1868. It had become the first non-European industrialized country, it had colonized Korea and Manchuria, and it had won all its wars: the 1st Sino-Japanese War, the Russo-Japanese War, and WWI. They believed that their nation was protected by the heavens, and that they would win no matter what. Coupled with the fierce militaristic nationalism of the Japanese public, war was something that was all too easy to declare.
In a similar sense, the Nazi attack on the Soviet Union in 1941 was characterized by a similar situation. While Nazi victories in Western Europe up to 1941 had been astonishing, due to its geography and the British naval blockade, the country couldn’t escape the fact that it was lacking in all sort of wartime materials like oil, soybean, and various metals. To circumvent this issue, the Nazis managed to gain these materials from the Soviets as a part of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. But the threat of Stalin one day deciding to cut this supply off was deemed unacceptable, and so Hitler and the German high command(OKW) decided to take the Soviets’ resources permanently. Further, the decision to declare war was abetted by previous German military successes and Hitler believing in his own propaganda that the Slavs were an inferior people. German strategy for Russia, similar to Japan’s, banked on the idea that if they delivered a monumental, crippling, defeat, that is, the seizing of Moscow, the Soviets would sue for peace. It was an unreliable plan; the Germans never reached Moscow, and even if they had, Soviet leaders were going to relocate to Kazan to continue the fight anyways. OKW also ignored the warnings that their logistics department had given them prior to Operation Barbarossa; it warned German generals that it would not be able to sufficiently supply the German army once it was deep into Russia. These warnings fell on deaf ears and ultimately, it was supply issues that crippled the German offensive into Russia.
The actions of Imperial Japan and the German Reich reveal one thing: when nations are on the verge of resource shortages and is run by a totalitarian, nationalistic government, no matter how powerful the enemy is, no matter how many warnings there may be, and no matter how inadequate the strategy may be, they will opt for war. China is no different. Simply because China lacks the resources, or because its army is inexperienced, or because it's got “too much to lose” from a war doesn’t mean that war is unlikely. In fact, it only increases its chances.
There is one other miscellaneous factor that may play into China sparking a major war, its male population.
China has too many men, and this can be a huge issue in the next 20 years. The introduction of the “one-child policy” in 1980 had a huge demographic impact on China’s population. Not only did this policy pave the path of China’s current rapidly declining birthrate, it also heavily skewed the population towards males, with there currently being 30 million more men than women in China, especially in the rural areas. This is because rural, agricultural communities typically require more children, since more kids means more labor in the future. But with the taxation for having more than one child being so brutal, many families decided that if they were to have a baby, it should be male, since Confucian morality favors men over women, and the fact that the average male’s ability to do labor is greater than a female’s. To achieve this, mothers aborted daughters, put them up for adoption overseas, or, in the most extreme cases, killed them after birth. The significance here is that soon, this generation of men are going to be eligible for marriage, and in a nation where women don’t wanna marry a man unless he owns a house(which is extremely costly in China), many of them won’t be able to find a spouse. And when millions of young men are left without a partner and feeling emasculated, that’s when radical ideas thrive.
The acceptance of fascism in Germany and Italy is typically seen to be the result of each country going through a chaotic economic and political crisis, and the people wanting order to be restored by a strong central government. But before these crises, back when fascism was a fledgling ideology, barely winning any seats in parliament, the men who were supporting these movements were the emasculated, psychologically scarred men of WWI.
Fascisim has its roots in young men; not only were supporters of fascism in its infancy young men, fascist ideologies put men at the top of the social hierarchy, and demanded that the role of a woman was purely childbirth. A big reason why young men were so attracted to this ideology was because they had been dying in the abhorrent conditions of the trench for four years, only to see it all go to waste by their nation surrendering(Italy won WWI but it being snubbed of its promised lands and the economic crises following it made it feel more like a loss than a win). On top of that, upon returning home, they found that jobs were scarce. With women filling the workforce while the men were off to war, industrialists learned that women were willing to work for less pay than men, and with large portions of the male population mutilated from war, it was obvious which sex was going to see more opportunities.
So a generation of men were filled with resentment because of the war, and were emasculated at home because they couldn’t find a job to support their family(also the fact that sometimes it was their wives bringing in the income, which, to a 20th century man, would’ve shaken everything he’d been told about what a man’s role in the household was). And when a certain political group offered to put men at the top, and gave these men a chance to express their outrage through violence, these men took them up on their offer. These men would join the fascist paramilitary groups like the Italian Blackshirts or the German SA to spread terror in the streets. This was why fascist Germany and Italy utterly refused to incorporate women into the workforce, even when military manpower was limited.
In a similar vein, China might have the very same crisis on its hands. Some 30 million men with no spouses and wracked with economic hardships make them very vulnerable to radical, violent ideas, like going to war.
Out of all the regions of Asia from which war could begin, China is the most likely. China is now at a crossroads for which direction it wishes to take: an expansionist, global superpower that can challenge the United States, or an isolationist, Maoist-like country based around Xi Jinping and the CCP. Whichever road it may go down, war is probable. Expansionism obviously gives way to war; nations will not willingly give up their territories. But even Chinese isolationism is dangerous. A nationalistic public gives China the option for it to go to war whenever it wants, and if the CCP finds itself losing legitimacy, it may very well deem war to be the best way to keep their hold on power, no matter how much the odds may be stacked against them.
Even still, China holds an advantage over whichever nation it chooses to attack, barring the United States. Should it go to war in Korea, its enormous population will be more than enough to conquer both North and South Korea. If it wishes to move against the ASEAN nations, its navy and airforce will bring victory there. Taiwan is a no-brainer; the Chinese army and navy, if not for anything else, has been built to take Taiwan. No matter how hard Taiwan may resist, it cannot overcome the overwhelming population, industry, and technological advantage that China holds. Against India, China faces a much harder fight, but given that China has the ability to dam most of India’s freshwater rivers(since they flow downward from Chinese controlled Tibet), China is in a more advantageous position. Russia is a hard fight as well due to its experienced and technologically advanced army, but again, the population advantage, and the fact that Siberia is closer to China’s heartland than Russia’s heartland makes this conflict likely for China to win. All of this taking out two important factors of course: nuclear weapons and the United States.
Should nuclear weapons come into play the outcome is simple: annihilation. If China, or any of its enemies, choose to use nuclear weapons it's hard to say that there will be a winner at all. Knowing this, nuclear nations may choose not to use them in case of a major conflict, but this is purely speculatory.
The second factor is the United States. The primary reason why China doesn’t engage in outright conflicts is because of the post-Cold War order the US established in which war was essentially outlawed. The way the US has managed to enforce this order? Its navy. The US navy basically outclasses all of the rest of the world’s navy combined. Its power projection capabilities cannot be overstated. However, there is one caveat to the US’s overwhelming military might: its internal politics.
The US is in a position in which the Shale Revolution has made it energy independent. If the US needed to be active in the Middle East to keep their energy supply safe before, now, they don’t need to. And this was reflected in how US troops were pulled out from Syria during the Trump era, and from Afghanistan in the Biden era. The United States doesn’t need the rest of the world as it used to. Not to mention, its primary adversary, the USSR, was defeated 30 years ago. There are a myriad of other factors that make the United States less dependent on the world, but the bottom line is this: there is a great possibility that the US will no longer be the world’s ‘police’. There is a real possibility that the Americans will want to return to isolationism, and determine that spending $700 billion on defense isn’t worth it anymore. And that’s something Chinese leaders are all too eager for.