Dreaming up a New Enemy

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen is escorted by Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde, Chief of the Peoples Liberation Army's General Staff
Adm. Mike Mullen is escorted by Chinese Gen. Chen Bingde.

With another Remembrance Sunday come and gone, there’s hardly a more appropriate time to be evaluating the global balance of power, and the prospects for peace.

As ever, there’s plenty to keep the diplomats up at night: North Korea’s belligerence; brutally typical wars on the African continent, the Middle Eastern powder-keg – now more volatile than ever as Iran postures and outraged populations rise up.

But the geostrategic question on everybody’s lips in the 21st-Century has been, and will be, the rise of China.

For many military thinkers, the mere mention of the Middle Kingdom induces panic. They predict a new Cold War, balking at China’s vast armies serving a politburo indifferent to human rights and blithely supportive of vicious and absurd regimes like that of North Korea. They see a vast, belligerent, economic and military hegemon, champing at the bit to swallow up the ageing, bloated American and European nations that abused it for so long.

But there is nothing inevitable, or even probable, about Chinese supremacy.

My own reaction is a little more introspective – I tend to think first of a rare moment of candour provided by American military strategist Thomas Barnett, on the Pentagon’s strategy for justifying its colossal budget:

The problem is, you need a big, sexy opponent to fight against. And if you can’t find one, you’ve got to make one up. China all grown up, going to be a looker’.

Some of our fears about China are justified – they will be strong, and their record in Tibet is nothing short of disgraceful. But before we short our stocks in Western civilization, we must remember that it is our endemic tendency, if not our defining characteristic, to overstate and to  demonize our rivals.

Who’s Really in Charge?

The fear-mongering narrative was aptly played out against the USSR, as Noam Chomsky’s Deterring Democracy illustrates. The Soviet challenge to Western science, military might or economic power was vastly overestimated, in ways that the present discourse on China uncannily reproduces.

From Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

From Gregory Clark, A Farewell to Alms: A Brief Economic History of the World.

Narratives of clash and rivalry play well in the Anglo-American collective psyche, with our (largely imagined) histories of resistance and rebellion. Compounding this, liberal democracy, with its emphasis on rights and the individual, lends itself very comfortably to a crusader mentality.

More than this, we in the West need our enemies. Competition in foreign affairs, as in electoral politics and in the domestic economy, is king. Threats, real or imagined, are what give the chronically insecure Western world its edge. Our political institutions are constantly at war with one another.

And right now, with the Russian bear anesthetized, the West has no challenger on the world stage. As Newsnight’s economics editor put it, ‘There is no Cold War, and the War on Terror is not as effective as the Cold War was in solidifying elites against change’. George Orwell was on to something with 1984’s perpetual conflict: We need a threat, whatever the actual situation, to stave off stagnation.

Cooking the Books

So how worried should we be about China? Sensationalists will say China was the world’s largest economy for 18 of the past 20 centuries. True enough. But this is comparing apples and oranges, and says nothing about the future. Before Europe industrialised and exported its economic model around the world, economics was primarily a head-counting game. Wealth and productivity flatlined, and a large population meant a large economy.

In economic terms, anything before 1750 is prehistory. Comparing then to now is like comparing Michelangelo to a cave painting.

Not to mention that global arrangements have irreversibly changed. America now exists, and institutions like the WTO and the IMF are well known to entrench Western dominance. Officially, the combined GDP of the Western OECD is a staggering $45 trillion. This represents some two-thirds of global output, and nine times that of China, with a roughly equal population. In conflict, it is very reasonable to expect that these countries would stand together.

And that’s if you believe the Chinese figures, which a Wikileaked U.S. diplomatic cable quoted Vice-Premier Li Keqiang as calling ‘for reference only’. Many doubt China’s growth rate, compiled through a flawed socialist calculation system that leaves large holes in public finances unaccounted for. Energy consumption, a more reliable measure, suggests that Chinese growth is about half the official rate. There are further concerns about how far growth is artificially powered by currency manipulation, and whether it is of a kind that can bring long-term prosperity.

Let He Who Is Without Sin….

Why is all this important? Surely keeping on our toes is a good thing, regardless?

Drumming up fears of rivals makes inhumane policies seem valid. Fear may drive protectionism and sanctions from Western countries that see their wealth as ‘under threat’, though most Westerners are at least ten times as wealthy as their Chinese counterparts. In a world of finite resources, this absurdity is more than unsustainable – it is a distributional crime. Particularly when much of that wealth was accrued through colonial theft and the infamous ‘Unequal Treaties’.

Each week, a journalist pens a quivering article about China’s new aircraft carrier, or China’s ‘cybermilitias‘. Never mind that 17 of the world’s 22 operational carriers are operated by Western navies, or that the US alone spends a whopping $14billion annually on cyber warfare. The US war chest – just one slice of the NATO pie – is seven times as large as China’s.

The most warlike continent on Earth is Europe, and Britain leads the table. There have been just three years, since 1939, when the UK has not been at war. Given our own appalling record on sovereignty and human rights, it seems unlikely that China will throw the first stone.

Our Native Jingoism

Fabricating threats lets defence departments justify unnecessary budgets, and allows governments to wage unjust wars. Threats to the peace can, and do, emerge at home – the more demagoguegic papers are full of defiantly warlike headlines (‘Gotcha’; ‘United we Stand’, etc.), and witch-hunts against ‘traitors’ that dare to oppose the noble cause.

At least our xenophobic prejudices are limited to the symbolic. We happily outsource jobs to Brazil and India, let China run our manufacturers into the ground, and flog off Rolls Royce and Cadbury’s to German and American conglomerates.

It is good that our mature attitude to free trade is not infected by our fear of change. These were prudent, fair, economically sound decisions. As would be giving up a little of our heinous stranglehold over the global resource base. Defending the status quo is like Evelyn Waugh’s aristocrats fruitlessly lamenting the growing power of the deserving masses. This will no doubt sting, as proven by the austerities forced upon a Eurozone that was living beyond its means. But this is the necessary consequence of any ideology that demands continuous economic expansion in a world of finite resources.

While accepting this change, we should note that the only people saying the West is done for are Western statesmen and journalists themselves.

China will cause a splash in the 21st Century, and insofar as it can provide some healthy competition for the West in trade and wealth, this can probably be called progress.

But equally, the EU will be forced to integrate, and this reactionary tidal wave in power relations will entrench the status quo ever more deeply. The defining event of the 21st Century, will probably be the manner in which these two forces collide.

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About Chris Berkin

Political Journalism MA, City University London. @Chris_Berkin

Posted on November 17, 2011, in Foreign Affairs and tagged , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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