The Chinese Century is here, and conflict between the US, as the waning power, and China, as the rising power, is inevitable.
By Peter Wanyonyi
As a teenager, James C. Humes, the former US Presidential Speechwriter, met former British Prime Minister Sir Winston Churchill. Impressed by the teenager’s thirst for knowledge of statecraft, Churchill advised him, “Study history, study history. In history lie all the secrets of statecraft.” The importance of history is, perhaps, most obvious in the discipline of geopolitics – which seeks to understand international politics and relations as influenced by geographical and other factors.
Today’s world appears, at first sight, to be a randomly chaotic one, buffeted by different crises in various parts of the world: poor governance, corruption, and famine in Africa; conflict between China and its neighbours in the South China Sea; a rising, uniting Europe pegged back by the COVID-19 pandemic; a belligerent Iran looming over the energy-rich Gulf monarchies; world trade in peril and, to cap it all off, a disorganised, inward-looking sole superpower, the USA, whose toxic internal politics have undermined its presence and influence on the world stage. And yet, is it really randomly chaotic, or are there patterns in these crises that careful analysis can reveal?
“A fish,” our people say, “rots from the head.” The geopolitical malaise that bedevils the world today can best be understood by looking at the relationships that the United States – the military, economic, political and social head of the world – has with various other nations and powers, and how these relationships are shaping the status quo of the world and its direction. Any such analysis quickly settles on two entities that the United States cannot escape the attention of, and whose aims are easily seen to be counter to those of the US and her traditional allies: The European Union, and China. But before delving into the current crisis of these three massive powers, one needs to examine the annals of world history. Are there parallels between today and any other epochs in world history? And, if so, can we learn anything from them by heeding Winston Churchill’s advice to study history in order to discover the secrets of today – and tomorrow?
2,500 years ago, the most powerful organised states in the world were the First Persian Empire and the Greek City States. The Persians were busy trying to subjugate various peoples on the peripheries of their vast empire, which had been founded by Cyrus the Great. As they tussled with tribes from what is now India to Egypt, the Greeks established and ran colonial states all around the Mediterranean and the Black Sea. The Greek colonies included fortified regions in today’s Spain, France, Italy, Libya, Egypt, Croatia, Albania, Serbia, Bulgaria, Romania, Ukraine, Crimea, Russia, Georgia and Turkey. It was a vast and wealthy empire held together by trading and cultural ties and dominated by two powerful states: Athens and its Delian League on the one hand, and the famous Sparta, together with its Peloponnesian League. Of the two, Sparta was the superpower of the day: a military society that featured a highly advanced social structure superior to anything found in any African country today.
But even though Sparta was the most powerful of the Greek states, its focus on a “pure” military and state of life was a weakness and Sparta was showing signs of decline as Athens began to rise as a naval power. Athens yielded advances in history, drama, architecture, democracy, naval weaponry and organisation, and philosophy. This shocked Sparta, which for centuries had been the leading Greek City-State. As the power of Athens grew, so did its self-confidence, its consciousness of past injustices at the hands of Sparta, its demands for restitution, and its sensitivity to instances of disrespect. Athens began demanding new arrangements to reflect what it saw as new realities of power. Sparta, on other hand, resented this Athenian rise. Sparta saw Athens as unreasonable, ungrateful, and threatening to the system that Sparta had established and was maintaining, despite Athens having flourished in that system. The two city-states began shoring up their alliances, and as the Athenians increasingly challenged Spartan power in and around the Aegean and the Mediterranean, war between the two became inevitable.
In 431BC, this resulted in the Peloponnesian War between Athens and Sparta, with the latter emerging victorious at considerable cost. “It was the rise of Athens, and the fear that this inspired in Sparta, that made war inevitable”, surmised Athenian historian Thucydides.
The war was devastating for both sides, and although Athens was defeated and subjugated, Sparta herself was defeated shortly after by Thebes, and was later made irrelevant by the rise a few decades later, of Philip II of Macedon, father of Alexander The Great.
This situation – which involves a rising power hungry to dominate coming up against a waning superpower in decline but still possessing overwhelming military firepower, economic might and regional or worldwide clout – has been repeated over and over in history. In the first half of the 16th Century, France was the predominant power in Europe, while the Hapsburgs were the rising power. The result was war. In the second half of that century, the Hapsburgs were dominant, while the Ottomans were rising. The result was war. In the late 17th Century, France was the dominant power, but the British were rising. The result: war. In the early 20th Century, Britain and France were the dominant powers, while Germany was rising. The result: war. In the mid-20th Century, the US dominated the Pacific, while Japan was a rising Pacific power. The result: war.
And now, today, we face a similar situation. The USA is the dominant world power, able to project force anywhere on the planet and deep into space. No corner of the earth is safe from American military power and were it not for the checks and balances of the international order – itself a result of Anglo-Saxon restraint and fairness – America could easily subjugate most of the world today.
But that is changing and has been for the last decade. A new power rises in the East, and to Western and African eyes this power is not just alien, it is also scary. China has surpassed the US to become the world’s Number 1 manufacturer, top exporter, top trading nation, top saver, top holder of debt, top destination for foreign direct investment, top energy consumer, top carbon emitter (a measure of industrial activity), top steel producer, top car, technology, luxury goods and e-commerce market, top holder of foreign reserves, largest economy and the primary engine of global economic growth.
This supplanting of the US by China has led to tensions all around the world. China is naturally expansionary, for geographical reasons: just 7 percent of China is arable. This portion can feed just 23 percent of China’s teeming two-billion-plus population. As often happens in geopolitics, China is energy-hungry but has negligible energy reserves and is land-hungry but has virtually no arable land left. To feed its growing population – which is more than 25 percent of the world’s population, despite fudged official figures claiming otherwise – and keep its economy growing, China needs stable sources of energy and food. Both resources are to be found in two places: seafood reserves in the South China Sea and the Pacific, and vast, untapped lands in Russia, Africa, South America, and the many islands dotted all around the Pacific, as well as the oil and mineral fields of Africa and the Middle East. There is just one problem, however: except for Russia, all these resources are under the guardianship of the United States. And this is what will fuel the coming conflict between the ambitious Chinese and the tired, divided Anglo-Saxon alliance headed by America.
Why, one is tempted to ask, would China succeed where the USSR failed? After all, the USSR had natural resources dwarfing any other geopolitical entity on earth. They had advanced weaponry, vast lands, allies around the world and strong central government bent on world domination. The USSR, however, lacked one critical thing: warm-water frontages. A country cannot dominate its own interior without extensive waterways in that interior. This is because waterways – rivers and canals – are the cheapest and most durable transport mechanism for trade, movement of military troops, and similar exercises. One of the factors that led to the emergence of England as a trading power was the extensive network of canals built in the country in the 17th – 19th Centuries.
Similarly, the United States has the benefit of the Mississippi and Missouri river basins, which provide an extensive transport artery that allows trade to flourish inside the continental USA. Just as a country cannot emerge as a serious trading power without an extensive network of cheap transport – mostly by waterways – a superpower cannot dominate the world without dominating the shipping lanes that control world trade. The USSR lacked access to ice-free ports and oceanic access: its only oceanic frontage was to the frozen Arctic Sea, which at the time was geopolitically inert save as a possible refuelling station for submarines and the like. And so, the USSR was unable to dominate trade even in its own Eurasian backyard and ended up collapsing from its own internal social and economic contradictions.
Like Russia – the main successor state to the defunct USSR – China is a continent-sized land power. China has what the USSR never had: China’s reach extends from the Asian core of the former Soviet Union to the main shipping lanes of the Pacific three thousand miles away. China has nine thousand miles of Pacific coastline, with excellent natural harbours and most of its ports ice-free all year round. China’s growing alliance with Russia ensures that the Chinese have access to the rich energy reserves of Central Asia and Russia itself. This, coupled with a very convenient geographical location, makes China an inevitable superpower in many ways like the United States itself.
Russia is a cold, frigid land, lying as it does 50 degrees north of the latitude. China, however, lies in the same temperature latitude as the United States. Beijing and New York are at the same latitude. So are Shanghai and New Orleans. Just as the United States is drained by the Mississippi and Missouri rivers, providing cheap transport and access to water around the country, so China is drained by four mighty rivers – the Wen, the Han, the Yellow and the Yangtse. But even these geographical blessings – too many to recount here – cannot prevent internal unrest and inefficiencies, which in turn force China to have external ambitions. As states grow and become stronger, they develop needs and insecurities that force them to expand. As China has expanded its trade networks, it has developed interests in far-flung places around the world, leading to a need to protect those interests.
In Africa, for example, China has established critical mining and resource harvesting operations that give it access to Africa’s fabled natural wealth and arable land. But Africa’s “countries” – really just weak tinpot dictatorships masquerading as states – are corrupt and poorly run and are prone to coups and civil unrest. China needs to protect its investments in Africa – which is why China’s first overseas military base was built in Djibouti in 2017. In East Africa, Kenya is China’s chosen entry-point to the region. That is as much because of Kenya’s relatively advanced road and telecommunications facilities as it is due to the ease with which Kenya’s ruling elites can be compromised. While Tanzania is very similar to Kenya as a jetty into Central Africa, it lacks Kenya’s road and telecommunications network, and the ruling elites in Tanzania are nowhere as corrupt as their Kenyan counterparts.
Today, China is Africa’s largest trading partner, and the largest lender to the continent. But China’s stated commitment to non-interventionism is being tested, as conflicts around Africa threaten not just Chinese investments, but also the one-million-plus Chinese citizens now resident in Africa. The restraint that China has traditionally shown in Africa came to an end in 2019, when Chinese troops were dispatched to South Sudan amid the African country’s civil war. They were sent ostensibly as peacekeepers attached to the UN Mission in the country. However, China also sent a contingent of combat troops alongside the peacekeepers. It is the first of many coming deployments of Chinese combat troops in Africa.
Geopolitically, Africa is a bounty rather than a player. Whoever runs the world will get to run Africa, and so China and the US will not come to blows over Africa. We must therefore look elsewhere for the geopolitical contests that will define this era in human history, and which will invariably result in conflict between the US and China.
The South China Sea is a part of the Pacific Ocean that covers 1.4 million square miles. It has tremendous geopolitical significance, with over 30% of the world’s shipping passing through it. Over $6 trillion of trade is carried through the South China Sea annually, making it critical to the food and energy security of billions of people in South East Asia. Beneath the seabed of the South China Sea, it is thought there are huge oil and gas reserves. The sea is also the subject of many competing territorial claims and is claimed partially or fully by each of China, Taiwan, Indonesia, The Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia, Cambodia, Thailand, and Singapore.
Brief wars and skirmishes have been fought over parts of the region over the last 50 years, and tensions are so high that a continual presence of US Navy vessels and personnel is needed to patrol the sea, imposing and guaranteeing the peace required to allow trade to flourish. But American presence in the South China Sea means that Chinese trade through it is at the pleasure of the United States, a situation that is unacceptable to a China seeking to expand its trading and territorial control beyond its immediate coastline, as well as the ability to quickly project naval and air power through the north and central Pacific to its near abroad.
In recent years, China has forcibly taken over contested islands in the South China Sea, building military bases on them in complete disregard of regional and international protests and demands for neutral arbitration of territorial claims. China does this to extend its coast and gain the ability to deploy land-based power on the islands to serve its strategic interests. The South China Sea will be the first flashpoint of Chinese-US tensions, especially given China’s obvious desire to control – and in some cases take over, forcibly or otherwise – US allies in the region.
Several years ago, China started conducting large-scale naval drills in the South China Sea, war-gaming possible invasions of other countries such as Taiwan and Vietnam, and possible defences of the Chinese mainland against retaliation by the US. China also deployed cruise missiles on the disputed islands that it seized and converted into military bases in the South China Sea. While the world was distracted by the coronavirus-induced illness, COVID-19 – which is now confirmed to have originated from a Chinese bioweapons lab, either deliberately or otherwise – China moved swiftly to gain complete control over Hong Kong, the strategic former British colony that has been resisting full Chinese rule for two decades. A new law was passed criminalising all forms of dissent against any Chinese moves in Hong Kong, and anti-China activists were swiftly silenced, with many being arrested and locked up without charge. An eerie silence took over Hong Kong as the West, preoccupied with COVID-19, focused its efforts on reviving its stalling economies, which have taken massive hits from the virus.
In response to this, the United States moved three of its aircraft carriers into the South China Sea in a show of force to Beijing. But this was short-lived, as a COVID-19 outbreak on one of the carriers, the USS Theodore Roosevelt, forced the ship back home to the US. The US Navy has been distracted by outbreaks of COVID-19 on its ships and the accompanying politics of the outbreak, while China has seen no such outbreaks itself – despite being the source of the virus.
As the West struggles to cope with the aftermath of the coronavirus, China will look to force nations in its near-abroad to bend down to its will. The Philippines has already folded, pledging to end the US Navy’s naval base leases. Japan has cancelled a purchase of advanced US fighter jets, while China has loudly reminded the world that the People’s Liberation Army possesses missiles capable of sinking entire aircraft carriers.
As this goes on, similar actions have been seen in trade: the US and China have exchanged trade tariffs, and the US has banned exports of its technology to China. Chinese companies have been ejected from trading in technology sectors in the US and among US allies, with the Americans banning even social media software developed or connected to China. The trade war is escalating against a background of military tensions in the South China Sea, and as the US ramps up to what promises to be a hotly contested election.
But China already holds the upper hand. Chinese electronic components are at the heart of the West’s every computer system. In 2012, the US Senate Armed Services Committee found that American military aircraft were riddled with fake parts made in China, many of them electronic parts with deliberate backdoors engineered into them to allow an outside force to take control of the systems in which the parts were installed. US military attack helicopters and military transport planes, as well as US Navy anti-submarine planes were found to be particularly affected.
In 2017, four US Navy warships on patrol in the South China Sea region collided with various other vessels after the guidance systems on the navy ships were hacked and subjected to a GPS spoofing attack, in which they were fed fake GPS signals and thus led astray. The US Navy never made public who had carried out the hacking, but it later emerged that the control systems on all those ships were made of components manufactured by US and European companies based in China.
In 2018, Chinese state hackers broke into the electronic systems of a US Navy contractor and stole highly sensitive submarine warfare data, including American plans to develop supersonic missiles for use on US Navy submarines.
These, and many other incidents of covert, undeclared hostile Chinese activity, make it clear that the next superpower confrontation is already underway. It is a confrontation that the West, with its decadent culture wars and its leftist political classes, cannot win. Where China has wave upon wave of hardened young men in its armed forces, the militaries of the West are staffed by politically-correct recruits, many of them women and minorities chosen not because they met the training standards of the militaries, but because there was a desire to achieve gender, racial and religious balances in those militaries. Where Chinese recruits are driven by a fierce passion to defend their motherland and their culture, Western recruits see the military as a job with perks and free education, and many of them, particularly in the US, actually hate their own countries. When real “hot” war breaks out, as it must, it is easy to see who will come out on top.
Chinese culture values patience. The late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping, who presided over the opening up of China and its foundational economic reforms – which led to the multi-year double-digit economic growth that lifted China to its current position in world trade – counselled patience and a “peaceful rise” for China. He instructed the Chinese to “hide your strength, bide your time” in their rise to superpower status. In recent years, there have been indications that Chinese patience is wearing thin, and China’s current scraps with the USA over trade and in the South China Sea show that the Chinese have finally binned Deng’s dictum.
The late Lee Kuan Yew, Singapore’s founding Prime Minister, himself an ethnic Chinese, stated that the 21st Century belongs to China. Others – Africa, Australasia, Europe, South America – will be free to join in and enjoy the fruits of Chinese innovation and trade, he said. But the United States must first be brought to heel, and this must be done both from the outside – through trade and military action – and from the inside, through sabotage. The outside actions are already underway, as China assembles an alliance that includes Russia, most of SouthEast Asia – coerced into the Chinese orbit – and Japan.
The actions from inside the West will be more covert. The preparatory work for this has already happened, as discussed above: even though Western countries are belatedly banning Chinese telecom giant Huawei from their 5G networks, they are too late. Chinese telecoms equipment is embedded deep inside every Western telecom network and is installed in every control panel overseeing Western electricity, water, railway and airport systems.
In taking over Hong Kong, China has unleashed a tide of sympathy for Hong Kongers in the Western World. Britain and her allies have pledged to take in all 3 million Hong Kong citizens. Perhaps another lesson from the Greeks might be relevant to the West. The story is told of The Trojan War, a conflict between Troy and the Greeks led by the Spartans. Unable to defeat the Trojans thanks to the walls around Troy and the city’s fortified gates, the Greeks constructed a massive wooden horse and then pretended to sail away. The Trojans, thinking they had won, triumphantly pulled the massive horse into their city as a war trophy. Unbeknownst to them, though, the horse harboured a small select force of Greek men inside. As night fell, the Greeks sailed back under cover of darkness, the Greek men hidden in the wooden horse crept out of it and opened Troy’s gates, and the Greek army entered the city and massacred the inhabitants, winning the war.
The Chinese Century is here, like it or not, and conflict between the US, as the waning power, and China, as the rising power, is inevitable. Africa’s and Kenya’s leaders should choose sides carefully.
— The author is an information systems professional.