Enter the Dragon

“The great revolution in the history of man, past, present and future, is the revolution of those determined to be free.” -John F. Kennedy

It is with a heavy heart that I must report the impending demise of the once great city of Hong Kong. The protests that have lasted for weeks in the face of escalating brutality by the pro-Beijing regime are about to come to an end. Unless an absolute miracle takes place, the protests will end not with the celebratory howls of a people that stood up for itself in the face of tyranny but in screams of horror as the good people of Hong Kong are crushed under the boot of steel and silicon that is the People’s Liberation Army. 

The people of Hong Kong want to breathe clean air and walk freely down their streets without being beaten by police and choked to death with their own blood. Hongkongers, like all freedom-loving people, are self-deterministic and want to govern themselves. But in the eyes of Beijing, Hong Kong is China, and freedom and democracy are not a part of the Chinese Dream. 

Resistance is a contagion that must be contained and squashed in the eyes of the Chinese Communist Party. Independent thought is like Ebola to the Tyrant. The Hong Kong protests have gone from a nuisance to a virus that must be stopped before it spreads to the Mainland. In the last few days, Beijing has started labeling the Hong Kong protesters as terrorists, this is the last rhetorical step before Beijing begins to take truly violent action. If you couple this rhetoric with state-produced videos of PLA exercises and buildups on the Mainland, the message is clear: the Dragon is about to show its teeth. 

Unfortunately, we don’t have to use too much imagination to conceptualize what a PLA crackdown will look like in Hong Kong. Tiananmen, Tibet, and Xinjiang are already bloody blueprints for such an operation. Thousands of people will be arrested, tortured, disappeared, interned in reeducation camps, and/or murdered in order to squash resistance. Then the PLA and PAP (People’s Armed Police) will establish a militarized, cyberpunk dystopia a la Xinjiang for as long as is necessary to ensure compliance. When the dust settles and the blood is mopped from the bullet-ridden streets, Hong Kong will look more like Pyongyang than a modern, prosperous, multicultural metropolis. 

The most disgusting part of this whole ordeal is that more than likely the whole world will just sit and watch as Beijing once again crushes the spirit of liberty and human decency under tank treads. Before Hong Kong there was Xinjiang, Tibet, Tiananmen, in addition to the daily repression of the billion plus souls under Xi Jinping’s regime. And it won’t stop with Hong Kong either. Next time it’ll be Taiwan, Vietnam, or any other people that dare stand up to the CCP. The fire doesn’t stop at the borders, any state willing to murder its own people en masse will have little qualm with doing the same to others. But for now, we’ll just continue to watch the horrors of freedom’s main enemy play out on our screens. We’ll watch the Dragon flash his teeth and continue to tear the Western-led world order apart. Hongkongers will no doubt brave the storm and fight their best fight. Those who stand strong in the face of tyrants are the best among us, but so long as the CCP exists, we are all Hongkongers.

Sino-American Conflict: North Korea

“If ignorant both of your enemy and yourself, you are certain to be in peril.” — Sun Tzu, The Art of War

In college, I had a professor tell me that rogue states would be the US’ greatest challenge in the 21st century. While I sharply disagreed, I understand where she was coming from. As an East Asia and Korean expert, she constantly had North Korea on her mind. And even if she wasn’t, her thinking wouldn’t exactly wasn’t exactly uncommon in the post-9/11 era. The past 16 years have been a time of unchallenged US hegemony and military power, but also a time of US failures against far weaker opponents. Indeed,the “David disrupts Goliath” narrative has been a familiar DC think tank talking point for years now. The typical lines goes something like “The US bested the Soviet Union, but it couldn’t defeat 3rd world insurgents with decades-old weaponry”. We’ve spent nearly 2 decades in the Middle East trying to prove that assertion wrong, and in doing so we’ve forgotten how to handle the 1st world armies with first-rate weapons. We have failed to recognize just how much these revisionist states have closed the gap between us and them, and how our geopolitical reality is shattering in slow-motion. All of this is a rather roundabout way of bringing me to my point that 2017 is the year where the world pivots from the post-9/11 era to an era requiring a far more eloquent strategy than dropping Hellfire missiles on caves. In Asia, this means viewing every approach through the lens of Sino-American competition. North Korea is no longer a North Korea problem, it must be approached as part of our broader China strategy. We cannot continue to allow ourselves to focus on foreign policy issues as if they exist in a vacuum, devoid of any greater geopolitical importance. There is no better, and no more necessary place to end this thoughtless approach than the Korean Peninsula.

North Korea may be a violent, uncontrollable, nuclear-armed Hermit Kingdom, but their role in great power politics remains the same as the many terror groups the Soviets funded during the Cold War. North Korea is a distraction, a curtain for China to hide behind that eats up American resources and throws a wrench into any Sino-American confrontation. North Korea stirs up public fear, all the while China continues to bide its time and amass resources for its push towards hegemony in East Asia. However, just because China uses North Korea to distract us doesn’t mean it has much more control over Pyongyang than we do. North Korea is not so much a Chinese puppet as it is a convenient loose cannon firing in the right direction. For years we have ignored the North Korean problem just as we have ignored a rising China because both are complex problems that we thought we could wait out. Now we can push the problem down the road no longer, China is rising, and North Korea is screaming about fire and brimstone from atop a nuclear-tipped ICBM.

Addressing North Korea means addressing a rising China, and vice versa. While neither country is fond of one another, strategically, they both matter a great deal to each other. The popular portrayal of Kim Jung-un as a spoiled toddler throwing a tantrum gives power to the argument that, like any screaming toddler, the US shouldn’t encourage such behavior by giving it attention. North Korea and China want the US to leave the peninsula, leaving East Asia to East Asia, as the Imperial Japanese used to say. Furthermore, the violent tantrums thrown by the regime are hardly random, nor are they pointless, as they all have a place in regime stability and security. In the past, the regime has used nuke tests and military actions to manipulate the US into giving it aid during particularly hard times, and Kim Jong-un seems particularly fond of using such grandiose displays of power and aggression to solidify his rule. In fact, all the young Kim seems to appreciate is loyalty and brute strength, eliminating the possibility of nuclear negotiations regardless of circumstances within the Hermit Kingdom. Now that Kim has nukes and the ability to rain fire down upon his enemies around the world, I see little reason for him to want to give them up. After all, autocratic countries that have given up their WMD programs have a rather low survival rate. Kim may be a drunken autocrat in a country dominated by backwards ideology, but he and his regime are far from stupid.

North Korea will no doubt fail one day, but whether that failure comes before or after a war breaks out on the Korean Peninsula is the real question. The Trump administration has promised a quick resolution to the North Korean problem, but I doubt there is any plan or willingness to do anything that would require a serious commitment. Trump has proven himself a paper tiger and years of sequestration have left the American military deprived of the resources to undertake such an exhaustive endeavor as North Korean regime change. Moreover, Chinese leadership may be divided on loyalty to Pyongyang, but there is little doubt for the need of a buffer state between US allies and the wide-open plains of Northern China that have been the preferred invasion route of the Middle Kingdom since time immemorial. Therefore, we must begin to view North Korea as China views North Korea, as a means to an end in a grander scheme rather than an isolated problem. For too long we have tried to lean on China to help solve North Korea, but as we have grown weaker, China no longer feels the pressure it once did to help us out. Now, maintaining an ally in the North and pushing the US off the peninsula and out of East Asia is China’s priority. It is simply no longer in China’s strategic interest to end the Kim regime until it can diminish US presence and influence in East Asia. If we allow that to happen, we will see many more autocratic and dangerous regimes arise as the Western order falls, and that is far more dangerous than a single rogue state. The truth is, there is no end to North Korea from the outside, and active regime change can and should no longer be our goal. Rather, we must focus on containment of the North Korean regime, its nuclear technology, and its enabler.

In summary, the rogue state of North Korea is no longer the chief challenger to the US-backed order in East Asia. American hegemony is slowly being eroded and replaced by revisionist powers, and East Asia is no different. China has now begun to assume the mantle of challenger for hegemony in East Asia and no longer has the will or interest to maintain the US-backed order that abhors North Korea. In addition, the success of the North Korean nuclear missile program leaves little doubt that there must be a total shift in US policy towards the Hermit Kingdom. Our previous attempts at negotiation and isolation have failed and we can no longer attempt to wait out North Korea, nor can we hope to end the regime on our own terms. Therefore, our North Korea strategy must become part of a broader China strategy(if we ever get around to developing one), and treat North Korea as a symptom of a much larger cancer rather than an isolated tumor in an otherwise healthy body. Prevention must be replaced with containment and where we can, we must make them bleed. The century of Sino-American conflict has officially begun, and North Korea is its first major battle.

Sino-American Conflict: Historical Precedent

The Americans had an apt phrase to describe a situation like ours, where your strength grows but your options become ever more limited: Manifest Destiny. “Destiny drives you forward but ties your hands.” -Ghost Fleet: A Novel of the Next World War

China’s rise has left it with great potential but few options. Many of its needs and policies run counter to the current international order. A rising power must expand and amass power and influence to survive, or else it risks being left to the annals of history. China cannot maintain its more than three decade long economic boom for much longer without massive changes to the regional and global order in its favor. Failure to seize opportunities created by American indifference and decline, would delay China’s ascendancy to hegemony and perhaps threaten the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy and power. Historically, many of the battles fought between hegemons and their challengers have been decided by whomever controls the seas and the lucrative trade routes that travel through them. In Southeast Asia, the fight for those key maritime trade routes in the South China Sea (SCS) will fall between the nations of ASEAN, the US, and China. China has already taken steps to secure the South China Sea by constructing and militarizing artificial islands that it says justify its claim to the entire SCS, threatening those who challenge its internationally-recognized-as-illegitimate claims. In order to understand just how important control of this region is to Chinese ascendance, we must first look at how previous states have come to power, and what drove them to war.

Hegemonic conflict is far from a new concept in international relations. Empires rise and fall with the changing of the tides, and those tides are often red with the blood of competing powers. Sino-US competition in the Pacific will likely be no different. The end of Pax Americana does not simply mean an end to the world order created in the 25 years since the fall of the USSR, it means the beginning of the end for many of the US-backed international institutions that have existed since the end of WWII. China cannot complete its rise to hegemony without reorganizing the international order in its favor, nor could it do so without having influence over much of the world’s economy and trade. Given the recent slowing of the Chinese economy, Beijing cannot wait decades for these institutions to erode on their own and for the US to fall back on its own, it must force the issue, most likely within the next decade, if it wishes to supersede US dominance of the world stage.

The beginning of the modern hegemonic cycle began in the 15th Century, at the dawn of the Age of Exploration as Portugal sent its ships to the farthest reaches of the world, and gained an edge in the colonization of the New World. The Portuguese dominance of navigation and their superior knowledge of the Earth’s oceans enabled Portugal to seize valuable ports and resources, establishing lucrative trade routes and relationships with far-flung regions. The US has a similar advantage in that it is the world-guarantor of freedom of navigation. In fact, America’s first post-Independence conflict was fought over freedom over navigation rights in the Mediterranean and those same rights have become a major talking point for the US in the South China Sea.

In the latter half of the 16th century, the Dutch came to power through their control of credit markets and investment. As Portugal began to decline, the Dutch could invest heavily in private expeditions and their navy to challenge the Portuguese status quo. The Dutch attacked the overseas holdings of Portugal across the globe, securing much of the spice trade and enriching the Netherlands at the cost of Portuguese power and influence throughout the world. Increased Dutch wealth and overseas investment enabled the Dutch to expand as Portugal was occupied with other conflicts and interests (notably the 80 Years’ War). As the US spreads its forces thin across the globe and hollows them out through sequestration, China can pick and choose which territorial disputes it wants to focus on and can concentrate its forces with less effort than the US. Chinese overseas investment and corporate influence is enough to force some states to make concessions to China in exchange for such investment, weakening the US’ ability to hold onto and protect allies that cannot survive without Chinese investment. The Dutch used their economic strength to further enrich themselves through the funding of military expeditions in places that would enable Dutch control of vital trade routes and commodities. Chinese ambition in the Southeast Asia and Africa should be viewed no differently.

Ironically, it was Dutch expansion and ambition that led to a power shift in the late 17th century from the Netherlands to England. Dutch-English cooperation in military and economic affairs enabled the English to take advantage of peace and enlarge their navy and control over world trade routes, soon overtaking the Dutch and some of their colonies. Those who encourage Sino-US cooperation should be wary of similar partnership. American economic weakness and military decline would ensure that the US is the weaker partner in such a relationship.

The Napoleonic Wars not withstanding, the British ruled the world’s seas and remained hegemon for more than two centuries without a significant challenger. British naval power, reinforced by its industrial innovations, enabled Britain to rule a quarter of the world at its height. While the British Army had never been anything to marvel at, and was often much smaller than those of the Continental powers, Britain’s successful policy of offshore balancing against any rivals in Europe kept aggressors at bay by relying on its control of the seas. The end of Pax Britannica began in 1914 with the outbreak of the first World War. Despite Britain’s eventual victory, the war destroyed an entire generation and weakened the economic and military power of the British Empire.

The German Imperial policy prior to the lead-up to World War I was summarized as security and strength without hegemony. The famous German leader Otto von Bismarck encouraged this policy as Chancellor, and until his death was adamantly against German attempts at hegemony in Europe. Unfortunately, his legacy was not enough to hold off the forces that encouraged German expansion. The fact was that Germany could not sustain itself without an empire and expansion, it simply did not have the resources to match the other powers in Europe. China has followed similar advice in its development since the end of the Cold War. Deng Xiaoping’s 24-character strategy encouraged an inward focus and development without attempts at expansion or aggression. However, that focus was largely an effort to keep China from making attempts at expansion before it was ready, as so many failed hegemons had done before it. Deng did not say that China should never make an attempt at hegemony, and that is what is worrying. Chinese scholars often point to Deng’s strategy as reason for no concern towards Chinese military and economic development, because of the “never claim leadership”portion but they downplay the part that says “hide our capacities and bide our time.” Any attempt to minimize the threat a rising China’s ambitions pose to the Western order should be looked at with great suspicion not simply because of historical precedent but because of the very strategy that CCP leadership so closely follows.

The arguments against seeing China as a serious, aggressive threat to US-led world order are similar to the arguments made against those who foresaw conflict between Europe’s great powers in the run up to August 1914. The argument that globalization and the economic intertwining of states makes war between states too costly was the one of the more popular cases against European conflict. In the decades prior to WW1, the world became globalized through the invention of the first telecommunications systems, industrialization and relative peace enforced by Pax Britannica. This period of peace eventually encouraged those with imperial and hegemonic ambitions to take advantage of dying old empires, increased wealth, and the fear of burgeoning new empires to encourage their nations to arm, expand, and plant their flag around the globe. The globalization argument is still rather popular today, particularly by those who do not understand what China values and what it thinks it could gain from a successful conflict with the US. Other scholars and policymakers are still confident in superior American power, either because of ignorance towards China’s growing capabilities or because they still believe America is invincible. In my opinion, that degree of hubris is more dangerous than any weapon that China could build.

Despite growth in arms development, nationalist rhetoric, and even commentary by some leaders about their ambitions, fears of an end to the ‘Belle Epoch’ were dismissed as part of the old world, one that was not economically intertwined like modern Europe. War would simply cost states too much money, and that argument resonated with many because it made people feel secure and because it made sense to the average person that attacking someone who gives you money would be counter-intuitive to prosperity and success. Many simply did not see how the benefits of a victory in war could outweigh the benefits of peace, but for a revisionist power like Germany, both the people and their leaders saw opportunity in war. For Germany’s leaders, victory meant ending its encirclement by British-allied states and the ending the threat of the ‘Russian hordes’. For the people of Germany, it meant taking their rightful place atop Europe and righting the wrongs done unto them by the other empires of Europe. For other states, it meant reasserting themselves after years of decline or seizing new territory for economic gain. If any of this sounds familiar it is because much of the same rhetoric is used by the CCP as justification for its military buildup and territorial ambitions.

Despite all of the talk about economic peace, hyper-nationalistic rhetoric was rampant in Europe in the run-up to 1914. The elections of populists like Rodrigo Duterte and Donald Trump, in conjunction with increased nationalistic propaganda and stricter enforced adherence to CCP ideology within China suggest that a wave of nationalism like that found in Germany, France, and the Balkans prior to 1914 has arrived in the Asia-Pacific. Thus, while the idea of war in the Asia-Pacific may have been too terrible a thought less than a decade ago, nationalistic sentiments tend to encourage the romanticizing of conflict over the sober reality of war, dissuading the voices of caution and raising the influence of war hawks in capitals around the world.