The Pentagon Papers, completed in 1969, identified China as an expansionist power. Although Noam Chomsky may be polarizing to some, his summary of this as expressed in the Papers, along with citations from previous studies, is objective, provided his personal bias about Cold War strategies is subtracted.
This may have been an accurate identification of a fleeting phenomena. The Korean War was a strong positive sign. Yet after the Korean War, China seemed self-absorbed. China’s involvement in Vietnam was mostly as a transit route for Soviet war materials. Henry Kissinger’s early diplomacy revealed that China’s energies were consumed by fear of annihilation by the Soviet Union. If this had not been the case, would expansionist tendencies have been manifest? If this were a tendentious article, I’d be tempted to assert “yes.” But even if it was, it was tied to the Communist Manifesto. There seems to be something different about expansionism that is so powered, and others, such as Manifest Destiny. It runs up against the internal weakness of the revolutionary society, and exhausts itself. Expansionism with an economic energy source has different limits, relating to a loss of economic coherence and advantages of scale.
Kissinger’s voluminous memoirs evidence that, while conducting the affairs of a nation in formal settings, he was an astute observer of individuals and societies. With this as justification, here’s a quote from Years of Renewal, (page 880, hardcover):
“To Beijing, Taiwan is not a foreign country; its claim to independence is perceived as a challenge to national cohesion by legitimizing national aspirations in other geographically remote provinces close to predatory powers. China will go to war rather than give up this principle.”
The technical term for this is revanchism. The whole of Outer Manchuria, which includes Vladivostok, was originally part of China, ceded to Russia in the several of the “unequal treaties”, of 1858 and 1860. Sakhalin Island has a three-way claim: Russia, Japan, and China. Chinese revanchism is currently quiet. This could change. Russia take note.
Another motivation is economic opportunity. It seems a little overrated. According to the U.S. Energy Administration (Wikipedia), proven oil reserves in 2013 were 11 billion barrels, with a possible total of 28 billion. By contrast, Venezuela’s proven reserves (2012), were 296.50 billion. Even Brazil, #17 on the list, has more proven reserves than this sea. This is bad news for the analysis. It would be reassuring if the South China sea had the reserves of Venezuela. The expansionist impulse could be explained by greed, for which opportunities are limited. Sadly, this is not the case.
Thirteen billion barrels can’t pay for decades of conflict. So what is powering China’s angst? Perhaps it is the status as the world’s most populous country, the majority of whom are very poor, yet alive in the domain of a reasonably well governed state. Perhaps it is imagined lebensraum , dredged out of the muck. What a lousy way to live. Dry land would be better (Russia take note.) But German lebensraum was based in agrarianism, a philosophy that assigned an immutable value to agricultural land. It makes no sense now, unless you, personally, want to be a farmer.
So far, we have cataloged:
- The Communist Manifesto, obsolete as a motive.
- Revanchism, which is inherently illogical.
- Economic opportunity, which doesn’t satisfy cost/benefit analysis.
- Lebensraum, which is obsolete, and had disastrous consequences for European history when it figured.
None of these make sense, which suggests the possibility, despite admiration for China’s brainpower, that there is no rational reason. China may have a geographic inferiority complex. This frustrates policy gurus, who may be seeking the unifying principles of a mental health client.
Expansionism and colonialism have an etymological resonance that suggests similarity. But the manifestations have been different. Colonialism is characterized by relatively small movements of people, partial political integration, and a predominant economic motive. Expansionism, involving contiguous territory, has been characterized by large population movements, and near total political integration. The motive tends to be cloaked in romance, with murky economics that may or may not pan out. Both have had moral issues, ranging between mild and genocidal, but let’s not get sidetracked.
- The British Empire. Colonialism. Economic preeminence, with supple political manipulation.
- The Italian, Belgian, and German colonies. Smaller, less successful colonial ventures.
- U.S. Manifest Destiny. Expansionism. Powered by economics, it had a strong romantic tinge.
- Russia’s 19th century expansion, consolidated by the Bolsheviks. Although economically viable today, it was originally an entirely romantic notion. The Unequal Treaties are one of the seeds of China’s current revanchism.
- Japan, between 1894 and 1945. Expansionism mixed with colonialism. Motivated by economics, it combined genocide with policies that resembled a blend of political manipulation with assimilation.
- Germany. Expansionism. The settlement of World War I created a German revanchism that, combined with the adjuvant of lebensraum, converted to a powerful expansionist impulse, given voice by Hitler. Uniquely, sympathetic ethnic German populations were present in the states of the early victims. This is the preeminent example of a compulsive military/political strategy.
China’s annexation of the South China Sea has these expansionist characteristics:
- Claims on territory contiguous with the existing state.
- Weak, or imagined economic benefit.
- Irredentist justification, meaning, “It has always been ours.”
So China is expansionist, with one unique feature. As the territory in dispute is virtually uninhabited, no internal political strategy is required. Perhaps this is an operational distinction that will spare Russia, for a while.
Next: The foundation of equilibrium.