Cina, Xi Jinping (La Presse)

Faltering Contender or Military Dominance: a Tale of Two Chinas

Two recent articles about China published on the same day are a good example of the difference between facts and analysis, as well as the importance of doing your own critical active reading.

Is China Old News or the Next Big Thing?

The first author provides a model of a failing contender to say that China has reached its apogee and will soon fall behind the US putting them in the same dangerous position as Germany in 1914 and Japan in 1941. The second author says that China is more belligerent due to the insular concerns of its dictator, and that the US will only be able to retain its military balance of power for the next 5 to 10 years against China.

Which is it? Which model provides the best evidence? How can they take the same data and come to different conclusions? What difference does the model make in determining the analysis and conclusion?

Which Article is Right?

They both have flaws. The first article doesn’t explain in detail how any power was considered a faltering contender. Some primary sources like leaders explicitly considering their relative position via other powers is a good start. The raw data concerning population, industrial capacity, would have been the optimal second step.

The article includes a reference to a secondary book that is a good, but the article could have used more. Moreover, the cause of the World War I is the subject of endless debate from the moment the war started. It’s tough to use one secondary source to then say that all the competing and contributing factors – nationalism, the alliance system, German militarism, mobilization timetables, the cult of the offensive – were superseded or directed by that one factor. In short, it’s tough to believe his cause for World War I is correct or compelling.

Yet that single cause becomes the model by which we are supposed to understand Chinese behavior.  The author listed many items that sound persuasive. Yet, as with his historical examples, the author didn’t present any hard data such as relative growth, GDP, or size of the military forces to make the case for a faltering contender. Thus, the author’s analysis relies on his examples doing the heavy analytical lifting.

The readers are supposed to assume that China is like 1914 Germany and 1941 Japan on the precipice of war.  Yet we could just as easily conclude that China will survive its black eye from the COVID-19 crisis, abort Hong Kong’s special rights without long term consequences, end their clash with India, and weather their economic storms to continue massive long term growth. Again, without specific metrics their status as faltering contender is debatable.

The second article’s major flaw was that he said that Chinese leader Xi Jinping was a cipher that nobody knew much about. This is true in most secretive but powerful organizations to the point that discerning their intentions and goals is often called “Kreminlology.” But then author went on to provide a single model for Xi’s decision making. Xi is supposedly scarred by his family being purged in the cultural revolution and then takes 21st century Leninism into the era where state tools are so much more powerful.

The author doesn’t consider a variety of long-term factors such as economic models and population growth that can drive political economic and military decisions. As you’ll notice, Xi’s traumatic childhood doesn’t have much to do with military dominance. I don’t have any indication for the sources the second author used to make that statement. The latest defense report indicates that China will not have a “world class” military until 2049 and though China has achieved superiority in some areas like ship building and land based missiles, “major gaps and shortcomings remain.”

Getting to the Truth About China

As I’ve written extensively, including in my book Dragon’s Claws With Feet of Clay: A Primer on Modern Chinese Strategy, I think China has many wonder weapons that make the news and sound scary. Those are the dragon’s claws. But borrowing from the vision of Daniel in the Old Testament, they have feet of clay. Economically their command-driven economy has created a bubble that will dwarf the 2008 housing crisis, a one child policy that creates demographic challenges, no war time experience from the top down to the bottom inducing staff officers and NCOs. (Notice how this is more detail about the Chinese military than either author provided.)

As a result, there is reason to be concerned, but little reason to believe they will outpace the US in 5 to 10 years. The second article seemed a bit more like Australian insider baseball musings.

Using these writings as case studies readers should have a much better grasp of how to assess pieces on their own. This is a good example of how two people can talk about the same subject and reach wildly different conclusions by using different analytical models that drive their thinking.

One relied on some historical examples to provide a modern model, but both sides of the equation lacked clear data and the example did the heavy lifting which is never what you want to have happen. The second author provided even less data to support his analysis, which is even more damning consider he was trying to divine the inner workings of Xi Jinping.