China and the United States are divorcing without ever having been married, or even dreamt of marrying. It will not be a peaceful break-up or a consensual one in spite of reassuring media statements, diplomatic acrobatics and tactical ceasefires.
The stakes are very high with the geopolitical supremacy of this century in play. The timing, radius and intensity of the clash are yet to be established. Nothing is inconceivable, from the current psychological, economic and cyber duel to open war, the plans for which are feverishly updated by both strategic apparatuses. What is certainly over is the ambiguous period of coexistence, inaugurated in 1972 by Nixon’s visit to Beijing and that continued, with a trauma (Tiananmen 1989) and a few fluctuations, until 2012, when Xi Jinping became leader of the Chinese Communist Party and Obama hinted at China’s containment. Trump’s selective tariffs are contributing to overheating the competition, not inventing it.
Those who continue to see the Sino-American match as a trade war are off track. This is the pre-warm-up phase of a match at the end of which one of the two players will see its status significantly reduced, because that party will have lost the war or withdrawn out of fear of losing it. There is a third hypothesis; the United States and China could inflict such damage on one another that the fate of the “winner” – perhaps that of humankind – could become unattractive.
This is the nightmare that is reining in Washington and Beijing’s warmongering impulses. However, nurturing the illusion that this clash will degenerate into military confrontation is to be excluded, means putting common sense before a sober analysis of a spiralling crisis.
What is certain is that events will not develop in the manner nowadays envisaged by the Chinese or the Americans. The energy released by the collision between these two giants is incalculable. Never before in history has there been a competition for primacy between such an important holder and challenger. They are profoundly involved at an economic level but geopolitically opposed and totally alien to one another as far as ethics and culture are concerned.
Two and half millennia ago, Sun Tsu decreed that victory goes to those who know themselves and their enemies. Translated that means that before venturing into battle, one must measure the congruity between one’s objectives and the limitations of power; one’s own and that of others. Compared to the times of the brilliant Chinese strategist, the unknowns in both equations have multiplied to the point of eluding the models of the most refined electronic laboratories.
To decision-makers demanding decisive algorithms, technicians offer approximations conditioned by their hope to please them or a desire to influence them. It is legitimate to even doubt the level of knowledge the duellers have regards to their own resources. This applies just as much to Beijing, where autocratic paranoia imposes opacity towards the outside world, as it does at a domestic level as well as in Washington, where bureaucracies and exuberant power players pursue their own agendas, often with more determination than shown when facing an enemy. If one then considers their capacity to decipher and anticipate the moves of others, the diagnosis is depressing.
The United States and China have little understanding of one another. Even worse, they are under the illusion of having penetrated the codes of their rivals based on their own; something that cultural otherness makes impossible, or worse, misleading. Perhaps that is also the reason for which the contenders have decided to invest massively in Artificial Intelligence, literally interpreting Putin’s statement, according to which, “whoever dominates AI will become the ruler of the world.” Almost conceding that human minds cannot expect to answer Sun Tsu’s precept.
In spite of the power gap between the Number One and the Number Two, the outcome of the duel is not a given. Firstly because the level of economic-financial interdependency prevents one from clearly establishing where the advantage of one ends and the benefits of the other begin. Secondly, because in the event of an armed clash, the American superpower would in any case face asymmetrical retaliation that would test its readiness to absorb significant and extended losses. In an extreme situation, this might push America to replicate in China the exercise already successfully experimented in 1945 against Japan to put an end to a war that threatened to cause too much bloodshed.
Thirdly, since the match between America and China is not reserved to the two leading players – and even less so in the event of a war – with each trying instead to gather a significant number of “allies” around them (in other words under their leadership). Hence with the resources of others placed at their service. At the same time, every client or supposed client tends to obliquely take advantage of the duel to make use of it for as long as and to the extent it is possible with both “masters”. For example, they rely on the United States’ military umbrella while developing trade with China thereby running the risk of losing both. Informed readers know well that we are not just referring to the Japanese, the South Koreans or the Filipinos; we are speaking of ourselves.
The global paradigm is undergoing change. Nor could it be otherwise considering the rank of the contenders. In spite of Trump’s national-protection shifts and moves, the United States continues to perceive itself as a planetary empire. China instead, in spite of a few recent shrill off-tone remarks by Xi Jinping, has assumed the posture of a country that intends to take over primacy.
Opposing “globalisation” to “globalisation”, which in spite of semantic appearances venerated by beautiful souls does not mean adapting one’s own interests to the world but the world to one’s own interests. The first proposition does not make sense while the second makes too much sense.
There are still some who look at today through yesterday’s lenses when describing the power system that has arisen since the Cold War. Or others who protest, sighing that the world is too chaotic; there is nothing to understand.
In truth, one understands nothing without first choosing a perspective that allows one to reduce and put in order the complexity. In architecture that would be the vanishing point. In geopolitics it is the dynamic centre of power relations at a global level, from which secondary or peripheral conflicts descend or to which they date back to a very variable extent. In common language, the heart of the matter.
Nowadays one must identify this with the duel between Washington and Beijing. Centred in the Indo-Pacific, and from here spreading to the Eurasian land-mass, then with different geopolitical importance to the Middle East, Africa and Latin America – not to mention maritime, cybernetic and space dimensions. Assuming such a point of view, we create a hierarchy of the other disputes according to their greater or lesser relationship with the Sino-American matrix. This is an exercise that will keep Limes busy over the coming years.
2. On September 30th the guided missile destroyer USSDecatur was almost rammed by the Chinese destroyer Lanzhou near the Gaven Reefs, in the Spratly archipelago claimed and effectively controlled by Beijing. Only a last second course change avoided the collision. It was not, however, possible to avoid the wave of rage coming from the upper echelons of the Indo-Pacific Command that spread to the Pentagon and the American establishment.
They were all mindful that the three decisive wars fought by the United States in the 19th and 20th centuries were sparked, or preceded, by treacherous and still discussed enemy naval operations; a mysterious explosion onboard the USS Maine in the port of Havana (February 15th, 1898); Germany’s torpedoing of the British steamer the Lusitania carrying 128 American citizens (May 19th, 1915) and the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7th, 1941).
The assessment made by American military apparatuses was unanimous. Beijing controls the South China Sea in all scenarios “short of war with the U.S.”, as stated by the commander of the Indo-Pacific Command, Admiral Philip S. Davidson (1). It is the launch pad towards the oceans according to Vice President Mike Pence, who said, “China wants nothing less than to push the United States of America from the Western Pacific.” (2).
Seen from Washington it is the red line par excellence that, if crossed, reduces the U.S. from a global empire to a regional power. The Pacific Ocean is the American Ocean. Period.
The USS Decatur’s close call is the symbol of the competitors’ change of course. If one compares the United States and China to two fleets, of which the first is predominant and the second making a comeback, one observes that between the Seventies and recent times they proceeded along parallel lines, exchanging bland friendly or cold hostile signals, at times coming alongside to exchange greetings and even visiting one another’s vessels.
With the Pivot to Asia outlined by Obama and the tariff war started by Trump, the metaphoric American fleet has been capping the T. It is the manoeuvre with which a naval squadron crosses the course of the enemy lines so as to engage all its guns while the other fleet has only its bow canons available (figure). Allegories aside, Washington has decided to forbid China’s ascent, persuaded that Beijing has swindled it for forty years, dulling its senses with a concert of persuasive eastern melodies while continuously robbing the American empire’s sancta sanctorum.
Over the last quarter of the past century, the United States has applied minimum tariffs on imported Chinese goods, tolerated the fact that Beijing should demand top technology from its companies in exchange for controlled access to its market, manipulated its currency in order to better compete in international exchanges and freely help itself in the reserved dominions of American intellectual property.
When in 2001 George W. Bush expressed his approval regards to the People’s Republic’s membership of the World Trade Organisation, he was under the illusion that this meant making China a minority member of “globalization”, an ideology and normal procedure in the American empire. The obsession with the “War on Terror” and the unfortunate Middle Eastern campaigns provided Beijing with an opportunity for stealth growth in the Number One’s shadow, whose radars were busy exploring the Hindu Kush and Mesopotamia.
China thereby contributed maliciously to the financing of the most stupid exhibitions of power – deadly traps from which it still finds it hard to cut itself loose – in the most pointless theatres, so long as America did not raise its eyes too much to look around and discover how robust and hungry the real challenger had become.
When the financial crisis exploded on Wall Street in 2008, the Middle Kingdom’s leaders deduced that Western capitalism was in a coma and that it could therefore intensify the speed of its race to global primacy without paying its dues.
As Trump summarised, “We have rebuilt China which has been taking out USD 500 billion a year from the US.” (3) The time had come for Washington to react, before the advantage in economic and military power became so slim that it would make retaliation too risky and divorce impossible. Beijing had to learn good manners and a compromise would be found. Should it continue, the price to pay would be high. Nowadays using tariffs, tomorrow who knows.
According to the concerned statement made by former Secretary of the Treasury Henry M. Paulson Jr., the course had been decided. Stage one involves decoupling, “an economic Iron Curtain” even if it might “unmake the global economy”, all at the risk of “isolating itself”, seeing that “I do not believe that any country in Asia can afford to divorce China, or even wishes to.” (4)
A rare bipartisan agreement has seen almost the entire American political, economic and military higher echelons side in favour of capping the T, driven by the unconditional patriotism the United States always shows at important moments in history. It was recited as a strategic homely on October 4th at the Hudson Institute by Vice President Pence, who clearly enunciated the distilled text written by the informal team mediating between Congress and the security agencies to contain damage inflicted on America’s credibility by Trump’s explosive statements.
It was a message with neo-Churchillian ambitions, so much so that it led to indecent comparisons to the speech made by the former British Prime Minister at Fulton (March 5th, 1946) to stigmatise the “Iron Curtain” that Stalin had dropped between Szczecin and Trieste.
The objective was to reassure real and supposed friends and allies that Washington will never abandon them. It intends instead to weave an economic-military web with them in order to suppress Beijing’s hegemonic ambitions in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.
The China depicted by the superpower’s upper echelons, as expressed by Pence, is an “Orwellian system”, prepared to commit every possible kind of atrocity. Among these above all “meddling in America’s democracy” with covert operations and fake companies compared to which “what the Russians are doing pales”. The objective? To impose “a new president” in 2020. (5)
This analysis of China’s comprehensive deceit was well-founded. The counter-strategy is intentionally disproportionate in order to cause shock both in the United States, mobilising its citizens against the “Yellow Peril” 2.0., as well as among its Asian partners and Europeans belonging to the American club, now experiencing a crisis of abandonment, reassuring them that the Number One is always ready to defend them.
And to punish them if they betray the U.S.. It was aimed above all at shocking Beijing, that it should not be under the illusion of really being able to overturn global equilibriums in its own favour, not even if the American empire were to disintegrate due to a brief distraction.
Of course concentration on China implies a reorientation to the Indo-Pacific theatre of financial and military resources currently mainly deployed to the classic European and Middle Eastern theatres. Nowadays the superpower’s brain is thinking above all about Asia, but the body remains where it was in the days of the challenge posed by the Soviet Union. Not even Number One can be everywhere.
Washington’s narrative conceals two subtexts.
The first is exoteric. It is the expression of the mechanical economism, mixed with a dose of frank idealism, which following victory over the USSR led public opinion and high commands to cultivate the dream of a unipolar world in which the United States and China could contemplate their respective interests within the context of a new global order. Not a marriage, but civilised, fruitful cohabitation.
The People’s Republic’s gradual integration in world markets would sooner or later have led to its transformation into a liberal democracy. It would achieve this through subordinate support for the U.S., the champion of accomplished liberal-democracy; a super-Japan without secret revanchist desires or genetic martial virtues.
This would make up for trauma suffered in 1949, when Truman “lost China” by not seizing the opportunity to cultivate Mao’s victorious national-communism instead of the defeated extremely corrupt national-authoritarianism of Chiang Kai-shek (“Cash my check” in the slang used by his American military advisors).
The second is esoteric, and in any case ill-suited to be used for propaganda. It was already cultivated during the Eighties by the Office of Net Assessment, the Pentagon’s geopolitical workshop led by the patriarch Andrew Marshall (Yoda) between 1973 and 2015, in constant exchanges with British intelligence.
The gist lies in the title of an essay published in 1992 for Chatham House by the analyst Gerald Segal, entitled “Opening and Dividing China”. It is set out in the last sentence, in which he states that should China accept the logic of opening and interdependence, this may well mean the creation of at least a more federal China and perhaps different Chinas. (6)
Just as the American Pacific is the first principle of the U.S. empire, China’s unity is that of the People’s Republic. For Beijing these are the non-negotiable stakes as far as the clash with America is concerned. Xi Jinping’s mandate is not to conquer the world, it is China’s unity.
3. But is there just one China? Absolutely not. It is so in international diplomatic conventions, established with forked language by the United States and the People’s Republic in 1992, following years of semantic skirmishes between the Americans and the Chinese about issues concerning Taiwan. Consensus – more correctly non-dissent – establishes the existence of one China, leaving Beijing and Taipei free to each consider themselves its legitimate government. However, geopolitics would lose its significance were it to elevate diplomatic language to heuristic criteria. We remain attached to the principle of realty and thus there are two Chinas separated by the Taiwan Strait.
Only two? Not at all. First of all because the Chinese language does not distinguish between singular and plural, leaving such definitions to the context. For centuries the dynastic denomination prevailed and hence the country was that of the Han or the Tang, the Ming or the Qing dynasties.
The commonly used name Zhongguo, nowadays understood as “the central state” or the “Middle Kingdom”, anciently referred to the central states along the Yellow River, in a cultural rather than geographical sense. “China” is a word borrowed from Portuguese – perhaps inherited from a middle Persian if not Sanskrit root – internationally widespread between the end of the 18th and the early 19th centuries. This when Immanuel Kant decreed in his Physical Geography that this empire was without doubt the most populated and well-educated in the world. (7)
This is not archaeology. In the mental maps of the imperial-communist elites what remains impressed is the matrix of the Great China of the Qing, at its apogee in the first half of the 18th century. This included what is now independent Mongolia and other territories in the north conceded to Russia, remote provinces that are now Indian as well as a crown of vassals and protectorates from Korea to Sakhalin, from the Himalayas to Indochina – including access to the Straits of Malacca, which would nowadays revolutionise oceanic geopolitics.
Let us now put away our book of dreams and remain in the People’s Republic. Let us pivot on Beijing and broaden our horizons to its 22 provinces (formally 23, with the “rebel” Taiwan), 5 autonomous regions, 4 municipalities (city-provinces) and 2 regions under special administration.
The last two are the former British metropolis of Hong Kong and formerly Portuguese Macao, which until 2047 and 2049 will respectively enjoy a supervised degree of autonomy according to the principle “one country, two systems”. While Macao stands out as the world’s gambling capital, independentist movements are active in Hong Kong, the centre of transcontinental trade.
These movements are active especially among the young, of which only 2.9% define themselves as Chinese (this figure was 16.5% in 1997, when the British flag was lowered). (8) Xi Jinping’s repression of the secessionist movement of the Yellow Umbrellas, now forced underground, has not destroyed its ambitions. According to Beijing it is a given that when the autonomy agreement comes to an end, this pivot of oceanic China will return home with no discounts or immunities.
One must bear in mind that the central government has just recently inaugurated the longest maritime bridge in the world, 55 kilometres of suspended asphalt linking Hong Kong to Macao via Zhuhai, so as to integrate the logistic, commercial and financial platform created from the delta of the Pearl River. It is a physical bond and a geopolitical warning.
Regards to the five autonomous regions created mainly in the poor sparsely populated peripheral areas in which non-Han minorities live, two of them express centrifugal aspirations, and they are Tibet and Xinjiang. In the West’s imagination, the “Roof of the World” - which dominates the Indian subcontinent – is the symbol of a gentle spirituality oppressed by the regime. The New Frontier (Xinjiang in Chinese) of the depressed North-West and the platform to Central Asia is the privileged factor for those wishing to take the temperature of both Chinese instability and extroversion.
This is because of the activism of separatist organisations that will not give up terrorism for as long as they can wave the mirage of Eastern Turkestan, taking advantage of the Turkish-origin Muslim Uighur minority against whom Xi has unleashed a “de-radicalisation” campaign. It is also, by way of contrast, seen as the logistic base for the new overland silk roads, destined to link China to the western Eurasian landmass, all the way to Germany and beyond, in the hope that economic development means adherence to the regime.
Like all good Marxists, Xi is betting on the economy’s structuring effect. If correct, it applies in both senses. It is certainly imperative that the wealth gap be reduced between the depressed peripheral areas and the maritime China that, from the Tianjin-Beijing axis, unravels via Shanghai and Fuzhou all the way to the Guangzhou-Hong Kong-Macao triangle, while it relies on the central hinterland represented by the industrial neo-megalopolis of Chongqing.
It would, however, be best to wonder whether the hypermodern coastal areas, commercially interconnected with their neighbours and the rest of the world and thus exposed to western contagion, should not, under the pressure of the U.S.-China clash, perhaps consider this as an opportunity for self-management to better be open to traffic, as they did in the 19th century, especially as far as the British were concerned.
The locomotives of the East that drive the vast Chinese snake could unhook the decrepit peripheral carriages, abandoning them to their fate. At that point the “open and divide” motto so dear to strategists in Washington and the regime’s nightmare, may well become reality.
Geopolitical earthquakes imply domestic conflicts as has always happened in the course of Chinese history, marked by cycles of fragmentation and reunion. Sooner or later – within years or decades, not centuries – even the current status will vanish.
This is established in the incipit of the Romance of the Three Kingdoms, a significantly geopolitical standard of Chinese literature that dates back to the 14th century. It stated that “An empire long united, must divide; anempire long divided, must unite. Thishas been sosince antiquity.”(9) This was confirmed by Mao Zedong, according to whom the Chinese are a “tray of sand”. (10) Xi Jinping also fears this and his creed is to make the Chinese Dream a reality – to overtake the United States – by 2049, the centenary of the foundation of the red dynasty that, with Mao, started the empire’s revival after the century of humiliations.
4. The various China’s have different strategic importance. There is a hierarchy of the disputes they are involved in. Taiwan takes first position. Since the heart of the global matter is the Beijing-Washington clash, that island that the Formosa Strait separates from continental China, at the crossroads between the South and East China Seas, between the Far East and South East Asia, is its alpha and omega.
It was here that in 1949 Chiang Kai-shek’s nationalists defeated by Mao took shelter with a colonial attitude, elevating Taipei to the capital of the phantasmagorical Republic of China. This is still Taiwan’s official name – for that matter no longer used even at a domestic level – recognised by a handful of minor states plus the Holy See.
One cannot say when, but it is here that the match between the challenger and the holder of the world title will be decided. Should Taiwan be brought home by the People’s Republic, then Beijing will have won. If it is instead able to proclaim itself independent with impunity, this will mark Washington’s triumph and that of its regional partners. Tokyo in primis.
Geography outlines the geopolitical ambiguity of the Taiwanese archipelago and provides three possible interpretations. The first is a conventional one: Taiwan as a Chinese offshore, with the Penghu (Pescadores) Islands marking the most convenient crossing point for Formosa (as the island was portrayed in classical Portuguese topography) from the Fujian Province. The shortest crossing measures 143 kilometres. If one looks to the north-east one discovers, however, that Japan is closer. Only 108 kilometres separate the coast of Formosa from Yonaguni, the western extremity of Japanese territory, along the Ryukyu chain of islands.
While, if considered together with the Japanese archipelago, Taiwan appears as a question mark for which it is the full stop.
Finally there is the perspective from the south. The contended island stands about 156 kilometres from the Philippine archipelago of the Batanes – chosen in fact by the Japanese, at the time the lords of Taiwan, as the starting point of their march towards Manila the day after the attack on Pearl Harbor.
In an attempt to articulate independent geopolitics aimed at de facto integration within the framework of anti-Beijing containment from India to Japan, organised by Washington using the evocative acronym Indo-Pacific, one can understand why Taipei sees in Tokyo and the Philippines an opening to the two beckoning shores of Indochina.
In diplomatic-political slang there is a regime of status quo in force in Taiwan with the “consensus of 1992”. For however commendable the internationalist custom of stopping the clocks to allow negotiators to freeze what may seem apparently unsolvable disputes may be, space and time do not comply with the ploys of diplomats. Geopolitics are the mobile stage for conflicts that are, by definition, dynamic.
The scenario in Taiwan changes constantly both internally – depending on whether independentist, unionists or those playing for time prevail – and as a consequence of prevailing inclinations in the People’s Republic, in the United States and a number of regional powers. This applies above all to Japan, an occupying power between 1895 and 1945. Tōkyō has always maintained a special relationship with this island, especially when members of the Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) have been in power, as they are at the moment.
Even Taiwan’s Chinese nature is disputed. It is irrefutable for Beijing and artificial according to Taiwanists, that majority of the population that identifies above all, if not exclusively, with the island. Leaving aside the not very meaningful ethnic classifications of a population that is overwhelmingly Han – plus a handful of aborigines who survived the massacres of European and Asian colonisers – what matters is self-identification. According to a recent survey, 60.6% of those interviewed declared they were Taiwanese, 32.5% felt equally Taiwanese and Chinese while 3.5% felt only Chinese (11).
The Taiwanist tendency is incentivised by linguistic policies implemented by DPP governments, including the current one, which have elevated the rank of the local dialect spoken by four-fifths of Taiwanese, adding it to the official Mandarin defended by the Kuomintang’s followers who have a softer approach to Beijing. The same applies to the Romanisation of Chinese words. The revered Wade-Giles system persists here, while on the continent pinyin is used.
Furthermore, Sino-centrism is being gradually marginalised in school books while in local historiography it is often remarked that no Chinese government had ever simultaneously governed the continent and the island. This is a subject enthusiastically evoked by some Western historians. Among them the Australian Bruce Jacobs is noted, according to whom the authoritarian domination of the Kuomintang – which lasted until the dawn of democratisation in 1988 – was as equally colonial as previous ones, starting with the Dutch invasion of 1624 and including the rather theoretical Manchurian rule (1683-1895).
According to Jacobs, supporting the theory of a single China amounts to stating that the earth is flat. Furthermore, “many countries such as the US and Australia already have de facto “one China, one Taiwan” policies, although they do not admit this.” Conclusion; one must ensure that other states are not obliged to choose between Taiwan and China, since “Both are nations of the world and both should be recognized as such.” (12) Jacobs was a worthy recipient of the Order of Brilliant Star with Grand Cordon presented to him on November 16th in Taipei by Foreign Minister Joseph Wu. (13)
Of course Taiwanese leaders have no intention of risking a referendum on independence as proposed by former President Chen-Shui-bian. The November local elections has weakened the DPP’s leadership and re-launched the Kuomintang in the run up to the 2020 presidential elections.
Those wishing for independence do not seem prepared to risk their lives in a war that would certainly follow a declared secession. Economic interdependence between the two shores of the Strait is such that people are more disposed towards calculations than adventures. What is at stake is the bi-univocal link between local identity and independentism.
Paradoxically, this excess of prudence is the result of increased tension in the Washington-Beijing-Taipei triangle, tension that became apparent following president-elect Donald Trump’s warm and irregular phone call to his Taiwanese counterpart Tsai Ing-wen, which on December 2nd, 2016 inaugurated a new stage in the duel between Washington and Beijing over Taiwan’s fate. So as to make his intentions absolutely clear, the newly sworn-in president then ordered an increase in the number of American warships sailing through the Strait of Taiwan, as well as in the Chinese seas that strategists in Beijing hope to transform into their own Gulf of Mexico, an internal lake controlled by the continental superpower.
On the other front, Xi Jinping had already tacitly overturned the approach of his predecessor Hu Jintao, who considered preventing Taiwan’s de iure independence as a priority comparable to reunification. His temperament and harsh life experiences have led Xi to be inclined to never play for a draw.
As the former party leader in the provinces of Fujian, Zhejiang and the metropolis of Shanghai, where local governments have consolidated privileged economic and cultural relations with Taiwan, the president has detailed knowledge of this most burning geopolitical file. Xi has no intention of waiting for 2049 to return Taiwan home.
He would like to make it the jewel in the crown of his lifetime presidential mandate. In 2013 he had already warned that this problem could not be postponed from one generation to the next, adding a year later that no act of secession would be tolerated and that the path leading to Taiwan’s independence was one that could not be followed. (14) The masquerade involving the status quo will not last forever.
5. In 2019 the colossal aircraft carrier, the Shandong, made entirely in China, will enter service. Its name (while awaiting the official launch) does not appear to be a coincidence. Shandong (Shantung) is a province in Eastern China, well-known in the world of luxury for its very precious homonymous silk. For the Chinese it is the Holy Land. Tradition states that Confucius was born here. Mount Tai is fervently venerated by Taoists.
Magnificent Buddhist temples adorn the hillsides to the south of the capital, Jinan. It is a strategic peninsula guarding access to Beijing from the south. It is crossed by the Yellow River and the Grand Canal, the Middle Kingdom’s junction between the South and the North. Shandong imperiously overlooks the Pacific; its shapes suggests to the Japanese the image of dagger pointed at the heart of their archipelago.
During the terminal stages of Qing dynasty, when the Russians, Japanese, British, French and even the Italians greedily helped themselves to parts of the failing empire, only the Americans abstained from the banquet.
Perhaps this was because of a lack of resources, perhaps because they were idealistically convinced of the “open door” policy, enunciated in 1899 by Secretary of State John Hay, according to which China would have to both open itself to free trade with everyone while preserving local rights to impose fair tariffs.
This rhetoric sounded generously progressive to the ears of young Chinese intellectuals attracted by Western culture and science. The love story between the Americans and the Chinese was a brief one, sparked and then tragically ended by the case involving Shandong, which fell into German hands in 1898, through yet another unfair treaty.
When World War I broke out, the Japanese easily gained possession of the province, obliging the weak Chinese government to sign a treaty that gave them a free rein. In the meantime Tōkyō had obtained from the French, the British and the Italians a secret guarantee that it could keep that territory when the war was over. For the Chinese, Shandong had become what Alsace-Lorraine was to the French, or Fiume and Dalmatia to the Italians. Only America could have saved them.
Such an occasion arose when, in 1919, at the Paris Peace Conference, Wilson’s Fourteen Points became the breviary of good Chinese patriots. Immediately translated, it sold like hot cakes in a China devastated by scrums among the warlords.
The national-progressive elite had a passion for the human rights president; rights they presumed would coincide with China’s. The Communist Party’s future leaders, starting with Mao Zedong, were attracted by it. Li Dazhao, later a co-founder of the Chinese Communist Party, guaranteed that Wilson was famous for his profound love of peace in the world and his sense of justice, the opposite of the hated Japanese, Russian and European colonialists.
For the Chinese, the promised League of Nations represented the highest and most universal form of harmony (datong), the Confucian precept par excellence.
In Paris, the Chinese delegation qualified itself as viscerally anti-Japanese and therefore pro-America. It was not in truth clear to which government it reported back to, while orders received instead were extremely clear; take back Shandong. Such feelings were chorally reciprocated by the American press and its establishment, as well as by strategists hoping to expel the Japanese vanguard from the continent. Chinese negotiators included the very young ambassador to Washington, Wellington Koo, with a degree from Columbia University, with whom Wilson had established an almost personal friendship and was observed with technical admiration by the elderly cynical host, Georges Clemenceau.
However, contrary to all expectations and promises, Wilson felt obliged to give in to pressure applied by the Japanese, who, in order to keep Shandong threatened to abandon the conference and boycott the League of Nations. After the Italian plenipotentiaries had scornfully withdrawn due to American obstructionism concerning Fiume, the president could not afford to also lose the Japanese without risking the failure of his utopia. Going against the opinions of almost all his advisors, with some even threatening to return home, the president discovered the limitations of his idealism. This pained him to the point that on the night of the rift with the Chinese, his doctor feared he might suddenly be taken ill.
Before closing the sad meeting, Koo had confessed to Colonel House, the American president’s right-hand man, that if he had signed the abandonment of claims to the “Holy Land”, he would not even have had “what you in New York call a Chinaman’s chance” of returning alive to Beijing. Then, addressing Wilson, Clemenceau and Lloyd George, he launched a dignified and prophetic warning. With this decision, Western leaders had missed an opportunity to form a lasting friendship with the new China, a country that was only asking to be admitted to their family.
He concluded by saying that among them there was a party that wanted Asia to belong to the Asians. A frustrated Koo was thinking of the Japanese. It would instead be the Soviets. Mao Zedong, who had bet so much on Wilson, complained that the president had been trapped by the thieves, Clemenceau, Lloyd George, Makino (the Japanese plenipotentiary, Editor’s Note) and Orlando (…), adding that he had for a long time felt sorry for “poor” Wilson. (15)
The news of America’s “betrayal” caused enormous emotion in China, almost as much as in the United States, where those opposed to the Treaty of Versailles used the Shandong scandal against Wilson. In the mean time, on May 4th, 1919 in Beijing, a large crowd of protesters, with some wearing western dress, gathered in Tiananmen Square shouting “China for the Chinese”. This was the baptism of Chinese nationalism; anti-American by reaction and not by vocation.
The protest movement spread through the country like wildfire, involving not only Kuomintang militants but also a number of young progressive intellectuals, among them Mao and Zhou Enlai, inspired by the October Revolution and Lenin’s thesis on people’s self-determination, enchanted by the never-kept Bolshevik promise of returning to China the territories taken by the tsars. On July 23rd, 1921, in the French Concession of Shanghai, they founded the Chinese Communist Party. Mao and Zhou were obliged to wait 51 years before meeting with an American president, Richard Nixon. He was not exactly the prototype of an idealist. Unlike Wilson, he did not disappoint them.
6. Every nationalism follows a dual logic. Firstly a defensive one; it is needed to unite the internal front through the demonization of an external enemy and its fifth columns, traitors of their country. Those who can afford to, or believe they can (Mussolini docet), add the offensive projection, which is imperial for those pursuing it and imperialistic for those enduring it. Chinese nationalism is no exception. Its dualism, however, is rendered paroxysmal by four factors.
Firstly: the directly proportional relationship between the size and geopolitical fragility of an area with an ever-changing and never-defined shape. This to the extent of having to have approved by censorship all maps produced in China. If indeed there are many Chinas, there will be just as many of their never-innocuous bi-dimensional portrayals. He who decides his own map is sovereign.
Secondly: original “inverse racism” (16). Having never been a nation in the western sense, the Chinese soul has introjected an excruciating sense of inferiority having instead experienced Westerners brutal arrogance that in the mid-19th century caused it to collapse from the planet’s economic peak to the darkest poverty and most humiliating servitude – including the warnings “dogs and Chinese forbidden entry” at the entrance of a number of European concessions. The tragedy experienced by the Chinese delegation in Paris is an unforgettable paradigm of this. Until the 1980s, many Chinese intellectuals considered themselves and their people inferior to westerners. Post-Versailles nationalism therefore began to assume the colours of western ideology that seemed to be riding the wave of history; Communism.
Still now it appears unable to free itself. Even those who criticise the regime, especially in universities, often support Marxism. As was inevitable after forty years of prodigious ascent from hunger to the summits of world power, the excessively compressed spring of national pride was released with violence. The arrogance of Xi’s China is the child of the long “century of shame” (1839-1949), when the heirs to one of the most ancient and admired civilisations of the world, whose emperor obliged postulant tax-payers to kneel with their foreheads on the ground in the kowtow ritual, were insulted as an inferior race.
Thirdly: having reached the limits of development permitted by its formidable and yet chaotic economy, and having among other things also paid the environmental and existential price that makes the air of its metropolises unbreathable, China urgently needs to expand in the world. From Shantung silk to new silk roads.
It is a global brand-name that enhances a geo-economic strategy dictated by the need to dispose of its heavy industry’s excess production abroad, throwing markets wide open to goods exported by land and by sea attempting to bypass bottlenecks overseen by the U.S. Navy, ensuring energy and food supplies, attracting or subtracting technology, spreading the Chinese language, culture and soft power. All this to culminate in a feasible elevation of the yuan renminbi to the most important reserve currency, forcing out the dollar’s privileged position in international exchanges.
The silk roads (Belt and Road Initiative=BRI) are a typically twofold project. Pressed by a defensive need – if growth falls then the regime will be at risk – it looks outwards with offensive imperial impetus. Imperialistic according to the Americans as well as many Asian, European or African countries, which choose to adhere to the project with their backs to the wall (massive investments and easy money for hired decision-makers).
They are worried about ending up strangled by debts undersigned with Beijing that contribute to the BRI’s infrastructures, of finding themselves spied on and blackmailed thanks to the digital silk road’s intrusions sponsored by pseudo-private Chinese agencies, or about seeing military bases appear on their doorsteps built to protect Chinese workers segregated in closed communities.
The forth and decisive factor is that Chinese power is more opaque than ever, stuck in its secret rituals that emphasise the most odious suspicions. China’s leaders live separate lives, in super-supervised enclosed districts and absolute privacy. Nobody knows what they think. Perhaps even they do not know, considering the level of reciprocal mistrust.
Rumours of plots flourish, as do those about repeated assassination attempts survived by Xi himself. The violent ant-corruption campaign, implemented with the ardour of Robespierre by the supreme leader, self-elevated to the role of a dictator with no time limits, has decimated the civil and military nomenclature. Thousands of heads have rolled; some not metaphorically. A question; how can one become the ally of an unknown entity? The answer; at best one does business for as long as this is possible, with one hand behind one’s back and a thousand mental reservations. If China has no real allies, only aligned countries and/or clients, this is above all due to the inscrutability of its decision-making mechanisms.
Referring to the future leaders of the red dynasty, in 2005 Lee Kuan Yew, the wise Singaporean patriarch who for decades translated China for western leaders, observed that, “Perhaps one day a generation will be able to believe it has come of age, without having done so”. Does this apply to Xi Jinping and his court ?.
It is too soon to say. The new silk roads proceed, although America is obstructing the way, calling on anyone ready to stop China’s race to the Oceans, and in spite of defections, sabotage and obstacles. They are the pieces of a puzzle that by the middle of the century should produce the vertical planisphere designed by map-maker Hao Xiaoguang, the manifesto of uninhibited Sino-centrism commonly used by the State Oceanic Administration and the Chinese Armed Forces.
But the real match has yet to begin. Washington and Beijing are re-checking their respective courses with their pencils, set squares and goniometers, having discovered that algorithms cannot do everything. Models work in laboratories, but suffer outdoors. There is nothing linear in geopolitics.
Each is calling into question a couple of strategic dogmas.
In the United States the threat posed by the silk roads is at last being taken seriously, overestimating it after having joked about it. At the same time, it is taken into account that any tactical comparison between China and Russia cannot be measured exclusively on the basis of historical reciprocal mistrust, but rather on current and future potential interests. One example is the alarming report by the National Defense Strategy Commission, which sees on a nearby horizon “a national security emergency” specifically due to the lack of preparedness compared to the Odd Couple and the immeasurable range of commitments the superpower had assumed after the fall of the USSR, when it believed in Bush Senior’s New World Order. (17)
It was only last June that leaders in China realised they had underestimated America’s rage over the perceived Chinese “scam”. Some officials were reprimanded and punished for not having foreseen Washington’s reaction to Xi’s challenge. In spite of the erratic characteristics of America’s course, accentuated by the battle between government agencies as well as between these and a stable and clever standard bearer, the United States will not allow its primacy to be taken, not tomorrow or ever, without fighting with every weapon available.
This has started with the decoupling embarked upon with tariffs and one will see to what extent these will be revocable or added to in the coming months and years. Furthermore, style matters– or rather that lack of style typical of those not accustomed to the rarefied atmosphere at the summits of global command centres. The brutality with which Beijing treats various partners has persuaded them that when Xi, having belatedly become aware of the repercussions, is lying when promising that the silk roads “are not a geopolitical or military alliance”. (18)
Hence the password in Beijing is now zili gengsheng – self-sufficiency. A war-like noun. It is necessary to be prepared to ride out the storm, no longer relying on American negligence, preparing to reject the U.S. counteroffensive with one’s own means and those of a few partners. The Russians in primis.
The two rivals are rearming at a gallop and in all aspects of power, starting with their armies. “It’s going to be our AI against their. One side is going to get inside the command system and shut down everything. You could find yourself in situations in which literally your weapons don’t work.”, explained former deputy Secretary of Defense Bob Work in an outburst of optimism. (19) And the current head of the Pentagon, James Mattis, confirmed that tomorrow’s decisive battle will be fought by “artificial intelligence, or robots using hypersonic weapons.” (20)
7. When Italy finds itself at a crossroad it raises it to a meeting of three paths. We need to choose between America and China? Fine; we choose America and China. This does not work now nor will it in the future if this cold divorce should heat up. If there is anything we are still prepared to die for, it is the Trinitarian dogma, persuaded that if one loves them both, the Chinese and the Americans will love us back. And be so moved that they will once again love each other.
We will try, but it will be tough. Using a zero-sum line of reasoning at the table of a total war – in its objectives we hope and not its means – signifies self-excluding oneself or exposing oneself to the competitors’ manipulations and retaliations. First of all those of the Americans. Betraying an ally is not the same as denying oneself to a so-called friend. It is true, as Cossiga explained, that ours has always been an “Atlanticism of need”, “minimalist” (21), and almost neutralist. But for Washington what matters is the written word.
When necessary, the Atlantic Pact returns to be right and fair, even for Trump. More specifically, America does not wish to share its central-Mediterranean province with the enemy. This has been clearly stated at the Quirinale and in Palazzo Chigi; do not dare enter the silk roads. If you give Xi Jinping an inch he will take a yard. In other words, we will take a mile.
Italy’s incurable Russophilia makes our American friends even angrier. It is nowadays experiencing an acute phase as also born witness to by the personal bonds between our leaders and their counterparts in Moscow. Italy as Putin and Xi Jinping’s euro-Mediterranean jump seat is too much to bear, even for other sui generis Atlanticists; the French, almost enemies according to Rome, do not feel the need for Sino-Italian or Italo-Russian picnics in the North African pré carré.
Italy has been looking to China for at least thirty years. During the post-Tiananmen period, when Deng’s China was infected (it did not last long), Andreotti, Craxi and De Michelis booked a front row seat in the Middle Kingdom. Only the ignorance of our large industries, political apathy and the oblomovism of technocracy prevented us from anticipating the Germans in penetrating key sectors of the Chinese market.
The Prodi and Berlusconi governments (especially through initiatives taken by Tremonti) negotiated with the Chinese the prospect of offering Italy as the Mediterranean hub for ante litteram silk roads and even as the training centre for its top bureaucrats (sic). For reasons we found hard to understand, the Chinese really cared about us. Perhaps it was thanks to Italian football, a local collective mania at that time. Then having seen and certified our inconclusiveness, for many years they simply crossed out Italy.
They have not changed their minds as far as Italy is concerned. Circumstances have changed. With the silk roads now having achieved the status of an explicit global strategy, nothing can be excluded, not even those Italian scoundrels. In the meantime, in Rome there is a government in desperate search of foreign investments, for which an informal but influential “Chinese party” is battling, among them also a few former (?) Maoists.
For the moment the Chinese have just one foot in our strategic sectors, networks included. They easily collect data on each of us, taking advantage of Italy’s cyber defence systems. And they are about to disembark in Trieste, the Austro-German (Bavarian) port in Italian territory that Italy will perhaps one day decide to treat as a national resource.
In the meantime we will try and reassure the Americans. For example, by withholding the pen that in November was about to sign adhesion to the Chinese Pact (what else are the silk roads?) hoping to be able to do this in April when attending the Beijing BRI Forum if the Americans are distracted. They won’t be. Not a Chinaman’s chance.
So? We must choose or disengage. In the first instance we will pay prices or receive dividends, depending on the option. In the second we could ask to become affiliated to the United Nations as an NGO. We would feel at ease. The UN-NGO Conference, chaired this year by the vice president of the General Assembly, Martha Ama Akyaa Pobee, a Ghanaian of unshakeable Roman Catholic faith, approved a new Plan of Action; “A new people-centred multilateralism.” .
(translated by Francesca Simmons)
1 – Cfr. J. PERLEZ – S. L. MYERS, “U.S. and China Playing ‘Game of Chicken’ in South China Sea”, TheNew York Times, 8/11/2018.
- “Remarks by Vice President Pence on the Administration’s Policy Toward China”, The White House, 4/10/2018.
- Trump’s sentencing in CNBC Video, 27/10/2018, 1.13 pm.
- “Remarks by Henry M. Paulson, Jr., on the United States and China at a Crossroads”, Paulson Institute, 6/11/2018.
- See endnote 2.
- G. SEGAL, “Opening and Dividing China”, The World Today, Vol. 48, No. 5 (May, 1992), pp. 77-80.
- I. KANT, “Physische Geographie”, in Kants Werke, Akademie Textausgabe, IX, Logik, Physische Geographie, Pädagogik, Berlin-New York 1968, Walter de Gruyter & Co, p. 377.
- Cfr. V. YU, “Hong Kong has banned a political party but it will never crush desire for independence”, TheGuardian, 24.9.2018.
- Three kingdoms (attributed to Luo Guanzhong), Beijing/Berkeley/Los Angeles/Oxford, 1991, Foreign Languages Press/University of California Press.
- Cit. in F. SISCI, “Una, dieci, mille Cine”, Limes 1/1995, “La China è un giallo”, p. 31 note 2.
- TSENG WEI- chen, CHEN WEI-han, “’Taiwanese identity hits record level’”, Taipei Times, 26.1.2015.
- B. JACOBS, “Paradigm shift needed on Taiwan”, Taipei Times, 16.11.2018.
- “Australian professor decorated for lifelong contribution to Taiwan”, Focus Taiwan – Cna English News, 16/11/2018.
- Cfr. JING HUANG, “Xi Jinping’s Taiwan Policy: Boxing Taiwan In with the One-China Framework”, in L. DITTMER, Taiwan and China. Fitful Embrace, Berkeley 2017, pp. 239-248.
- Mao in Jinan Ribao, 16-7/5/1919, in XU GUOQI, China and the Great War. China’s Pursuit of a New National Identity and Internationalization, Cambridge 2005, Cambridge University Press, p. 267.
- Cfr. XIAODONG WANG, “Manifesto del nazionalismo cinese”, Limes no. 4/2005, pp. 141-152.
- Cfr. E. EDELMAN (co-chair) – G. ROUGHEAD (co chair) – “Providing for the Common Defense. The Assessment and Recommendations of the National Defense Strategy Commission”, United States Institute of Peace, 13/11/2018.
- Cit. in C. PARTON, “Belt and Road is Globalisation with Chinese characteristics”, Financial Times, 3/10/2018.
- Cit. in K. MASON, “The future of war”, Financial Times, 17-18/11/2018.
- F. COSSIGA, “Perché contiamo poco”, talking to L. CARACCIOLO, Limes n. 3/1995, “Il richiamo dei Balcani” p. 13.