China: Playing Both Ends To The Middle?

The Chinese appear to be trying to get in on the publicity given to the Russian announcement that they now have a hypersonic missile that is so fast and maneuverable that it is impervious to current American anti-missile capability. Beijing has gone so far as to say their new weapon (characterized similarly to the Russian version) could destroy any American carrier fleet that might in any way threaten China. While this statement may appear ominous, it is purely self-serving in domestic political terms. There is no threat that Washington has made, or even implied, against the Peoples Republic of China (PRC). However, Beijing does want to satisfy their military’s fear regarding China’s commitment to defend its development of capabilities on its offshore islands, natural and man-made.  This is an indication of an element of insecurity rather than strength within President Xi Jinping’s civilian leadership and should be taken into consideration when evaluating the PRC’s capabilities and intentions – something not always done.

Contrary to what was intended, Xi’s leadership cadre that authorized publication on their own initiative of the existence of the new weapon was in contravention of the usual practice of coordination with the Defense Ministry.  It already was well known that the military command was hesitant over their government’s willingness to negotiate with the Trump Administration over issues that are the purvey of the People’s Liberation Army, Navy and Air Force. This lack of coordination is not what we have come to expect from the usually carefully disciplined Chinese political apparat. In consequence, President Xi has been forced to disassociate himself and his office from the belligerent tone of the press release.

This is a character of foreign policy development not focused on by most media outlets. The rhetorical support Beijing recently has given to maintaining Maduro in power in Venezuela is also a necessity in managing China’s position as a world power. Additionally, and perhaps more importantly, it also gives them another bargaining point in unrelated negotiations with the United States. Beijing sees their involvement in Western Hemisphere affairs as a balance to American power plays (real and imagined) in Asia and elsewhere. One might think that such actions are nothing but “game playing,” but that would be wrong. 

These “games” are part and parcel of great nation diplomacy and, more tangibly, political action. The so-called rules of international conflict are less complicated than imagined, while at the same time very serious. It is popular to view political psychological warfare as some sort of clever device not integral to world conflict or the avoidance of such. This may be convenient academic thinking, but it does not reflect reality. The reality for China is a visceral memory of past centuries during which various European powers vied for dominance of the many parts of this ancient land. The experience of Japanese conquest and then the rule of the American backed government of Chiang Kai-shek spread what Mao Tse-tung considered to be decadent Western values in the latter case and an imperial invasion in the former. In both instances, the communist government of Mao is believed to have driven out both.

Communism always has been a convenient device for China. A domineering leadership on all levels fit well with the need for a strong central power based on a symbolic theory of people’s control. This theory remains, though in practice quite subservient to the centralized power. It is this centralized power that is both the strength and weakness of the PRC. This presents a problem in dealing with Beijing for foreign governments. So far, the personal relationship between President Trump and President Xi has been emphasized by Washington, however that is not enough. The other forces at play in the Chinese system and ambition constantly have to be monitored and gauged in all dealings. That is why the unexpected forceful announcement of the new Chinese hypersonic weapon must be put into context when considering Beijing’s overarching ambition. That ambition, driven by a consciousness of the various levels of exploitation of the past, is what guides China’s contemporary decision making.

With the political power of China’s military and akin industrial complex in mind, it is important not to be lured into considering this great Asian powerhouse as a potential friend of the West. This is a trap into which Beijing’s multi-faceted diplomatic strategies and thinking can lead. The essential structure of China’s current strategy is to manage a successful application of what was created in 1997 by Deng Xiaoping. He explained the new accord with Britain under which China took over control of Hongkong: “One country, two systems” a product of “dialectical Marxism and historical materialism.” This is now the guiding principle under which 21st century China operates.

The problem that the United States has in dealing with China today, however, is that what once was dubbed as “unique” by then Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, is now the rule by which the PRC’s essential economy – and thus its dealings with the outside world – operates. That concept has been finely honed and further developed to account for all its scientific and technological advances in the last twenty-plus years. The PRC has advanced in strategic terms far beyond the strictly mercantile goals envisioned in 1997. It will continue so even if the “historical materialism” provides the impetus for the success of “dialectical Marxism.”

The question exists therefore whether the current American administration – or even subsequent ones of any political hue – will be ready, willing and able to compete with China of the future in all aspects, political and military. China is ready. Xi Jinping’s planning appears to have taken all that into consideration. And that’s not just a political psychological war maneuver.