It is becoming fashionable to compare the current situation with an aggressive China with what happened in the 1930s, during the worldwide Great Depression, when Germany suddenly went from a non-threatening democracy to a very threatening socialist dictatorship that ended the economic depression in Germany and began rebuilding its armed forces. The rearmament was a violation of the agreement Germany signed to end World War I, which Germany ultimately lost. Twenty years after the 1919 defeat restrictions were imposed, Germany was again at war and for several years was winning,
The situation with China is different and worse. China went from an international socialist communist government taking over in 1949 and, after two decades realizing that this communist economic system and its state-controlled economy was not working. Unlike Russia, China found a solution by retaining the communist police state but allowing a market economy to function. China also dropped all the talk of “international socialism” and went with a nationalist approach. This is what the Nazis did, even though the German National Socialist Workers Party was never interested in socialism, but it was a very popular concept during the Great Depression and as long as the Nazis could provide jobs and prosperity Germans did not care what their new government actually was. Both the 1930s Nazis and the current Chinese police state are both examples of what came to be known as fascism, a police state with a market economy. Both the Nazis and China justified their aggression by describing it as righting past wrongs and obtaining more resources for their people. The worst aspect of this is that fascist dictatorships are notoriously difficult to deal with diplomatically. They keep grabbing more territory from neighbors and making peace deals they have no intention of complying with. There are some important differences between Nazi Germany and China, which may or may not prevent the current situation ending badly for all concerned.
Like the 1930s Germans, Chins is seeking to use bluff and bluster to obtain domination of the East Pacific region. This includes credible threats of a war in which China would inevitably win. If these threats were convincing China would dominate the East Pacific and confirm its claims to the South China Sea. The Chinese military is modernized and the Chinese fleet has more warships in service than the United States. The modernized Chinese army is larger than any other in the region.
The reality is that these war threats are a bluff, which in Chinese terms is an acceptable strategy if potential enemies believe it and act accordingly. China does not address their own weaknesses and vulnerabilities if such a war actually broke out. These vulnerabilities exist in terms of economics as well as their ability to fight and win.
Economically China is extremely vulnerable to having its overseas trade disrupted, even for a short period. Compare this to 1930s Japan, where their only vulnerability was dependence on oil imports from the United States and the newly developed oil fields of the Dutch East Indies colonies (modern Indonesia). Other natural resources were imported from Japanese controlled Korea and northern China.
Today China is, like 1930s Japan, a dictatorship but one that maintains control by increasing living standards and fears another slide back into the regional separatism that has been a major problem for thousands of years.
China must, like World War II Japan, win quickly or at least compel a battered United States to cede control of the West Pacific and Indian Ocean to China. Unlike the 1930s, China faces a United States with powerful local allies in the form of Japan, South Korea and India. The Americans and Indians have nukes. So does Russia, now a Chinese client because China does not have allies. Russia is dependent on the Chinese economy for survival.
China is far more economically vulnerable now than Japan was then. China cannot feed itself and is much more dependent on oil imports. China maintains a 90-day oil reserve, but most of it is stored above ground and very vulnerable to non-nuclear ballistic missile attack. China has a lot of these missiles aimed at Taiwan and American bases in the West Pacific, but the Americans have more ABM (anti-ballistic missile) systems than China. Another problem is determining how China would carry out another surprise attack, with an impact greater than what Japan hoped to achieve. During the December, 1941 surprise attack on the main American fleet base in Hawaii (Pearl Harbor) Japan ignored the more important, to the U.S. fleet, logistic and maintenance facilities at Pearl Harbor. Their attacks on other bases and territories in the West Pacific were meant to solve their own supply problems, without realizing that the U.S. had similar vulnerabilities when it came to sustaining a large military effort in the Pacific.
Today China has weapons that could disrupt economic activities via attacks on the Internet and enemy (American and its local allies) space satellites. The Americans can also cripple Chinese satellites and are increasingly able to do so.
In the 1930s Japanese navy leaders told the army, which controlled the government, that the fleet could go on the offensive for about six months and if that did not induce the Americans to cede the West Pacific to Japan, the remainder of the war would have to be defensive against a rapidly growing American fleet. The reality was worse, as Japan failed to attack key logistical targets at Pearl Harbor, where they found none of the American aircraft carriers but plenty of oil storage sites and fleet maintenance facilities that were left alone as “not worthy of a warrior’s attention.”
World War II Japan was run by what was described as a fascist government. This came about after World War I when nationalist Japanese army leaders replaced the constitutional monarchy that had been in place since the late 19th century. While the Japanese dictatorship disdained socialism they revived and embraced a “way of the warrior” philosophy which had dominated Japanese culture and politics until the militarily superior Westerners showed up and presented a superior system (the industrial revolution) that Japan quickly adopted. This new Japan was successful but after World War I turned on the West for not treating Japan as an equal.
During World War II Japanese strategy did not involve using submarines against vulnerable American shipping that was needed to supply Australia, New Zealand and other areas Japan was unable to grab quickly. At the end of the predicted six-month Japanese naval superiority was gone and Japanese carrier capability crippled by the loss of half its carrier force during the Battle of Midway. The Americans could replace lost ships, aircraft and pilots much more quickly than the Japanese so those heavy losses early in the war were fatal for Japanese naval power.
Roles are reversed today, where China has greater ship building capability than the United States. To make that work China has to keep the sea lanes open for foreign imports. Maintaining sea access against hostile airpower, submarines and trading partners that see China as the aggressor is a daunting task.
The availability of nuclear weapons to both sides, as well as the increased importance of EW (Electronic Warfare) and long-range guided missiles makes preparations for a 21st century version of the December 1941 Japanese surprise attack more complicated. China puts more emphasis on developing, testing and in some cases using new hacking “weapons” in the U.S. by doing it through third parties, in this case criminal hackers based in China or Russia. Using sabotage as part of the surprise military attack is nothing new, but with Internet hacking tool now available, along with the ability to attack clandestinely in peacetime, China believes it now has a decisive weapon for surprise attack that will weaken the United States without angering it sufficiently to trigger a nuclear response. Yet China is also vulnerable, more so than the United States, to electronic attacks via networks or wireless means. China is seeking to deal with this by modifying Chinese links to the international Internet so that China can quickly sever those international links and survive as a China-only Internet for a short period. The main reason for international Internet access is economic and Internet isolation cannot be maintained if it cripples the economy.
All this puts China’s new military bases in the South China Sea, which China is now claiming to own, into perspective. China wants control of the South China Sea to protect about 20 percent of its sea lanes to the Middle East. Since the South China Sea also carries a large percentage of world trade, especially between East Asia and the Middle East and Europe, China is not the only one seeking to control who can do what in the South China Sea.
China has its own plans for dealing with foreign threats and allows open discussion of these plans in China, especially in military journals. The open discussions are necessary to get useful ideas from a wider audience of military and civilian experts. There are often references to Japanese mistakes during their war with the United States. Less often do these discussions mention the main reason for the American threats to Japan was efforts to get Japan to halt its violence against China. This is not considered relevant to the current Chinese situation where the government justifies the military buildup and threats of war as necessary to restore China’s traditional role as the mightiest nation in East Asia. China lost that to the West by not modernizing while the West surpassed it militarily, economically and in all other areas that mattered. China did not undergo the industrial revolution until the 1970s when it decided to adopt a market economy and that meant dependence on imports of raw materials and finding foreign markets for Chinese goods. That introduced vulnerabilities that China has not come to terms with yet and which make any talk of war more bluff than reality.
Meanwhile more Russians were noting that China, for the first time, has a larger and more modern military than Russia. The mighty Soviet era Red Army lost 80 percent of its manpower in the 1990s and nearly as much of its budget. That meant the 1990s Russian army was also smaller, for the first time, than the peacetime American army. This came at a time when China is quietly taking over the Russian Far east. The official lie is that the Russian Far East is prospering because of massive investments in infrastructure and local businesses. What the government plays down is that all of that is for turning the Russian Far East economy into something that serves and benefits only China. The new roads, pipelines, electric power production and railways are mainly to supply China. The Far East is still unable to attract Russians and more and more of the workforce consists of Chinese and North Koreans, including many there illegally or, in the case of North Koreans, as slave-labor. Chinese merchants and suppliers dominate the local economy and Russians fear that eventually the Chinese will act on the century’s old claims to the Far East and simply tell the Russian government; “it is ours” and Russian will not be able to do anything about it.
June 14, 2021: In the south, a Chinese four-engine ASW
aircraft (similar to the American P-3) entered the Taiwan ADIZ
(air defense identification zone) without warning and forcing Taiwan to send up fighters to doublecheck.
ADIZ intrusions have
increased sharply in 2021
and this is the third time in June that an ASW aircraft was the culprit.
June 3, 2021: The U.S. believes they have spotted a new Chinese ASAT (anti-satellite) system in orbit. This one, Shijian-17, has a grappling arm that enables the ASAT to maneuver into position and grab another satellite for closer examination or to put it in another orbit that will cause it to plunge earthward and burn up in the atmosphere. China also has high-powered, ground-based lasers that can disable a satellite at the lower end of low orbits for satellites that could not be forced low enough to be drawn into the atmosphere.
This is one of many Chinese ASAT weapons being developed, tested and ready for a major wartime use of ASAT weapons that could destroy over a hundred enemy satellites and create a much larger threat to any surviving satellites or space vessels passing through orbital space. This is part of a Chinese plan to carry out a “Pearl Harbor” type surprise attack on American space-based sensors, navigation and communications systems. This would make Chinese surface or air-based attacks more effective.
Chinese ASATs like Shijian-17 were not unexpected but China claims Shijian-17 is there for peaceful purposes, to find and destroy orbital debris. China has also developed and put into service powerful arrays of radars and optical systems for spotting and determining the orbit of LEO (low earth orbit) satellites at the same time it was getting easier to develop and build other types of ASAT systems.
Back in 2008, Russia and China urged the UN to outlaw the development or testing of ASAT systems. The impetus for this was the 2008 destruction of a broken U.S. spy satellite using a ship-based anti-aircraft missile modified to intercept ballistic missiles. What upset China and Russia was that this feat put all their satellites in a low earth orbit (160-2,000 kilometers up) at risk. A Pearl Harbor in space is not as effective if the enemy can quickly retaliate against Chinese satellites.
May 31, 2021: China has enacted a new law that allows couples to have as many as three children. This supersedes the 2016 law that allowed two children. The latest change comes in response to the recent delayed release of the details of the seventh national census. Conducted during the last two months of 2020, the official results showed that population increased 72 million since the 2010 census. That meant that the annual growth rate during the last decade was o.53 percent versus 0.57 percent during the previous decade. Chinese population experts expect the population to show annual decline sometime in the 2020s. That puts the year of peak population to be somewhere between 2022 and 2027.
The census results were supposed to be released by early April 2021 but that did not happen. There were news leaks that the delay was due to indications that the population decline had accelerated and population had actually declined since 2010. This was not unexpected, nor was the subsequent government assertion that the leaks were false and that the delay was because of the need to further analyze the results and prepare a suitable announcement.
Tweaking official data to meet government expectations has been a major problem in China, at all levels, for a long time. Those problems began with the provincial government mishandling the financing of new businesses, infrastructure and home building and faking data sent to the central government to hide their crimes.
The population decline was expected, but sometime in the late 2020s, not by 2020. The government delayed releasing the 2020 census until May 11th and released the details by May 20. The impact of the population decline has been visible, no matter what the rate of decline actually is. The labor shortage began to show up a decade ago as it drove up wage costs. This reduced the cost advantage of producing goods in China. That led to other nations in Asia taking Chinese manufacturing jobs because they had more workers and lower wages. China knew it would have a growing labor shortage because of the smaller generations of Chinese produced after the “one child per family” program was instituted in the 1980s. That policy was officially eliminated five years ago but before that enforcement efforts were visibly declining. It was too late and China failed to pay attention to how this worked out in other newly affluent countries. Many more affluent (than 30 years ago) Chinese women do not want to have more than one or two (or any) children and the government, like their counterparts elsewhere, has not yet found a way to compel obedience. This is a common problem with affluence and has already hit Japan and South Korea and every other industrialized nation that does not allow many foreigners to become permanent residents, much less citizens. China has always seen non-Chinese as lesser creatures, a designation many neighbors and adversaries do not appreciate. China has become increasingly alarmed at the impact of its “one-child” policy, its inability to keep things from getting worse. Chinese leaders never discussed how they would handle the obvious demographic implications of the one-child policy while several successive supreme leaders preferred to play political musical chairs and leave the problem unaddressed for their successors. Eventually one of those successors ends up the loser. But at least he can blame his weak predecessors for not doing what had to be done.
Time is not on China’s side. The negative impact of the one-child policy began showing up in unmistakable ways more than a decade ago and there were numerous very obvious indicators. One of the more obvious was fewer Chinese available to fill the growing number of jobs. For example, the overall population increased 7.1 million in 2014, to 1.37 billion while the working age population declined 3.7 million. The number of Chinese over 60 increased 10 million to 212 million. All this very visible evidence was obvious in 2014 and will continue for decades. The biggest problem, though, is the growing shortage of workers. As the population ages, all those “one child” families mean there will be more elderly than the economy, and its shrinking workforce can effectively support. In 2015 there were eleven working age Chinese for every retiree. By 2050, if not earlier, there will only be two for each retiree. At that point, retirees will comprise 30 percent of the population versus over 15 percent now. Traditionally, children cared for their parents in multi-generation households. That model is dying out, and China is faced with huge pension cost increases at the same time they expect their economy to be the mightiest on the planet. In reality the largest single government expense will be the care of the elderly, and this will impose crushing taxes on those of working age and stifle economic growth. It will be more difficult to get workers for unpopular jobs. For example, the military, especially the navy, is already having problems obtaining enough qualified recruits for its smaller but far more high-tech force. The new navy spends a lot of time at sea and most young Chinese see that as an extreme hardship.
Many working age Chinese are worried about this, for there is no easy solution in sight. The population shrinkage is accompanied by another problem. Since the 1980s many of those couples forced to have only one child aborted a child if it was a female, because much more importance is attached to having a male heir. The result became obvious about fifteen years ago when the first “one-child” generation started looking for wives. At that point there were 38 million more males than females in China, and the disparity is growing. The competition for wives is causing problems.
Women are taking advantage of their scarcity, but men are also going to neighboring countries to buy, or even kidnap, young women to be wives. This is causing ill will with neighbors, where females are enticed or coerced (kidnapped by criminal gangs) to become wives of Chinese men who have no other options. It’s not just brides who are moving to China, millions of workers move to China each year. It’s these migrants that will become increasingly important in the next few decades for dealing with the labor shortage, but they cannot become Chinese citizens unless they can marry Chinese. China, Korea and Japan are all hostile to integrating other east Asians into their populations. It happens, but there is a social stigma for having a foreign parent or ancestor.
The government knew that once a census report made official the decline of the population, a lot more unwanted attention would be paid to the population problems. This will lead Chinese to take a closer look at South Korea and Japan, who enjoyed rapid economic growth a decade or more earlier than China. Japan got there first and now faces inexorable population shortages with no solution in sight. Integrating migrants into the culture is still forbidden although Japan has been forced to at least consider allowing qualified migrants to become citizens, although socially second-class ones. That will change Japanese culture, but that already happened in the aftermath of World War II and Japan thrived because of it.
South Korea is another matter, because the population decline is a decade behind Japan and the South Koreans are more open to accepting qualified foreigners. Many South Koreans believe Korea will become united soon and hope this will somehow solve the population problem for a while. Unification is unlikely unless China agrees to cooperate and tolerate a unified democratic Korea as a neighbor. China does not want more affluent Koreans on its borders.
Europe and especially the former British colonies that became the United States, Canada, Australia and New Zealand all thrived by accepting migrants from everywhere and urging them to adapt to the new culture and become citizens. With a few exceptions, that population growth model was not widely accepted in Europe. But it was much more acceptable than in East Asia.
Elsewhere, in the South China Sea, an American warship conducted another FONOP (freedom of navigation operations) in the South China Sea. This is the second American FONOP in the South China Sea for 2021. In 2020 the U.S. carried a record 13 FONOPS in the South China Sea. This was up from nine in 2019. Even more FONOPS were carried out in the South China Sea by other nations opposing the Chinese claims. In addition to more FONOPS, in mid-2020 the Americans took a stronger stand against Chinese aggression by declaring Chinese claims to offshore resources across most of the South China Sea as completely unlawful. This included the Chinese campaign of bullying other nations to gain exclusive control of these resources. In 2016 an international court ruled against China and stated that occupying uninhabitable rocks and building artificial islands did not confer an EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone). Ownership of “rocks” gets, at best, 22 kilometers of territorial waters from the edge of each rock rather than 360 kilometers for EEZ rights. Before this change the U.S. merely called for China to comply with the court ruling, something China said it would not do even before the court completed its deliberations. The Americans did continue to carry out aerial and naval FONOP with warships to assert the right of innocent passage. This annoyed the Chinese, who claimed most of the South China Sea was under Chinese control and no foreign ship or aircraft could enter without permission. China has been claiming areas long recognized as belonging to Vietnam, Indonesia, Malaysia, Taiwan and the Philippines. That has caused all these nations, plus the United States, Japan and South Korea to form an alliance to halt Chinese aggression.
May 30, 2021: China has apparently decided to undertake a major operation to force the Philippines out of Pagasa Island, the second largest of the Spratly Islands and also claimed by China, Taiwan and Vietnam. The Philippines is the only claimant with a settlement and military garrison on the island. The Chinese are using non-lethal (most of the time) force to drive everyone else out the South China Sea islands they claim. The last time China used force (against Vietnam) was in the 1970s, before China became dependent on the sea lanes that pass through the South China Sea to the Middle East, Africa and Australia.
While the South China Sea combat is non-lethal, the economic damage to other nations with legal claims to portions of the South China Sea is very real. As this shoving match escalates, other major trading nations, especially the United States, Japan and South Korea, as well as more distant industrialized nations, are lending military support. While everyone is under orders to not open fire, unless facing a lethal threat, the risk of the shoving match turning into a shooting match increases.
China created the current crisis over who controls Pagasa Island and nearby sandbars. Since 2019 China has sent a record number of ships to block access to disputed islands, especially, Pagasa. Most of these are Chinese fishing boats pretending to be fishing but in reality, are members of the Chinese naval militia which is now composed of about a thousand ships that are paid regularly to be available when called upon to carry out paramilitary duties, usually in the South China Sea. China insists it has not ordered its naval militia fishing boats to physically block Filipino commercial or military ships from getting to Pagasa. Despite that pledge it has become more difficult for Filipino fishing boats to operate in areas they had long worked. China has been threatening to cut off access to Pagasa since 2014 but has never followed through, possibly because the Philippines has often stationed a warship off Pagasa. China claims ownership, despite Pagasa being closer to the Philippines than China and long occupied by Filipinos. Also called Thitu Island, Pagasa is the second-largest (37.2 hectares/93 acres) of the Spratly Islands and is inhabited by 200 Filipinos civilians and a few military personnel.
The Philippines has played nice with China for over a decade while also upgrading its naval and air forces. The Filipino rearmament program has been aided by American, Japanese and Australian donations of warships and aircraft as well as offers of low-cost military equipment. Because of that the Philippines now has enough warships and patrol aircraft to maintain constant patrols of disputed areas. China responds with larger (often over a hundred at a time) unarmed ships as well as a growing number of armed ships and aircraft. Despite the military buildup, Filipino leaders still have to face the fact that they cannot use force to oppose the Chinese. More powerful allies are needed for that.
May 28, 2021: The Philippines sent its 100th diplomatic protest to China over illegal Chinese actions in the South China Sea. China has ignored them all, although some result in a diplomatic protest from China. The Filipino protests have been happening nearly every day since early April when the Philippines announced it would seek a peaceful solution to the dispute over “Whitsun Reef”. President Duterte deliberately used the international name for the reef, which is also known as Julian Felipe Reef because that is what Filipinos call it and until China came along the Philippines had the strongest claim on the, until recently underwater, reef. Such a reef is valuable because it is prime fishing grounds and does provide some shelter from large waves during bad weather. Duterte has tried playing nice with the Chinese but so far has been burned more often than benefitted from this approach.
May 25, 2021: Despite rumors to the contrary, use of the cross-border railroad to move goods into North Korea has still not happened. North Korea hinted at resuming freight train service earlier in the year but it hasn’t happened yet and there is no indication of when it will. What freight that has arrived in North Korea from China or Russia was moved by boat.
May 21, 2021: The American and South Korean leaders met in the United States and the American leader agreed to lift all the remaining restrictions on the range of ballistic missiles that South Korea could develop and build as well as the size of their non-nuclear warheads. This enables South Korea to proceed with plans to develop missiles with ranges of up to 5,000 kilometers, providing South Korea with something to confront the similar Chinese missiles that have long been aimed at South Korea. The only restriction left is the one against South Korea developing nuclear weapons. These restrictions are an artifact of the Korean War (1950-53). In 1953 the fighting ended with an armistice, which is still in force. A permanent peace treaty would involve recognition by the UN and elimination of the outlaw status North Korea achieved by invading South Korea in 1950 and triggering a UN sponsored effort to push the North Koreans out. The U.S. troops still in South Korea are the last remnant of the multi-national force that fought the war. The armistice gave the UN/U.S. authority to restrict South Korean weapons development, to prevent an arms race with North Korea.
The restrictions were popular in South Korea until about a decade ago, when increased North Korean violence against the south resulted in a major shift of South Korean public opinion against North Korea and calls for lifting restrictions on what weapons South Korea could have. This has led to a lot of new South Korean weapons. In 2017 South Korea revealed a successful test of a locally made solid fuel ballistic missile with a range of 800 kilometers. This enabled South Korea to hit targets anywhere in North Korea with weapons (ballistic missiles) that North Korea is not equipped to stop. In 2015 South Korea did the same with a ballistic missile with a range of 500 kilometers tested. The 2015 test ended decades of most restrictions on South Korean ballistic missile development for weapons to be used against North Korea. The United States began lifting these range restrictions in 2012. South Korea tried for over a decade to develop warmer relations with North Korea and all efforts failed. The 2010 North Korea attacks, using artillery against a South Korea's offshore island and a torpedo to sink a South Korean warship changed a lot of attitudes in South Korea, and the United States. North Korea was considered an incorrigible threat and the U.S. agreed to South Korea being free to try whatever new weapons and tactics it believed would work. This included lifting all restrictions on what types of weapons South Korea could import.
North Korea responded with accusations that South Korea was now the aggressor and North Korea was only defending itself. South Koreans rejected that and a lot of other lies North Korea had been trying to hide behind since 1950 when they invaded South Korea in “self-defense.”