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[important title="Table of Contents - Num. 29 Julay 2021"]

 

1-2-3) Crisis of the Order and Rearmament Cycle

European news
4) German Realism Looks to a Federal Europe

5) Missiles, Ballot Boxes and Coalitions in the Gaza War

Our party put to the test by an exceptional year
6-7) Pandemic of the Century Crisis: a Battle Won

8) The “Uyghur Question” in the Multipolar Contention (Part II)

9) “Green Economy” and Inflation

News from the Silk Road
10) The “Two Hands” of the Chinese Military

11) An Indian Card for Europe

12) A New Poison

 

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Crisis of the Order and Rearmament Cycle

“Europe was the centre of the world.” Paul Kennedy writes, in his Rise and Fall of the Great Powers, that the Berlin Conference on West Africa in the winter of 1884–85 can be taken as the symbol of the height of the predominance of Old Europe in world politics. But not for long: “Within another three decades–a short time indeed in the course of the Great Power system –  that same continent of Europe would be tearing itself apart and several of its members would be close to collapse. Three decades further, and the end would be complete; much of the continent would be economically devastated, parts of it would be in ruins, and its very future would be in the hands of decision-makers in Washington and Moscow.”

Some observers grasped the new direction in global relations and commented in pessimistic tones on “a vulgar Darwinistic world of struggle, of success and failure, of growth and decline.” At the turn of the century, Tocqueville’s idea – according to which the United States and Russia would be the powers of the future because of their demographic weight – was rediscovered. “Perhaps because neomercantilist commercial ideas were again prevailing over those of a peaceful, Cobdenite, freetrading global system, there was a much greater tendency than earlier to argue that changing economic power would lead to political and territorial changes as well.”

It was thought that only three or four of the most important states would remain independent. Joseph Chamberlain, of the British liberal imperialist current, saw the tendency to concentrate all the power in the hands of the main empires. According to Admiral Alfred von Tirpitz, Secretary of State of the German Imperial Naval Office, a large fleet was indispensable to being one of the “four World Powers: Russia, England, America and Germany.”

For the long-established powers – Britain, France, and Austria-Hungary – the question was “whether they could maintain themselves in the face of these new challenges to the international status quo.” For the new powers – Germany, Italy and Japan – the question was whether they would be able to emerge and achieve what Berlin termed a “world-political freedom”.

The dominant vision stressed “struggle, change, competition, the use of force, and the organization of national resources to enhance state power.”

This can be compared to many of the lines and ideologies that are now accompanying the cycle of Atlantic decline: the ideological crisis of globalisation, the resurgence of state power, and the thesis that “the world is an arena” affirmed by Donald Trump’s strategists. Even then, it must be specified, power relations passed through the two hands of liberal laissez-faire and the strategic power confrontation. The return to “neomercantilist” lines pointed out by Kennedy is just one of the lines over which the currents, among the powers and within them, are clashing. In that context, Karl Kautsky – a “Manchesterian” who believed that imperialism was a policy and not a condition matured by capitalist development – echoed the British lines still tied to the liberist consensus which had an equivalent in Germany. Moreover, Chamberlain’s neo-protectionist line, advocating a tariff based on imperial preference, would be defeated in the 1906 election: this was the reason why Kautsky would maintain that the imperialist “policy” could be beaten.

The fact remains that the international debate between the end of the 19th century and the beginning of the 20th revolved around the power confrontation and imperialism: Lenin’s Notebooks on Imperialism give ample documentation of this.

Another yardstick can be sought in the second thirty-year period, the one preluding the Second World War. In the spring of 1932, in the face of the crisis in Manchuria, the British government decided to abandon the so-called “Ten-year rule”. This was the directive, in force since 1919, according to which “the armed services should frame their estimates on the assumption that they would not be engaged in a major war within the next ten years.”

 

(continued on p. 2)

Crisis of the Order and Rearmament Cycle

(continued from p. 1)

 

The “Ten-year rule” is considered the tenet whereby the British Treasury kept the requests of the armed forces, and of the Royal Navy in particular, under control from the beginning of the 1930s. In the course of historical debate, the extent to which that ten-year rule really disadvantaged Britain in its military preparation in defence of its Empire, in comparison with Germany in Europe and Japan in the Far East, has been the subject of discussion. According to Paul Kennedy, the combination of the 1931 economic crisis and the pressures of domestic politics, unfavourable to rearmament, saw to it that military expenditure experienced its first notable increase only in 1936, and only in 1938 was it possible to speak of “rearmament on a vast scale”.

What is of interest here – as one can reflect on the previous cycles relative to the crisis of the order – is 1932 as the turning point in British perception of the contention: after fifteen years or so of relative strategic calm, a war among great powers was again considered plausible.

 

China is aiming to double its GDP in the next fifteen years; the consequent progress in the arms race is summed up in its plans to increase its aircraft carriers from two to six, with their related naval groups. China would actually arrive at near to two thirds of the American war apparatus; America, remaining a bi-oceanic power, would be overtaken on the Pacific chessboard and would not be able to permit this. An arms-race cycle animated by Washington and Beijing, and not only by them, is a logical conclusion.

 

Analogy with the present international debate, since the rise of China has made itself felt also in the military field, is all too obvious. Discussions in America and China have started about the Thucydides Trap, i.e., the dynamic that makes a clash unavoidable, with the dominant power challenged by the rising power. And Europe fears that it will be caught between Washington and Beijing, unless the new course taken by the contention is properly sized up.

Michèle Flournoy, who held posts in the Department of Defence in the Clinton and Obama administrations, is the co-founder with Kurt Campbell of the CNAS (Center for a New American Security), and was one of the Department of Defense candidates in the Biden administration. She writes in Foreign Affairs that, in the United States, considerations have long been made about a return to “a new era of great-power competition”. She adds that the Pentagon’s simulations predict that within “a decade” the United States will be “unable to deter and defeat Chinese aggression”. Flournoy argues in favour of a redeployment of American forces from the Middle East to the Indo-Pacific, proposes a reform and investment plan that would keep up with Chinese military expansion, stresses the strategic weight of new technologies, and espouses the revision of national defence strategy launched by the Trump administration: “inter-state strategic competitionnot terrorism, is now the primary concern in US National security.”

Zuo Xiying, of the Beijing Renmin University’s National Academy of Development and Strategy, makes symmetrical observations in Global Times. He argues that American military authorities are exaggerating the Chinese threat in order to ask for increased budget allocations, but it is a fact that the United States’ deterrence capacity is growing weaker. In his opinion, there may be a “tug-of-war of the balance of power” in the region over the “upcoming five to 10 years”.

A distinguishing mark of the crisis is the Chinese plan for a “world-class” military force by 2035; what is at issue is the alignment of Beijing’s war apparatus with the changed power relations at an economic level. In twenty years, China’s relative weight in total global production [WGP] has grown by more than 10%; according to World Bank estimates, in 2019, at purchasing power parity, China weighed $22,492 billion, or 17.3%, the USA $20,525 billion (15.8%), the EU $19,863 billion, (15.3%), Japan $5,261 billion (4.1%), India $9,155 billion (7.1%), and Russia $3,968 billion (3.1%).

According to SIPRI estimates of military budgets, in 2019, the USA spent $732 billion, or 39.2%, China $261 billion (14%), the EU $220 billion (11.8%), India $71 billion (3.8%), Russia $65 billion (3.5%), and Japan $48 billion (2.5%). The European figure is to be considered a mere potentiality, given the deficit in continental centralisation that casts doubt on the sum of the national allocations.

 

As often happens, an article written by Walter Russell Mead can be read in correlation with Kissinger’s theses of  “doves” and “hawks”. He writes in The Wall Street Journal that the debate about China in the United States is becoming overheated, but is framed “too simplistically”, between “doves” which hypothesise withdrawal from Asia and “hawks” which overestimate the Chinese threat to the point of making it seem unsustainable. Actually, the biggest problems with China would be in the short and medium term, and not in the long term.

 

The evaluation of military expenditure and forces is by nature a matter of political figures: estimates of the trends and quantification of war apparatus are geared to the different political lines, strategic doctrines, and the struggle for budget allocations on the part of military leaders and the political currents tied to them. The Economist reports the figures of Peter Robertson, of Perth’s Western Australia University, who elaborates his comparison of expenditure recalculated according to purchasing power parity. In his opinion, nominal expenditure overestimates America’s weight, because, for example, salaries in China are still a fraction of those in America, and the maintenance and construction costs are different. While in the SIPRI calculations China had an expenditure in 2020 of about one third of American expenditure, in Robertson’s estimates, the Chinese weight rises to two thirds.

The proportion seems exorbitant if it is compared to the actual consistency of the aeronaval war apparatus, which is the real field of comparison between Washington and Beijing: China has one fifth of America’s aircraft carriers, 2 as against 11, is close to two thirds of total naval units, 144 as against 224, but has only 30% of air forces, 2,700 aircraft as against 9,200. What, instead, is incontrovertible is the political use of the purchasing-power parity calculation, which emphasises the Chinese threat: according to The Economist, Joe Biden might have to oversee “a new arms race” in order to maintain American supremacy. On the contrary, The Wall Street Journal denounces that, at the moment, the Biden administration is reducing US military expenditure in its draft budget instead of upgrading it, because the 1.6% expected increase does not keep up with the currently predicted 2% inflation.

A provisional conclusion has to look at the overall trends rather than at the verbal fencing of political figures. According to SIPRI estimates, it cannot be said that Beijing’s military expenditure has not kept up with its economic growth in the last twenty years: in 2000, China had 3.1% of global expenditure, and in 2019 14%; the 11% increase is in proportion to the progression in its share of the WGP. The fact of the matter is that China is aiming to double its GDP in the next fifteen years, while the consequent progress in the arms race is summed up in its plans to increase its aircraft carriers from two to six, with their related support fleet. China would actually arrive near to two thirds of the American war apparatus; America, remaining a bi-oceanic power, would be overtaken on the Pacific chessboard and would not be able to permit this. An arms-race cycle animated by Washington and Beijing, and not only by them, is a logical conclusion.

Interviewed by Die Welt, Henry Kissinger introduces some significant policy mixes to his conception of the relationship between America, Europe and China. As regards the Atlantic relationship, his basic idea remains that the United States and Europe should seek a “common concept” regarding their strategic position vis-à-vis China. However, he makes a clarification: in his proposal to restore Atlantic relations, Biden speaks of a “return to US leadership”, but he might find himself faced with a Europe that does not seek a “leadership”, but a “cooperative autonomy”. The Biden administration team is probably not fully aware of the significant internal transformations that have taken place “on both shores of the Atlantic in the last twenty years”, transformations that emphasise “national interest” more than the traditional conception of American foreign policy is accustomed to consider.

As for China, according to Kissinger, the conviction that it is an “intrinsic adversary” is taking root in American public opinion and needs to be contained. But the main question is not “to prevent Chinese domination”, which America must do, but to understand that there remains the need for a “policy of coexistence” with a country of that size once this aim has been achieved. It seems to us necessary to understand also that for Kissinger the two-handed policy does not exclude a rearmament cycle, but with a power of the size of which the United States will have to know how to coexist: that is to say, by a substantial appeasement counterbalanced by a strong military position and an opportune balancing policy.

 

It is not clear how much a line of strategic withdrawal from Asia really weighs today in America; the impression is that the more assertive positions that may precipitate the confrontation with China are the real polemical target. If lines of that kind were to prevail in Washington and Beijing, the outcome would be a similar collision course to that of the 1914 war  – this is the conviction expressed by Kissinger on various occasions.

 

As often happens, an article written by Walter Russell Mead can be read in correlation with Kissinger’s theses of “doves” and “hawks”. He writes in The Wall Street Journal that the debate about China in the United States is becoming overheated, but is framed “too simplistically”, between “doves” which hypothesise withdrawal from Asia and “hawks” which overestimate the Chinese threat to the point of making it seem unsustainable. Actually, the biggest problems with China would be in the short and medium term, and not in the long term.

 

An era of Chinese supremacy is not opening up. “As with Japan in the 1930s”, China is merely a country tempted to exploit a “temporary window of opportunity” in a way it hopes could guarantee its primacy for the long term. But, “as India, Indonesia, Vietnam, the Philippines, Thailand, Bangladesh and Burma all reach their potential, a rising Asia will become too big for any country, even China, to dominate or control.” United States’ goal “shouldn’t be to crush China but to promote Asia.” In the short and medium term, Washington needs to work with its allies “to keep Beijing from exploiting its window of opportunity”; since China “has its hawks, but the leadership is pragmatic”, and will understand that the military road leads nowhere good.

 

The Thucydides Trap formula has a certain rigidity that has no other outlet apart from war. Here, on the contrary, an outlet is offered: the risk of conflict is a temporary strategic parenthesis; subsequently, uneven development would make the Indo-Pacific emerge and this would prevent Beijing’s hegemony. In this context, the use of military force is political – to defend the window of vulnerability thanks to the deterrence of the war apparatus of America and its allies – and does not imply the ideological absolute of preventing the emergence of a systemic enemy.

 

Mead replies to the American currents advocating also withdrawal from Asia that only Washington can be “the linchpin” of an alliance that can hold Beijing’s window of opportunity firmly closed. It is understood that this implies consequent military commitment. However, in his opinion, the United States is not condemned “to an endless struggle against an inexorably rising China”. On the contrary, as “the rest of Asia” rises, Beijing’s chance at supremacy begins to shrink, “and Washington’s Indo-Pacific allies will be able to bear more of the costs that keeping the peace requires.”

This is the calculation of a balance based on the long-term trend of uneven development. It should be noted that a similar result has been pursued by Washington vis-à-vis Tokyo in the last half-century, which, in other forms, has been a second opportunity for Japan’s rise after its aborted attempt in the 1930s. The United States opened up to China in 1971 with a balancing move conceived precisely by Kissinger and Richard Nixon; in the following decades, while China was rising, America worked on Japan in a kind of “stifling embrace”, in order to prevent it forming an exclusive economic sphere in Asia. It can be said that Washington twice encouraged a plural balance in Asia, averting Japanese hegemony, first with the 1941 war and then with the post-war asymmetrical and conditioned alliance between the United States and Japan.

Today, this game would be repeated on the multiplied scale of the Asian giants; while they wait for a development cycle to redistribute the weights of the balance in Asia, American deterrence and its allies in the Indo-Pacific should push Beijing towards strategic moderation.

Mead does not conceal the risks of such a line. As China sees its “hegemony window” closing, Beijing’s hawks could press for a 1930s’ Japan-style dash for power. “America and its allies must guard against this.” Over the long haul, maintaining the system of alliances while Asia rises will pose significant political and practical problems, which will test “the ingenuity of Washington diplomats”. The appropriate combination of “engagement and competition” in America’s China policy will be hard to discern “on issues ranging from the Belt and Road Initiative to trade policy and tech standards.”

Alongside this, there is the difficulty of maintaining over time such an articulated policy mix of the military, economic and political tools of the balance: a balancing act anchored in the evolution of a plural Asian development that would balance Beijing is a more than decade-long prospect, and therefore requires bipartisan consensus. On the contrary, an American doctrine regarding the crisis of the order and the Chinese challenge is still in the making.

This precise circumstance requires further reflection. First of all, a concern emerges in Mead’s theses, and this is very much present in Kissinger, about the “simplistic” debate in Washington being misunderstood in China – whether it is a case of “doves” which throw open the Chinese window of opportunity thanks to retrenchment, or “hawks” which, in absolutising only the military contention, enter into resonance with similar currents in Beijing. It is not clear how much a line of strategic withdrawal from Asia really weighs today in America; the impression is that the more assertive positions that may precipitate the confrontation with China are the real polemical target. If lines of that kind were to prevail in Washington and Beijing, the outcome would be a similar collision course to that of the 1914 war – this is the conviction expressed by Kissinger on various occasions.

 

There is strategic optimism in the idea that Asia’s uneven development will allow the counterbalancing of China. One needs only think of the contradictions in which India is floundering, or of the dynamic of the RCEP with which Beijing is orienting its regional influence. It is undoubtedly possible to think of an intermediate calculation: China will never be completely balanced in its Asian relations alone – in fact, the presence of the United States remains decisive in the balance equation – but a plural development of the regional powers will be able to lighten the cost of appeasement with Beijing. 

 

What deserves attention, and this is the second reflection, is how Mead’s theses overturn the role of the time factor as it is conceived in the Thucydides Trap. According to the latter, time plays in the consolidated power’s disfavour: it is pushed into a preventive war against the rising power before this becomes too strong to be tackled. Here, the opposite is true: the risk of conflict is greater in the short and medium term, linked to a sortie on the part of the rising power, while in the long term, strategic stability is favoured by the emergence of more plural centres of power that would balance the hegemonic demands. The balance is conceived of in a multipolar logic and not in a bipolar contraposition that can have only one winner and one loser; and, above all, the relations of force are considered in their evolution, modified in the long term by the uneven development of a plurality of powers.

The Thucydides Trap formula has a certain rigidity that has no other outlet apart from war. Here, on the contrary, an outlet is offered: the risk of conflict is a temporary strategic parenthesis; subsequently, uneven development would make the Indo-Pacific emerge and this would prevent Beijing’s hegemony. In this context, the use of military force is political – to defend the window of vulnerability thanks to the deterrence of the war apparatus of America and its allies – and does not imply the ideological absolute of preventing the emergence of a systemic enemy.

Finally, the third reflection: it is possible to observe a certain strategic optimism in the idea that Asia’s uneven development will allow the counterbalancing of China. One needs only think of the contradictions in which India is floundering, highlighted by the pandemic of the century, or of the dynamic of the RCEP with which Beijing is orienting its regional influence. It is undoubtedly possible to think of an intermediate calculation: China will never be completely balanced in its Asian relations alone – in fact, the presence of the United States remains decisive in the balance equation – but a plural development of the regional powers will be able to lighten the cost of appeasement with Beijing.

Furthermore, the strategic hypotheses of Mead and Kissinger can be compared to Fred Bergsten’s formula of a “hegemonic coalition” between the United States and its allies, which would give the old allies another twenty years before a negotiation and a new “Group of Two” with Beijing. In the time gained, China’s relative supremacy in Asia would be downsized, and the already majority pragmatic currents in Beijing would have strategic breathing space in order to prevail.

A Global Times editorial seems to answer these strategic hypotheses, and it is revealing that this is done via a different prediction of uneven development and its impact on the balance of power. Global Times denies that the United States’ alliances are homogeneous enough to be able to hold their own against China. Faced with “US strategic provocations”, Beijing should respond in two ways. First, China should unswervingly ensure its own security. It must be made increasingly clear to Washington that an attack “in China’s adjacent waters” would be defeated; “China's strength in air-force, navy and ground-based missiles is sufficient to overwhelm US troops and its allies,” and China is determined to use them in defence of its “core interests”. Furthermore, Beijing counts on its “nuclear deterrent” against American “nuclear blackmail”.

Second, by focusing on strengthening its economy. In a peaceful setting, China will continue to develop faster than the United States “in the next one or two decades”; the increase in its force “will gradually disintegrate the US’ will to strategically contain China” and will prompt a change in the US allies’ attitude.

 

In Mead’s formula, and perhaps in Kissinger’s one, the long term will relativise the Chinese hold over Asia into a multipolar balance. In Beijing’s calculations, the development time will play into its hands. For both, the balancing act will need a strengthened military hand in years to come. And this is where the pressure to put the credibility of deterrence to the test will inevitably make itself felt.

 

In Mead’s formula, and perhaps in Kissinger’s one, the long term will relativise the Chinese hold over Asia into a multipolar balance. In Beijing’s calculations, the development time will play into its hands. For both, the balancing act will need a strengthened military hand in years to come. And this is where the pressure to put the credibility of deterrence to the test will inevitably make itself felt. In fact, military plans over the South China Sea and Taiwan are hot on each other’s heels, whether it is the case of the scenario of an open conflict or of a confrontation which may follow the script of the Cuban crisis.

 

Lotta Comunista, June 2021