Smog, National Defence, and the War Game

Smog may affect people’s health and daily lives … but on the battlefield, it can serve as a defensive advantage in military operations,” wrote a Chinese newspaper affiliated to the government-sponsored People’s Daily (note).

This singular, inadvertently comic statement is yet another proof that the war scenario is constantly considered as a possibility by certain people in China. The fact that CCP loyalists try to play down China’s current pollution problem in such a way tells a lot about the attitude of ultranationalist forces in the country. Polluting the environment and damaging the health of one’s own citizens in order to protect these very citizens is one of the most puzzling strategies one can conceive. Perhaps this may be marketed as a sacrifice “for the common weal”, a typical rhetorical instrument that nationalist ideologues love to employ whenever it is deemed necessary to influence public opinion. In this case, this is done with a certain humourous clumsiness. 

However, Western public opinion has also been obsessed with a possible future war with China and is therefore at least as reproachable as its Chinese counterpart. Western politicians and intellectuals have been spreading the idea of the emerging “China threat” and are thus influencing not only the way many people think, but also the very policies of Western governments. The number of books published in the last two decades about a possible war with China is astounding and worrying. 

In Showdown: Why China Wants War With the United States (2006), authors Jed L. Babbin and Edward Timperlake argue that China is more dangerous than the Soviet Union. While during the Cold War the two super powers who had emerged from the Second World War were careful not to provoke each other and therefore created an equilibrium that maintained peace,

China, an emerging superpower, is not governed by that equilibrium. It is now engaged in a second cold war, the Pacific Cold War, with the United States. This war might last as long as the European Cold War – and it is much more likely to turn into a hot one. Our adversary, China, is either an emerging capitalist colossus with peaceful intentions or the most powerful and dangerous enemy we have faced since the collapse of the Soviet Union. China exhibits two faces to the world (pp. 1-2).

Some books have an extremely radical, anti-Communist, and anti-Chinese tone which – not surprisingly – angers many people in the PRC. One example is the uncompromising and belligerent book The China Threat, by Bill Gertz:

The reality today is that China is a major threat to the United States, and a growing one. China’s rulers … remain communists, and the fifty years of communist rule are replete with brutal repression, mass murder, and border wars with China’s neighbors. But communism seeks to change not only external political conditions but also the internal nature of human beings – hence its emphasis on mass indoctrination and its hatred for anything that might offer a contrary view of man. It is this feature of communism that accounts for its most dangerous characteristic: its failure to value human life (ibid. 2013, chapter one).

As one might expect, this hard-line stance cannot but repel most Chinese people. Mr Gertz is obviously imbued with an old-school anti-Communist sentiment. He doesn’t seem to appreciate the extent of the changes that have taken place in China since the late 1970s. From his words one may conclude that it’s not China that threatens the US, but it’s him who wants the US to attack China as soon as possible.   

The mistrust and suspicion between the two big powers dates back to the end of the 1980s. It was a time of great changes in the world, and the general feeling was that the ‘American model’ had proved right and everything else had proved wrong. The American model became an ideological construction that blended American democracy and neoliberal capitalism. That was regarded as the only possible and morally right system. It was expected that the whole world would soon be Americanised, following the example of Western Europe and Japan after World War II.

China was the only big power that went its own way. While the Republic of China on Taiwan became a democracy and allowed peaceful students demonstrations, in Beijing the Tiananmen incident proved that the one-party-state was resolutely determined to stay. People had to adjust themselves to this fact of life. The events of Tiananmen Square gravely damaged China’s image abroad, a fact that neither Chinese leaders nor nationalists are willing to accept (see John F. Cooper: Playing with Fire. The Looming War with China over Taiwan 2006, p. 68). 

On the other hand, China became economically so successful that it challenged US supremacy, which had been based on its economic might. While the United States’ share of the world’s GDP was a staggering 50% by the end of the Second World War, it has fallen to roughly 25% since the 1970s (Robert Kagan: The World America Made 2012, p. 108). The relative decline of American manufacturing is a symptom of this trend. Many products have ceased to be made in the United States, for example light bulbs, mobile phones, laptop computers etc. The share of imported components of US manufactures has increased from 17% in 1997 to 25% in 2009. While in 1965 industrial production amounted to around 26% of US GDP, in 2009 it constituted only about 11%  of GDP (Frederick S. Weaver: The United States and the Global Economy 2011, p. 82). 

The challenge to the supremacy of the American political and economic model is keenly felt in the United States, most especially among the most intransigent and hard-line segments of American society. On the other hand, after the demise of the Soviet Union the US didn’t need China any longer as an ally, and suddenly the “enemy” nature of the PRC was rediscovered. 

In the United States, China changed faces from friend, to challenge, too foe. Some in Washington began to see China as the opposing pole in a new bipolar system … China likewise changed its view of the United States. America became China’s enemy and Beijing’s leaders frequently said so. … The Taiwan issue, which many said was at the heart of the U.S.-China conflict, became more important. Taiwan was the only non-negotiable issue between the two countries (Cooper 2006, p. 68). 

As I have explained in a previous post, this talk about a possible conflict between the US and China is extremely dangerous and irresponsible. Both countries have to be blamed for the deterioration of mutual relations. However, war should not even be taken into consideration; it has to be avoided at all costs. In the nuclear age, war is tantamount to the destruction of humanity. There can be no winners and losers. We are not in the 18th century any more.

However, the two powers and their allies are making a war possible by falling back to a system of balance of power like the one that existed prior to World War I. That system aimed at counterbalancing each other, but it did not clearly define blocs and ideologies. Every country could shift alliances opportunistically, according to its own current interests. The Cold War was a much ‘safer’ solution, because it was an unequivocal and rigid system. It is up to the United States’ government to decide whether China is friend or foe, and act accordingly. If the US continues to be double-faced, it may bring about a catastrophe upon itself and the world.


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