Over the past decades, the fuse for the powder keg of war moved from the Balkans to the Middle East. Now it has shifted to China’s backyard without us even noticing. Five years ago, if someone had told me that Northeast Asia would become the world’s leading powder keg, even more dangerous than the Middle East, I wouldn’t have believed it. But now, such a statement seems more and more like the truth.
After the U.S. military conquered Iraq, the “Arab Spring” bloomed in the Middle East and North Africa. Although the internal turmoil suffered by countries in this region shows no signs of abating, in terms of geopolitics the Middle East crisis has been greatly alleviated. Nowadays, there is only one “troublemaker” left – Iran, which would find it hard to cause a crisis without support ( not to mention Iran is not up to fighting with the United States and Israel). Iran’s recent willingness to give up its nuclear weapons program foreshadows a shift in the winds.
In contrast, the situation in Northeast Asia is decidedly not optimistic. Almost every responsible country in the world has age requirements for its top leader, usually requiring top leaders to be at least 40 years old. But North Korea is now under the control of a 30-year old young man. After taking office, this leader “lived up the the world’s expectations” — that is to say, he refused to follow China’s road of reform and opening up and refused to act according to common sense. He eliminated dissenters without a scruple, and will most likely continue to develop nuclear weapons.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
And on top of that, add the problem of Japan.
On December 17 of last year, Japan passed its first National Security Strategy as well as revising its National Defense Program Guidelines and Mid-Term Defense Program. In these documents, it’s easy to see a posture of arms expansion and war preparation aimed at the “China threat.” A few days later, one of my Japanese friends from Tokyo’s Waseda University sent me a half-joking message: “Mr. Yang, the sleeping lion of Japan is finally awake. Thanks to China for waking him up.”
I didn’t think this joke was very funny. I replied to him that I had only heard of the Napoleon quote that China is Asia’s sleeping lion. Who said that Japan is another “sleeping lion”? Was it Hitler?
A war of words was inevitable after that. However, I have to admit that the “sleeping lion” of China seems to be “sleeping in,” or at least after waking up it’s still confused, thinking it’s still dreaming. Could little Japan actually be more worthy of the name “sleeping lion”? Since the Meiji Restoration, it has won almost every war it’s fought, and even Japan’s final defeat was grand in scale: Japan became the only nation to have been beaten by atomic bombs. After World War II, although oppressed by the U.S. military occupation and a “peace constitution,” it rose rapidly to become a world power, with the second largest economy. Over the past years, because of the end of the Cold War and the rise of China, Japan’s international status has been steadily deteriorating and economic achievements have been hard to come by. It’s no wonder that some Japanese believe Japan can only renew it power by developing its military, raising its political status, and becoming a “normal country.”
It seems that only the “China threat” can make the U.S. loosen its control of Japan, allowing Japan the “legitimacy” to once again embark on a militaristic road. Of course, it’s been a long time since World War II ended and Japan is a sovereign state — in principle, it has the power to abolish the constitution imposed on Japan by the United States and to strive for military strength and political influence equal to its economic strength. However, Japan’s military expansion has a clear-cut goal — to deal with the “China threat.” This is a phenomenon rarely seen in other countries’ decisions to expand military capabilities. China’s concern is justified.
The crisis in Northeast Asia on the surface is entangled with territorial and historical factors, but actually its deeper cause is ideology. The Cold War in Europe ended with the announcement of German unification, but in Northeast Asia it still continues. In today’s world, territorial and historical factors are unlikely to cause a major war. However, a war caused by religion and ideology won’t stay small. In this sense, it is necessary for China to be well-prepared for war. In my personal opinion, there are four things China must do to prepare.
1. Establish core values which can unify the Chinese people. Develop and promote our own culture. I’m listing this point first for a reason. Looking back at all of China’s foreign wars in modern and contemporary history, we can take a lesson from these defeats. It’s not hard to see that China’s defeats weren’t caused by a lack of national strength or military power. Rather, defeat came because China lacked a value system that could unite the country and the nation. Soldiers and the public must know what they are protecting when they take up arms, what they are fighting for. Only in this way can the war go on.
When I was young, I was a military buff. I once joined a top U.S. military think tank, the Atlantic Council, becoming the youngest senior researcher there. I was in contact with a lot of senior military talents and generals from around the world, especially the U.S. But after several years, my research on war can be summarized using a sentence from an earlier researcher: a small war replies on weapons, a medium war relies on power, and a great war relies on popular support. Because of this conclusion, my personal interest quickly turned from military affairs to politics, ultimately to the values system.
In this sense, at the 18th National Party Congress, when Xi Jinping stressed the need to establish core values with Chinese characteristics and to enhance and develop the Chinese culture, this wasn’t just a reform for the cultural, educational and political sphere. Xi’s idea could also be a great strategy that serves as the deciding factor in future wars.
2. Focus on the people’s livelihood and take human rights seriously. Modern war is different from previous wars, which relied solely on defending a country or on the call of “nationalism” to rouse the population and soldiers and win the war. Today, this is far from enough. Imagine that, on issues touching the people’s livelihood, a government is biased, or event acts unfairly and unjustly, violating the rights of citizens. In that case, it’s highly likely that its populace will help “invaders.” Actually, in recent years, whether the U.S. bombed Yugoslavia or sent troops to Iraq, it seems in almost all cases to have won a great deal of support from local people.
During the Sino-Japanese War, a large number of “traitors” appeared in China. Of course these traitors should be denounced and punished, but we still have dug deep to ask ourselves why there were so many traitors. At the time, the government was corrupt and busy with civil war. It didn’t treat the people as humans, but imposed excessive taxes and forced able-bodied men into the army. How was the government any different from the “Japanese devils”? For the people, did it really make a big difference whether they were bullied by the Japanese or by their own government? Mao Zedong said that people, rather than weapons, are the decisive factor in war. This saying it still valid today. If we do not remember this point, when war breaks out, there won’t be “traitors” but there could be countless “guides” willing to help the enemy.
In the decision from November’s Third Plenum, the government proposed for the first time paying more attention to citizens’ human rights. In the next round of reforms, the government promised to focus on justice and fairness, and I hope they can succeed. This is an important strategy.
3. Develop military equipment and modern weapons. I’m putting this point third, but that doesn’t mean it’s not important. Just as I said earlier, “a small war relies on weapons.” Right now, China’s conflicts in the East China Sea (with Japan) and the South China Sea (with the Philippines) would most likely only be very limited wars. These small-scale wars would rely only on weapons.
Currently, as Japan is supported by the U.S. military, China does not have any advantage in terms of weapons. In a small-scale conflict, it is possible that China would lose embarrassingly – in terms of the weapons that would be used in a small conflict, China is more than 20 years behind the U.S. By comparison, when it comes to weapons used in a large-scale conflict, such as cruise missiles, the gap between China and the U.S. is much smaller.
Certainly, the gap is smallest when it comes to strategic weapons, and we can say that there really is no gap — there’s no substantive difference between destroying something once and destroying it a hundred times. It’s no longer a question that China continues to develop modern weapons. The question is whether the soldiers using these modern weapons also have modernized their guiding ideology and management.
4. Make more friends in the international community. Nowadays, it’s very difficult to have a war only between two countries. Often, war involved many countries or is even a conflict between two alliance groups. Forming an alliance requires two conditions: values and economic interest. In terms of economic interest, China has the advantage. “He who has the gold makes the rules,” as the saying goes. However, in terms of values, China belongs to a distinct minority in the international community. In the past few years, there has been less emphasis on ideology, but we still must pay attention. China can’t get too close to international aberrations like North Korea, or else it will lose moral support from many countries. Also, to coin a phrase, “With friends like North Korea, who needs enemies?”
Personally, I do not support any type of war, and I also do not believe that war is inevitable. However, a proactive response and good preparation are often the most effective ways to avoid war. Modernized weapons and military management, as well as a well-trained army, are no doubt essential. But even more important factors are the unity of a country and support from the people.
This piece originally appeared in Chinese on Yang Hengjun’s blog. The original post can be found here.
Yang Hengjun is a Chinese independent scholar, novelist, and blogger. He once worked in the Chinese Foreign Ministry and as a senior fellow at the Atlantic Council in Washington, DC. Yang received his Ph.D. from the University of Technology, Sydney in Australia. His Chinese language blog is featured on major Chinese current affairs and international relations portals and his pieces receive millions of hits. Yang’s blog can be accessed at www.yanghengjun.com.