I try to remain optimistic that the US and China will work out a more or less amicable way to run the world for the next half century, a “Chimerica” of interwoven superpowers.
But it was slightly disturbing to hear the warnings of a distinguished China-watcher at a closed-door session of the annual Ambrosetti conference on Lake Como.
(This gathering of the global policy elites at Villa D’Este is a hardship assignment for Telegraph hacks. It fell to me again this year, but somebody has to do it.)
“China’s military spending is growing so fast that it has overtaken strategy,” said Professor Huang Jing from the Lee Kwan Yew School of Public Policy in Singapore. (He kindly let me quote his remarks.)
“The young officers are taking control of strategy and it is like young officers in Japan in the 1930s. They are thinking what they can do, not what they should do. This is very dangerous.
“They are on a collision course with a US-dominated system”.
Harvard Professor Niall Ferguson rattled me even further with a talk warning that the Chimerica marriage of the last generation is “on the rocks”.
“China gets 10pc growth: the US gets 10pc unemployment. That doesn’t seem the basis for a happy marriage,” said Prof Fergusson, – who used to sit next to me at the Telegraph as a young leader writer almost 20 years ago, before he went on to become one of the 100 most influential people on the planet (Time magazine).
China’s trade surplus is surging back to near record levels, yet the yuan has barely moved against the dollar since the fixed peg ended in June. It has actually fallen against a trade-weighted basket of currencies.
This is not an accident. The exchange rate is controlled. The yuan must rise – ceteribus paribus – unless the central bank prevents it doing so by purchasing foreign assets.
Prof Ferguson said naval rivalry is passé – cyberwarfare is the issue of the future, and he advises the West to be a little more careful about its reliance on Chinese-manufactured microchips.
Be that as it may, the current flash-point is a very old fashioned showdown between gunboats in the Yellow Sea and the South China Sea (the latter now a “core interest” of China along with Tibet and Taiwan), also claimed in part by a ring of other nations who are not pleased.
In late July, the chairman of US chiefs of staff, Admiral Mike Mullen, said he had moved from being “curious” about what the Chinese were doing, “to being concerned about what they’re doing. They seem to be taking a much more aggressive approach.”
“I see a fairly significant investment in high-end equipment – satellites, ships … anti-ship missiles, obviously high-end aircraft and all those kinds of things. They are shifting from a focus on their ground forces to focus on their navy, and their air force.”
Last week this little spat escalated to the point where a Chinese submarine erected a Chinese flag on the seabed of the South China Sea, 4,000 meters below the surface.
China has a perfect right to develop a blue-water navy and to make its presence felt in the region. The question in such matters is judging the purpose and precise circumstances, and I must confess that Prof Huang’s comments were slightly disturbing, always bearing in mind that he has a Singapore (Chinese diaspora) perspective.
Let it be said in China’s defence that it occupies no overseas military bases, and has no modern history of projecting imperial power.
On balance, I remain hopeful that country with a one-child policy, an aging crunch from Hell, and a chronic dearth of young people, will show an enormous reluctance to support military adventurism. Losing an only child is especially cruel.
Let us hope that the Communist hierachy in Beijing can rein in those young officers. But as Dr Huang said, they can no longer control much of anything, least of all the 17m-strong base of the Communist Party.
“The empire has lost control of its officials, which is how Chinese empires have always fallen in history.”
This needs watching, I fear.
Author: Ambrose Evans-Pritchard