China - Strategikos

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Nowadays, China is likely the most debated country on the international scene. Its rise poses a challenge, and experts discuss about whether it will be a peaceful process or not and about how to deal with it.

What is certain is that the PRC has experienced an extraordinary development since the 80s and is now a great power, and has become the main competitor of the United States in the Asia-Pacific and possibly the whole world. In this regard, China has many advantages. It has a vast and instructed population that constitute a huge workforce pool for both industrial production and the military. Its economy, despite a gradual slowdown in recent years, is still growing consistently; and its potential for expansion is still consistent. It also benefit from a quasi-monopoly over the production of rare earths, which are essential in many technological industries. Moreover, the PRC is gradually shifting from an economic model based on low-cost and export-oriented manufacturing to one centered on high-value-added production and services destined to domestic consumption; and to this aim it is developing its own corporations in several high-tech sectors. Its economy sustained the shock following the 2008 global financial crisis pretty well; and its capital markets remain dynamic, even though they recently faced turbulences. China's currency, the renmibi, has gained international recognition and is now included in the IMF's Special Drawing Rights basket of currency reserves. Alongside this economic expansion, China undertook an important (and ongoing) military modernization program, and now possesses much more powerful armed forces than in the past; even though much work remains to be done.
But the PRC has significant challenges to face. Its population is rapidly aging, partly as a result of the longstanding "one-child policy". The economic transition is still incomplete, and the Chinese economy remains excessively dependent on export; while domestic markets are still to consolidate. Moreover, preserving the economic growth is of paramount importance for the Communist Party of China (CPC), since its legitimacy as the governing and only political party in the country is largely based on its ability to ensure economic development and improve the living conditions of its citizens. But sustaining growth poses several problems, apart from the "natural" difficulty in constantly maintaining a strong GDP increase rate and the uncertainties over the sustainability of China's economic model and the stability of its financial markets. First, it demands huge amounts of energy, making China very dependent on hydrocarbons imports from abroad. Second, a too rapid development (literally fueled by coal) resulted in terrible levels of pollution, whose effects are double fold: on the one hand, it harms the health of Chinese people, which results in higher sanitary expanses; on the other hand, it deteriorates the environment, and this also translates in huge costs to sustain.

Moreover, some of China's greatest challenges have a geopolitical and security dimension. The PRC is involved in territorial disputes with much of its neighbors and is surrounded by potential threats; and as mentioned above it is America's main strategic rival, thus creating tensions between the two. In this regard, Beijing still lags behind Washington in terms of economic and military power; still, it enjoys the advantage of concentrating all its power in East-Asia or the Asia-Pacific, while the latter is engaged in many other regions). To the east and south, China finds the open sea, an essential element for its export-based economy. However, this also poses significant problems. The maritime flow of goods and energy can be easily cut in case of war, especially on chokepoints such as the Malacca Strait; and this would be devastating for China. Additionally, the coast (where much of China's population, cities and economic activities are concentrated) is vulnerable to attacks; and the free access of Chinese naval forces to the Ocean is (potentially) affected by the presence of US forces and those of other countries like Japan or Taiwan.

Moreover, the situation in the area is complex. The Korean peninsula, where the DPRK is pursuing a military nuclear program and where the South hosts important US troops, is a source of instability; and Beijing wants to avoid an escalation that could result in a war so close to its borders, and which may end with US or allied troops reaching the Chinese border, a prospect that the PRC is determined to avoid. Tensions exist with Japan as well, due to historical resentments, nationalist discourses, a dispute over the Senkaku / Diaoyu islands and the presence of consistent American military forces in Japan, a key US ally in the region. Again, China claims its sovereignty over Taiwan and considers the de facto independent island as part of its territory; and any move by the Taiwanese to formal independence would trigger a Chinese military response that, in turn, would likely result in a major conflct involving the United States. Territorial disputes exists also in the South China Sea (notably over the Spratlys); thus creating tensions with Vietnam, the Philippines and once more the US.
The land dimension is equally complicated. Always on the south, Indochina is the ground of power competition between China and other powers like America, India and Japan. The latter is also a strategic rival for China, and again territorial disputes exist between Beijing and New Delhi (over Aksai Chin, controlled by China; and Arunachal Pradesh, ruled by India). On the east, China has to face Tibetan and Uyghur separatism, and both Tibet and Xinjiang are strategically important regions for various motivations. The northern frontier is probably the safest one, at least as long as Russia and China have reasons to cooperate and maintain positive relations; but things may change in the future.

To face all these challenges, China is taking several initiatives. It is reforming its economic model and governance to ensure a continued growth and the resources for dealing with the emerging socio-economic and environmental issues; as well as for pursuing its foreign policy goals. It has been modernizing its military to enhance its warfighting apabilities; and it developed an Anti-Access / Area Denial (A2/AD) strategy to protect its territory, as well as deploying the assets to implement it.  Another notable initiative is the "One Belt, One Road" project, which consists in reviving the ancient Silk Road on both land and sea with the ultimate aim to boosts the trade with Europe and ensure access to hydrocarbons while reducing the reliance on vulnerable maritime routes, all while expanding Chinese influence in Eurasia.

In short, China's rise is still an ongoing process that present for it huge opportunities as well as obstacles, and its outcome is difficult to predict; but it is clear that China will likely play a prominent role in international affairs in the future.

My expertise over China started as a personal interest, but expanded thanks to the courses I followed during at the university (notably at UCL), and I continue reading on this subject.
The reports dealing specifically with the PRC will be posted on this page.
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