Strategic Peril

The high prices for this work are, unfortunately, typical for books imported from the United Kingdom. It is, however, one of the best researched volumes on Chinese President Xi Jinping’s driving vision, his “dream” to return his country to the dominant position it had held in Asia since ancient times. According to the official view, this situation was only interrupted by the coming of Western imperialists in the 19th century who imposed a “century of humiliation” on the Chinese people. Foreign exploitation was only ended with the victory of the Communists over the Nationalists in the civil war (1927-1949). Ironically, China’s rise has come after Xi’s party abandoned the Marxist ideology of Chairman Mao Zedong in favor of a policy of state-capitalism bolstered by intense nationalism. After decades of “reform,” Beijing has evolved from communism to fascism; becoming a much more potent rival in the process.

Miller argues that Xi marks a fundamental change in Chinese policy. “Deng Xiaoping, China’s paramount leader from 1978 to 1992, advised that China should lie low in foreign affairs and concentrate on getting its own house in order. President Xi has abandoned that humble approach.” Deng pushed for economic reform, not political change. He was, after all, the man who ordered the People’s Liberation Army to massacre the pro-democracy activists in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Mao’s portrait still hangs above the Gate of Heavenly Peace leading into the Forbidden City and is also still used on the nation,s currency. If anything, Xi is a step back towards party orthodoxy, his campaign against corruption being motivated by fear that affluence among the party elite and adminstraters (including those in the military) was making the country soft.

The core of Miller’s book is Xi’s “Belt and Road” initiative, a plan to link China with Europe through a network of giant infrastructure projects running across Eurasia, the Middle East and Africa. The land route is called the Silk Road Economic Belt. The sea route is the 21st Century Maritime Silk Road and will focus on the building of ports along the world’s oceans. The projects will connect half the world’s population and provide what President Xi has called “a common destiny for Eurasia.” There will also be airports with expanded Chinese airline and freight services. And, Chinese investment in power plants and cell phone services.

Miller believes “China’s new ‘empire’ will be informal and largely an economic one, posited on cash and held together by hard infrastructure.” However, nations along these routes see broader strategic perils. Air and seaports can become bases for bombers and warships, while railways and roads make troop movements easier. And, of course, money buys influence as well as material, especially in the kind of autocratic regimes Beijing favors. China is aiming its investments at smaller countries that could lose their effective independence to a new wave of “neo-imperialism.” And in places like Pakistan and Sri Lanka, which have long been objects of Chinese development efforts, the desire to surround enemies like India is obvious.

Miller primarily focuses on economics. He is a senior analyst at Gavekal Research and managing editor of China Economic Quarterly. A former journalist, he lived in China for 14 years. He was frequently cited in media coverage of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation held May 14-15. The Beijing meeting attracted 29 heads of state (including Russian President Vladimir Putin), representatives of 130 other countries (including the U.S.), and leaders of 70 international organizations, including UN Secretary-General António Guterres.

The mainstream media likes Miller for two reasons. First, his work is filled with data and details of how Chinese officials and corporate planners have used their economic leverage to gain power in the world arena. And his sources are footnoted. He is particularly good in describing how China has outmaneuvered Russia for control of Central Asia’s oil and gas or explaining the creation of the Asian Infrastructure Development Bank and Silk Road Fund – and why Beijing’s two “policy banks” (The China Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank) will actually provide more capital to support expansion. And while he opens with coverage of the Belt and Road plan, he also devotes chapters to China’s “string of pearls” strategy in the Indian Ocean (which predates Xi), its drive down the Mekong River in Southeast Asia (which has roots back to the Vietnam War and in the conflicts in the region since) and Beijing’s aggression in the South China Sea.

As one reads through the book, one could easily get the impression that Miller is warning us about Xi’s global ambitions. He terms China’s claims to the Spratley islands “dubious” and even “farcical” in regard to James Shoal which is 1,500 km from China but only 80 km from Malaysia, which has a claim that Beijing has crushed by direct action. He notes how Beijing argues that historical ravanchism is more legitimate than law. “In Chinese eyes, it is not expansionary to claim territory that it regards as rightfully its own.” He states, “China’s true motivation in the South China Sea is to gain strategic control of its shipping lanes” a move that would threaten maritime commerce across most of the world and shift the global balance of power.

Miller’s theme that economics can be used to advance national power is the antidote to the old post-Cold War hope that making China rich would tame the regime. Interdependence within a liberal world order would prevent Beijing from behaving as a traditional rising power seeking to overturn the status quo to gain preeminence (or even hegemony). This hope has been dashed. Mercantilism is again showing its advantage over classical economics. Liberal theory posits commerce as an alternative to geopolitics, whereas Beijing seems to have united them in a policy of “comprehensive national power.”

Yet, in his concluding chapter, Miller reverts to the discredited philosophy of 18th century classical liberals to support a call for the appeasement of Beijing. This I suspect is the second reason the mainstream media likes to promote him. Miller argues, “As economic realities push China towards great-power status, China will have to project more political and military muscle across Asia” and “China must interfere in other country’s affairs. That is what great powers do.” A realistic view, if he is looking at the world from Beijing’s perspective. But those in the United States or elsewhere along China’s path of expansion see the world differently. Miller has little sympathy for them, however.

He denounces “hawks” in Washington who want to forge an alliance to “contain” China. “Saner voices within the foreign policy community believe the U.S. needs to reach a tacit accommodation with Beijing….the U.S. and its regional allies must accept China’s determination to carve out its own sphere of interest across Asia.” That sphere, however, as Miller has himself outlined, would be at the expense of several of America’s allies. And, again as Miller has detailed, President Xi’s ambitions run beyond just Asia. Miller ends up sounding like those who urged President Ronald Reagan to accomodate the Soviet Union; or Neville Chamberlain to appease Nazi Germany. And, like a typical liberal, he blames America for making Beijing feel insecure because “it does not accept China as an equal power” thus provoking it to build up its military and take a hard line. Though Miller also observes that “China has no desire to negotiate because it believes it is making slow but steady progress towards supplanting the U.S.”

Miller reverts to the non-strategic, limited vision of the transnational business community in his call for the U.S. to not act like a great power. This sophistry was exposed most clearly in his approach to India-China relations. “The weak ties between Asia’s two giants are a gigantic missed opportunity for global trade and investment.” The ties are weak because the two nations are adversaries. India did not attend the Beijing Belt and Road forum, in part because it has seen Chinese development in Pakistan, where weapons and supporting capabilities have been provided and Chinese forces will likely soon be based. President Donald Trump’s meeting with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi on June 26 was another important step in strengthening the alignment of India with the Pacific Rim coalition (South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, Philippines, Vietnam, Singapore and Australia) working to contain an increasingly aggressive China.

Miller noted that Xi’s “dream” comes from the 2010 book The China Dream: Great Power Thinking & Strategic Posture in the Post-American Era written by retired PLA Lt. Col. Liu Mingfu. This work is readily available in an English edition (at a much lower price than Miller’s book). The first sentence of the first chapter reads, “It has been China’s dream for a century to become the world’s leading nation.” That is not an aim that Americans would be wise to accept, as it would not be a very pleasant world.

William R. Hawkins, a former economics professor and Congressional staffer, is a consultant specializing in international economics and national security issues. He is a contributor to SFPPR News & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.