Flashpoints & Tinderboxes lll
Sep 15, 2014

Of the many flashpoints developing around the world, Russia and China are two simmering challenges. Are they going to erupt or stay the course? Despite differences between them, Russia and China remain ideological “Siamese Twins” in that both see social media, technology, finance and advances in weaponry as direct threats to their world position.  However, while they may cooperate for short periods of time where it is of mutual benefit – such as supporting North Vietnam during the American-Vietnamese War – a show down would put this “symbiotic” relationship and global security at risk.

There remains the very real possibility of a confined conflict, or the emergence of a “surrogate” war (where Russia and China back opposite sides to demonstrate their respective powers). Recent aggression by both nations towards their minority populations raises the possibility of a minor conventional non-nuclear battlefield in the most unpopulated frontier regions, where forces could engage in combat without any major collateral damage. The assumption that such a war would go nuclear at some point is missing the point that an escalating war would be financially disastrous for both nations.

Most analysts believe the rhetoric will remain at the “Saber Rattling” level, however, this view may be a trifle over-optimistic given that there has been a significant increase in border tensions. These might harden the resolve of these two nations for increased vigilance along on their border territories.  It is important to remember that, in 1968, Russia and China fought a protracted war over their shared Northern China/Russian Siberian border.  In fact, both governments still maintain significant ground and air forces within easy reach of the Border.  It has becoming clear that, instead of being close allies functioning as one joint force to defend their mutual interests, they clearly are pursuing their own self-interests.  One might conclude they are functionally operating as if they may become future adversaries. If a conflict of this type and magnitude does occur, the winning nation would become very powerful indeed.

What stoked this fire? After the Second World War, Russia retained its massive armed forces.  To keep the Red Army, Air Force and Navy equipped with modern weapons, the Russian government under Stalin instituted a programme of weapon’s development in all areas of military weaponry. When the Chinese Communists began a war with the Nationalist Chinese government, Stalin was easily induced to send his stocks of obsolescent surplus World War II weapons to the Chinese Communist forces. Russia considered them to be a potential ally, albeit a very modest and somewhat backward one.  This view persisted until the Chinese backed North Korea’s invasion of South Korea.  This unilateral undertaking caught the Russian Communist government flatfooted.  During the meeting of the UN Security council on the invasion, the Soviet delegate had to absent himself in order to obtain instructions from Moscow. During that interval, the UN Security Council held the vote on whether the United Nations would sanction action against North Korea. With the USSR not there to cast its veto, the matter was decided in favour of UN action.

Although Russian and China maintain a façade of Communist unanimity, in reality it was the first major schism. The rapid economic growth of China, together with its holdings of other nation’s debt (principally a significant portion of the combined U.S. national debt), has encouraged the Communist government to undertake a program to extend its political and economic power. Its many major trading relationships have allowed China to fund its impressive manufacturing program for domestic and military goods and services. Judicious investment on key foreign industries is a second factor in China becoming somewhat unassailable to foreign boycotts or trust actions. China’s industrial sector is extremely modern and capable of manufacturing machinery, goods, services, and military hardware – all of which are as advanced as those of the West, and more numerous. It is obvious that the so-called quality gap of the 1960s has closed.

Victory Parade on Moscow’s Red Square. Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning.

Claims from Western industry and governments abound, accusing Chinese military or civilian organizations of hacking sensitive information, or copying or reverse engineering patented technologies and processes without authorization. The United States and the other major economies are only now discovering the full extent of the penetration into major industrial and military databases. Some suggest that Western agencies have started their own intelligence gathering using recently developed software that leaves no proof that a site has been hacked. If true, a full-scale digital war is well underway and about to explode – with government, big business and organized crime all involved.

Russian Special Forces.
After the Second World War, Russia retained its massive armed forces. To keep its Army, Air Force and Navy equipped with modern weapons, the Russian government instituted a programme of weapons development in all areas of the military.
Despite successes in commercial and military technologies, China is facing significant civil unrest due to some their more disastrous social policies. For example, China has proved it has the economic and academic prowess to develop projects such as the “Three Gorges Dam” and bring them to fruition. However, while a major achievement, this Dam has dislocated thousands of Chinese villages and created a major population shift that will reverberate well into this new century. While new villages and cities have been constructed, their isolated locations often offer no economic possibilities other than subsistence. Will the dislocated citizens depend on government handouts or move to coastal areas in search of work? There has been no independent migration to the up-scale accommodation in what citizens have called “Ghost Cities” because there are no commercial activities to support inhabitants. In fact, the whole initiative seems to run counter to the new cities initiative in which the Government states it intends to relocate 20% of China’s population to urban centres.

There are major downstream problems for a future “workforce” in China. Predictably, the “one child” policy of previous regimes means that, with fewer females (1 to 10 ratio), only about 10% of eligible male bachelors will marry and produce offspring in China. This will lead to the planned result of a major drop in total population, but will likely also cause China’s economy to shrink as the West looks to India for cheap labour. Long-range, this may also force China to look elsewhere for the assembly of components into finished goods that the country once produced itself. Such a reduction of manufacturing capability could result in a major reduction of national income, which will no doubt require China to dispose of its current massive holdings of foreign debt. This action, when coupled with the current levels of domestic crime, rampant drug abuse and the emigration of young educated Chinese to other growing economies will likely have dire major long-term consequences for China economic future.

So why has China embarked upon a program of confronting its neighbours about boundaries and exploitation rights? For the first time in 500 years, the Chinese nation has once again become the dominant economic and military state within the region. They have once again given themselves the “Mandate of Heaven” to exercise political, economic and military power over the region as they once did. No doubt, the Chinese government believes that if it establishes control in its adjacent waters, even if there is a future decline in their national military power and effectiveness, they will still have sufficient residual military forces to repel attempts to seize these areas. This thinking is consistent with their desire to have a presence in other continents such as Africa, Asia and the Middle East. They have invested heavily in regional economies and entered into agreements to provide sophisticated weapons, logistics support and technical expertise in order to gain long term access to badly needed raw resources for their economy. Furthermore, their continuing presence will also, they think, reduce the influence of American foreign policy in the region.

The rapid expansion of China’s presence in non-traditional areas such as Africa, the Middle East, the Indian sub-continent and South America is a worrying trend that has emerged to give Western nations pause.  The Chinese have sold commercial and modern military equipment at “Bargain Basement” prices to these countries without the usual administrative and security nightmare that the Western Powers sought in order to make them into semi-client states.  These actions also had a secondary effect of dislodging current Russian domination of the area.

The concept of “diplomatic strategic positioning” follows the ancient Chinese game of “Goh” where one’s opponent is never challenged directly but surrounded by a complex system of strategically stationed out-posts.  Once your opponent has been neutralized, it becomes easy to make him a “Vassal” state.  In the past 10 years, the Chinese government has become the “supplier” of new innovative equipment. Through the underwriting of large purchases, China has lured away client states who were previously aligned with Russia – much like the old Soviet regime used to do.
Should hostilities break out between the two rivals, the Chinese will have new allies positioned where it would be strategically advantageous to establish bases and station “advisers” that are able to conduct military raids on local Russian holdings. It appears that Russia now believes the European Union (NATO) is now sitting on its doorstep, despite the fact there has never been a direct threat aimed at Russia.

While they may have been safe from the West, Russia failed, as it had often done before, to take heed of Chinese efforts to recover their pre-18th century influence and power. While Vladimir Igor Putin is still looking for danger from the West, his lack of focus has potentially placed him at a strategic disadvantage.

China will look to reassert its hegemonic control over the Southwestern Pacific by stationing a large military force in the region. However, it is possible that, as the economic and military power of China diminishes, we might see a rise of the Chinese former “allies” into formidable regional nations that could, in the end, collectively challenge both China and Russia for their independence.

How will these issues affect Western nations? Although most Canadians feel protected by distance, Canada has become economically tied to regions that now present potentially dangerous scenarios. If we were to just review the amount of trade and business that we conduct each year, their attitudes may change rather drastically.

The emerging policies of both Russia and China are causing and will continue to cause major concerns for western nations and organizations such as NATO and the UN. But more importantly, the new politically assertive policies of both countries may force Western governments to seriously examine their trade and commerce policies with a more pragmatic and critical view. Proactive political and military preparedness may not, in the end, be the only reasonable choice for the West to take – to speak as one voice, with a combined force that is stronger than either Russia or China’s potential military power, and to reduce access to technology and raw materials to feed their economies, may be the most effective tactics for dissipating the potential for violence.

Rob Day, a former CAF logistician, is a military analyst based in Ottawa.
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