Does China really need a war?

By He Qinglian on September 21, 2012.

The international community is mainly of two viewpoints on the recent storm that brewed over the Diaoyu Islands disputes. The first viewpoint was that the CPC, caught in a situation with both domestic and foreign issues, sought for itself a “scapegoat” to divert the attention; the other saw the protests as nothing but a farce. This second viewpoint is over simplistic, and has somewhat underestimated the CPC's ability in playing trickery games; the first viewpoint was correct. But if they thought the CPC only wanted to encourage the nationalistic sentiment and allowed the angry youth and fans of Mao Zedong to smash cars, burned down shops, and create a fuzz and call it quits. Then their understanding of Chinese politics is not deep and thorough enough.

As I pointed out in my previous article, the role the Chinese government played in this round of “state game” was different from that of the past. The question is: some political forces plotted this “state game” at a time when there is serious power struggle at the top in China as the power transition is taking place, what exactly did those forces want to achieve?

The joint statement issued by ten major-generals on September 13 in the Global Times might solve part of the puzzle.

Right at the beginning of the article, major-general Luo Yuan wrote, “the disputes over Diaoyu Islands is not just a matter of the Chinese nationalist sentiment, but also involve core strategic interests of China”. According to previous explanation the CPC provided, what “core strategic interests” means is the CPC's right to rule. Given that China is under the control of the CPC, what this refers to would probably not be the entire party's right to govern, but that of a certain faction within the party. Otherwise, this line would only be unnecessary as there is no political force strong enough to challenge the CPC regime at this moment.

If what major-general Luo wrote was still implicit, then what Wang Haiyun wrote was clear and direct, “The North Sea, East Sea, and South (China) Sea fleets should all be properly established, the nation's money should be used in the right place.” The remark has made it quite clear that the military system is the right place where the country should put its money in. While it is true that the civil service system takes up too much resources, resulting in the people's livelihood not being cared for and fattening the pockets of many corrupt officials, leaving the proper works unattended. But, at peaceful times, a normal country should focus on the needs of the people, so as to quell public grievances. Those who said that the proper thing to do is to spend more on military expansion and preparation for war are just making an excuse to vie for larger share of interests for the military clique.

The Chinese government has been stingy on spending that could improve the livelihood of the people. By contrast, it spends lavishly on military and stability maintenance, there is no reason to spend even more on that two government branches. Then how would the military manage to get more funding? The only way to force the government into further increase in military spending would be a war.

Let's then take a look at how Wang Haiyun explained the steps to take to start the disputes over the Diaoyu Islands:—

First we can send fishing boats to fish in the area; then we send our ocean surveillance ships and maritime ship to follow up; the third step, we dispatch our navy. We have no fear of going to war, but we will try best not to.
China has taken the first two of these three steps, there is only one move left.

Japan is not the only country that China has territories disputes with. Vietnam took 25 islands from China; Russia seized from China rich and fertile land; and India, too, occupied a large piece of land south of the McMahon Line. After some careful calculation, those major-generals figured that Japan is the most convenient target as it had invaded China in the past, and China could easily obtain moral high ground in territorial disputes with it. To get completely even with Japan, which in over a century had taken several acts of aggression against China, in particular the invasion during the Second World War, they proposed that a strategic battle with that country be launched next year, the 70th anniversary of the signing of the Cairo Declaration.

By “strategic battle” those major-generals are of course not contemplating a virtual war. They are in fact preparing for a small scale war that the Chinese military could manage. In the last few years, there have been a great number of military enthusiasts, including some war enthusiasts, that gathered on websites and forums relating to military information. On these platforms there are articles arguing in favor of China going to war, seeing that as a way to strengthen the combat ability of the Chinese army and to raise the moral standards of the Chinese people.

Apart from these articles that tried to justify a war, there is a piece that began circulating years ago. Allegedly, that article said that if China started a war with Taiwan, many weapon factories in Hunan could immediately solve the local problems of unemployment and economic growth. Since the article was written years ago, the imaginary enemy in it was Taiwan. In the last several years, however, as Ma Ying-jeou became so submissive to Beijing, and more people in Taiwan came to agree with the “gradual and peaceful unification” that a war with the island no longer makes sense. Nonetheless, there might be some “wise individuals” who have long been making elaborate plans to use war to resolve unemployment and economic growth problem.

Throughout history, autocratic countries often instigate nationalistic sentiment when there many conflicts at home that are beyond the government's ability to solve. In so doing, the people's attention on domestic issues would be diverted to conflicts with other countries. Sometimes a war might even be started for this purpose. Otto von Bismarck the renowned Iron Chancellor, for example, had some successes with this plot. And in recent years, there have been quite a sizable group of military fans who idolize this Iron Chancellor, whose achievement of unifying Prussia through three wars is seen as what China should learn from. What do these people want to learn? Bismarck's diplomatic maneuvers that isolated the enemies before he started any war.

However, focusing only on countries that had won big in wars is not what a wise person would do. While paying attention to Bismarck's successes, China must not forget Tsarist Russia, which losses in a battle sowed the seeds of its collapse. The war that cost the Czar all his authority was the Russo-Japanese war in 1904. In the late 19th century, there was serious wealth disparity and intense class conflicts in Russia. The upper classes led lavish and comfortable lifestyle while the common people and the peasants at the bottom of society had to carry heavy burden of labor and taxes. After ascending to the throne, Czar Nicholas II implemented vigorous financial reform measures, yet he could not ease those social conflicts. With Russia's crumbling defeat in the Russo-Japanese war in 1904, the country suffered, in addition to massive losses of soldiers, a serious inflation caused by a sharp increase in material demands, food shortage, and the rising prices. The country was in panic and unrest , a political crisis was triggered as a result. Eventually a revolution broke out and the Czar regime was overthrown.

If Beijing truly wants the Diaoyu Islands, it should get ready all sorts of documents that support its claim, and resolve the disputes through requesting a ruling from international court. If it tries to find an excuse to start a small-scale, controllable war, then it should think twice. There are a lot of rumors about how corrupt the Chinese army is, there have been several commanders and generals put behind bars because of bribery. As for the combat capacity of the army, those generals who train the troops would know better than the civilian generals who issued that joint statement.

As for the various social conflicts that become increasingly intensified, they would not just go away by creating an enemy and fighting a small-scale war. To go to war with Japan, the odds of victory and defeat are fifty-fifty.

If China won, then there is no doubt that fans of Mao Zedong would cheer for the regime; but if it lost, then the chance of reborn that Deng Xiaoping created for the CPC through economic reform, and the accumulated national strength, and its international status would all be reduced to nothing in an unsuccessful war.