Is China the “Third Reich” of East Asia or preserver of the region's order?

By He Qinglian on February 8, 2014
Source Article in Chinese: 中国:东亚的“第三帝国”还是秩序守护者?

During the House Intelligence Committee Hearing held on February 4, United States Director of National Intelligence James Clapper said that China's aggressive pursuit of territorial claims in the seas of East Asia is driven by a sense of historical destiny. That remark is only half correct. It is true that China is seeking to expand its territorial sovereignty. But to see that as “driven by a sense of historical destiny” is being misled by China's rhetoric. The truth is, China's expansion impulse comes from continued population growth while its local resources dwindle, the Malthusian catastrophe from which the country has no escape.

China's Malthusian catastrophe

Take a look back at China's history in the past three centuries, and one can see the Malthusian check at work whenever social crisis arose. Although the onset of the Malthusian check can be temporarily postponed as human's ability to extract natural resources is improved as progress in production methods is made, ultimately it would still happen unless human reproductive habit is changed and consumption of resources reduced. This is precisely the trap China is in. Back in the end of 1978, China's population was 975 million. In 2012, that figure increased to 1.354 billion. And at present, the total size of arable land in China is 1.827 billion mu (121.8 million hectares), that is, 1.39 mu per person, only a third of the world's average. Included in this figure is over three million mu of farmland contaminated by heavy metals and should not be used to grow crops.

Over the course of three decades, the relationship between China's population size and its resources has come to be in an unprecedented state of tension. The country now relies heavily on foreign supply when it comes to food, energy and various minerals. Back in 2010, the 21st Century Business Herald ran a feature report saying that China's economy, being highly external dependent, is hijacked by other countries. While that report was wrong to accuse other countries of hijacking China's economy, it made a clear analysis of China's reliance on foreign technologies, minerals and food. Four years have pasted, the situation now gets even worse. According to new data released in this January, in 2013 China has seen an overall increase in the degree of external dependence on coal, petroleum (57.39%, very close to the official red line of 61%), and natural gas (30.5%). With food self-sufficiency rate falling below 86% (lower than the official target of 95%), the country gets its three staple diets—rice, wheat, and maize—entirely from imports. And it suffers a two-folded shortage of water resource: the shortage of water in general and the shortage of clean water.

The Chinese government realized long ago that resource security is a serious matter and it should be said that the real impetus that drives Beijing to make sovereign claims in the waters of East and South China Seas, running the risk of triggering conflicts is its fear of the Malthusian castastrophe and not the so-called “sense of historical destiny”.

Contest for Lebensraum, an eternal theme of human society

Viewed with the historical perspective, the eternal theme of human society is the competition for Lebensraum, or living space. The rise of colonialism is derived from the urge of sovereign states to ease population pressure and to fight for resources. It was no coincidence that Thomas Robert Malthus came up with his demographic theory in Great Britain. A century before Malthus published his book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, Great Britain had already embarked on colonialism, and created the first perpetual settlement in North America in 1607. Beginning in the 18th century, the UK saw overseas migration on a massive scale. Because of the Industrial Revolution, the issue of serious excess of working population first emerged in England. Those people were in dire poverty. Malthus had an acute observation of the relationship between population growth and poverty, and made a well-known prediction in his book in 1798:
The power of population is so superior to the power of the earth to produce subsistence for man, that premature death must in some shape or other visit the human race. The vices of mankind are active and able ministers of depopulation. They are the precursors in the great army of destruction; and often finish the dreadful work themselves. But should they fail in this war of extermination, sickly seasons, epidemics, pestilence, and plague, advance in terrific array, and sweep off their thousands and tens of thousands. Should success be still incomplete, gigantic inevitable famine stalks in the rear, and with one mighty blow levels the population with the food of the world.
Three years after the publication of that book, England conducted its first population survey.

The establishment of colonies greatly relieved the pressure of the British people on the land of the country. In the 100 years between the end of the Napoleon War in 1814 and the outbreak of the first World War in 1914, about 20 million British people emigrated. Of those people, 13 million moved to America, 4 million to Canada, 1.5 million to Australia, and the rest found their new home elsewhere around the world. When the global colonization process of major powers was basically over at the beginning of the 20th century, England got the lion’s share. The two World Wars that took place in the 20th century were in essence conflagrations between rivalry capitalist countries which sought to divide colonies and expand their own market in the world.

Take a look back at Germany, the country responsible for triggering the two World Wars. It was the German chauvinism—stirred up by Otto von Bismarck realizing the unification dream and remarkable economic achievements—that drove Germany to pursue more territories, to seek higher international status and made it act in ways that caused both World Wars.

As for the rise of Adolf Hitler, that was no accident. About 5o years before he came to power, Ernst Hasse, Reichstag member and president of the Pan-German League published in 1895 the book Grossdeutschland und Mitteleuropa um das Jahr 1950 in which he outlined the dream of a greater Germany. What Hasse meant by greater Germany was that by 1950, the country would come to encompass the Netherlands, Belgium, the German-speaking region of Switzerland and present day Poland and Romania. In calling his bid for territorial gain a means to get more living space for the German people, Hitler could both fulfill the dream of those before him and satisfy the interest needs of massive numbers of workers, the unemployed, and members of the middle class. For these people, expansion was the only way they could get new opportunities.

China vis-à-vis the German Empire, a new model of international relation analogy
During the latter days of the HU Jintao era, whoever compared China to the “German Empire” that started the two World Wars would be deemed as making a political mistake. But now, as China gets increasingly overbearing, drawing comparison between China’s relationships with its neighbors and Germany’s relationships with the international community before the First and the Second World Wars has become a new model. The Chinese edition of the Global Times ran an overweening piece in Chinese which title read “To the Japanese media outlet that compares China to the German Empire: China’s stronger and more formidable” and it stated that “as China develops, the strength of the country increases. For the developed nations of the West, this means a redistribution of existing spheres of influence.” It cited Joseph Nye’s view that “China still lags far behind the United States” and then added that the US should nonetheless find some way to co-exist with China because: China is not Imperial Germany, it doesn’t need to surpass America in every aspect to become a far tougher rival to the US than Imperial Germany was to the British Empire; China has a more favorable Geo-strategic environment than the German Empire, which was surrounded by powerful countries on all sides and which edge over France and Russia was smaller than the advantageous strength asymmetry China now enjoys over its neighbors, in particular the Philippines and Vietnam; the US, the country that can match China's might is an ocean away; unlike Germany, which had to win in the naval arms race to outmatch the royal British Navy, today’s China can easily secure a naval victory as its maritime force is aided by land-based force and complemented by low cost land-based weapons in huge quantity.
From China’s viewpoint, it has no adversaries in Asia if the US does not get involved in the affairs in the East and South China Seas. Up to this moment, this judgment of Beijing still accurately reflects the reality—so far, aside from expressing condemnations, worries and regrets, the US has by and large taken actions that would not lead to conflicts.

Out of some considerations, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe was quite reserved in his comparison of the present day China-Japan relationships to that between Britain and Germany before the First World War. He said at the Davos Forum that there were close economic ties between the two warring countries in 1914, much like those between today’s Japan and China.

By contrast, President of the Philippines Benigno Aquino III was a lot more direct when he drew comparison in an interview by the New York Times. He likened the rising China to Nazi Germany and compared the onlooker attitude of the international community to the Appeasement policy of the West towards Hitler and noted that there is resemblance between the Philippines vis-à-vis China and Czechoslovakia vis-à-vis the aggressive Germany, that the Philippines is demanded to hand over a part of its territories to a much more powerful foreign power. Because of this, the Philippines needs concrete support from other countries to withstand China’s claims.

The coming five to ten years are critical to both China and Asia as a whole. While China is losing its status as the factory of the world and is feeling more acutely the limits of domestic resources, it still has plenty of money. The conflicts in China may be tensed, they are not impossible to suppress with force and it enjoys popular support in its bid to expand and lay claim to resources. Moreover, the international situation is much to China’s favor: though showing initial signs of an upward trend, the US economy remains weak, and the mainstream public opinion of the American people is that their government should get less involved in international affairs; the European Union too is still troubled by the recession trap and has no time to mind the business of others. There is no doubt that Beijing understands these favorable conditions would not last, and that’s why it is hurriedly making more territorial claims here and there. Whether or not China’s neighbors can cope with these depends on their willingness and capability to stand up to China. After all, those affected territories do not belong to America and it is unlikely that the US would step in.