Where China Stands

150610-S1609-20-Chinese-Brass-Seat-Guan-Gong-Yu-Warrior-God-font-b-Dragon-b-fontHad I posted this article even as little as eighteen months ago, the answer would have run somewhat as follows. Ever since Deng Xiaoping took over in 1979, China’s star has been on the ascendant. A backward, relatively small, economy has transformed itself. Achieving historically unprecedented growth rates, it is now the second largest in the world (in terms of GDP) and poised to become the first at some time between 2020 and 2030.

As China’s economy expanded, so did its armed forces and its foreign policy objectives. China is developing modern combat aircraft. China has started building a second aircraft carrier. China’s latest cruise missiles have the range to challenge the ability of the American Navy to assist Taiwan if necessary. China is actively seeking to dominate the huge area known as the South China Sea. And so on and so on. Such being the situation, the only question is how to manage Beijing’s spectacular rise; by seeking to “integrate it into the international system” (whatever that may mean) or by actively opposing it by every means short of major war.

A year later, what a change! By the headlines, Chinese economic growth has slowed to “only” 6.9 percent, the lowest in two and a half decades. The stock market is falling. The country’s debts threaten to overwhelm it. Thanks to the (recently abandoned) one child policy, the future of its labor force is in some doubt. China may have reached the point where Japan was back in 1990 (at that time Japan accounted for 10 percent of the world’s GDP; since then its share has been reduced by half). This state of affairs may cause Beijing to slow the pace of armament and moderate its foreign policy. Or else, to the contrary, it may force the leadership to become more belligerent by way of diverting its people’s attention from the country’s internal problems.

What is it going to be? No one knows. So here are some factors which will determine the outcome:

  1. China’s economic growth may no longer be as fast as it used to be. But it still maintains a pace that should be the envy of practically any other country on earth. Partly perhaps as a result, there are currently no signs that the Communist Party’s hold on power is weakening or that a revolutionary situation is being formed.
  2. China’s national debt is equal to 64 percent of GDP. Less than that of Germany (73 percent), the UK (82 percent), the US (104 percent), and Japan (216 per cent). In other words, among the world’s five largest economies China is the least indebted one.
  3. Unlike Japan in 1990, China is far from being a “mature” economy. As of 2014, 54 percent of its population lived on the land. That figure is comparable to those of backward countries such as Albania, Azerbaijan, Cameroon, and, towards the end of the alphabet, Syria. In other words, there still is plenty of room for expanding the industrial labor force, should growth resume.
  4. China has more or less active border disputes with every one of its immediate neighbors. This makes it hard for the leadership to focus on a single opponent and direct the country’s military policy accordingly. The more so because, over the last few years, fear of China has caused a growing number of its neighbors to strengthen their ties with each other as well as with Washington DC.
  5. China’s economic development is absolutely dependent on imported energy and raw materials. But for them, the country would very quickly revert to its pre-1979 state. However, geography has placed China in a position where it is separated from the Pacific by a chain whose links are formed by Korea, Japan, Taiwan and the Philippines. To make things worse still, its only access to the Indian Ocean leads through the Straits of Malacca. Cutting off the sea lanes in question would be relatively easy.
  6. Given these circumstances, in any major future armed conflict designed to prevent China from changing from a regional power into a global one the country’s navy would have to play a major role. However, though China has one aircraft carrier and has started work on another, both are, in reality, only half carriers. Even when the second one is completed the two together will not represent much of a challenge to the US Navy, which has eleven full size ones.
  7. A factor which is hardly ever mentioned in this context, but whose importance in  shaping the future will be critical, is the nuclear balance. At the moment, China’s nuclear forces, as measured in terms of the number of missiles and delivery vehicles, are no match for those of the US. This is very likely to remain so in the foreseeable future. But no matter. Unless someone in Beijing, or Washington DC, goes completely bonkers, fear of escalation, which may end in nuclear escalation, will prevail—just as, among nuclear countries, it has invariably done over the last seventy years.
  8. The same logic will govern China’s relations with its two nuclear neighbors, Russia and India. The former has the ability to wipe China off the map. The latter can tear off an arm (to use the old French phrase). Border incidents with both countries have taken place in the past and may well do so again. But large scale war? Hardly.

Final prognosis: Current talk of China’s economic decline seems to be exaggerated. Growth will resume, though probably not at the rates all of us have become familiar with over the last thirty-five years. Partly building on its economic power and partly moved by the need to sustain that power, China, like any other country throughout history, will continue to seek to realize its foreign policy objectives and build up its armed forces. It will not, however, risk large sale war either with its most important neighbors or with the US.


Twenty-five years ago my family and I were taking shelter in the so-called “sealed room” in our home just west of Jerusalem. So did the dogs, who quickly caught on and knew the routine as well as any of us. Outside, the Middle East was witnessing the largest conventional war fought anywhere in the world since 1945.

It all started in July 1990 when the then US ambassador in Baghdad, April Glaspie, gave Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein the go ahead in Kuwait. Or so, at any rate, he understood whatever it was that she had told him. Such misunderstandings are by no means uncommon in history. Think, for example, of the British failure to warn Germany in 1914 that any invasion of Belgium would lead to war between the two countries. Or of Hitler’s failure to understand that, in guaranteeing the integrity of Poland against outside aggression. Britain and France, after years of appeasement, were finally getting serious. Or of Egyptian dictator Gamal Abdul Nasser failing to grasp Israel’s intentions after he had remilitarized the Sinai Peninsula and closed the Straits of Tiran back in May 1967.

To repeat, the outcome was the largest conventional war since 1945. On one side was the Iraqi Army. Quantitatively it was very impressive force; some estimates put the total number of troops at Saddam’s disposal at over a million. If true, that would have made them the fifth largest on earth, right behind the USSR (which, to remind those of you who have forgotten, was still intact), the US, China, and India. Against them were arrayed almost a million men (and, yes, for God’s sake, a few women too) of various nations of whom the US accounted for about seventy percent.

m60a1_rise_era_069_of_104As it turned out, Saddam’s forces were no match for their opponents. First, the Coalition used its overwhelming advantage in the air to knock out Iraq’s airfields, communication system, and anti-aircraft defenses. Next it went on to pulverize much of its infrastructure, and paralyze or smash its armed forces. Finally, even as the US Marines mounted a diversionary attack on Kuwait, General Schwarzkopf launched a massive ground operation (“Hail Mary”), outflanking the Iraqi army from the west and forcing it to withdraw. The entire ground campaign only lasted 96 hours and cost the Coalition very few casualties. At that point President Bush, Sr., declared the objective had been achieved and forced the Iraqis to sue for terms.

No sooner had the war ended than post-action analysis got under way. In Washington DC, in London, in Paris, in Tel Aviv, and—it is said—in Damascus as well, what impressed most observers was the new technologies the Americans put to use. Including satellite reconnaissance, JSTARS (Joint Surveillance and Target Attack System), stealth aircraft, cruise missiles, precision-guided munitions, anti-missile defenses (which proved more or less useless), the most powerful tanks ever deployed on a battlefield, and the vast command, control, and communications network in history up to that point. For a number of years there was much talk about “lifting the fog of war” and a “revolution in military affairs.” Even a historical transition from war to something known as “hyperwar.” New technology, it was claimed, would cause future wars to look like the last one. Get in, fire your load, and get out; easily, smoothly, and with very few casualties.

Following the defeat in Vietnam, America had become cautious and reluctant to go to war. Now its leaders, both civilian and military, were overtaken by hubris. They claimed, and no doubt sincerely believed, that theirs were the best trained, best organized, best equipped and best led forces in history. What they forgot was that the forces in question had been used against a conventional army; albeit one that was vastly inferior, qualitatively speaking.

Nemesis was quick to assert itself. I well remember how, early in 1993, I was sitting in the office of a senior US Marine Corps general. As we discussed the forthcoming operation in Somalia, I told him that, in my opinion, it there would be difficult to carry out and might very well end in failure. In response he looked at me as if I were a Neanderthal who had escaped from some museum. When the campaign began it proved to all the world the utter inability of the US, by then the world’s sole remaining Superpower, to impose its will on some ill-fed (they were actually known as “Skinnies”), ill-clad, ill-trained, ill-equipped, ill-everything, local militias.

In 2001 the invasion of Afghanistan brought those with eyes to see a similar lesson. To no avail. Ignoring both the facts and the critics who pointed them out, two years later President Bush Jr. ordered his forces into Iraq. The ensuing campaign turned out to be anything but quick and easy. Instead it led to a long war that resulted in over 4,000 American dead a well as tens of thousands injured, many of them very badly. All without producing anything remotely resembling a victory.

In 1991, President Bush Sr.’s decision not to pursue the fleeing Iraqis 500 kilometers to Baghdad and topple Saddam gave rise to much criticism. Now it turned out that, compared to his son who did go to Baghdad and did topple Saddam, the elder Bush had been a pure genius. So bad was the defeat that, when trouble broke out in Libya and Syria in 2011, neither the US nor any of its allies any longer had what it takes to send in any ground forces at all.

In 1991, twenty-five years ago, the Americans and their allies knew where to stop. In 2003 they did not. Overconfident and blind to their own limitations, they opened the gates of hell, unleashing thousands upon thousands of devils inside.

Now, unfortunately, it is the turn of the rest of the world to be Saddamized.

What Should Really Worry Putin

ppl4Have you ever been to Moscow? I have, a couple of times. What I remember best are not the great landmarks. It is the duty-free at Domodedovo airport. West-European jewelry, luxury articles, clothes, wines, and spirits. Japanese and Korean electronics. Very posh. But practically nothing made in Russia itself. About the only exceptions are matroshkas, the painted wooden dolls that fit into each other, and vodka. Lots and lots of it.

There is nothing new about this. There was a time when, throughout the world, all non-agricultural products had to be manufactured by hand. Next, at some time in the seventeenth century, industry, driven first by water, then by steam, started taking over. Once this happened the Russians, for some obscure reason that has never been explained to my satisfaction, were no longer able keep up. Enlisting foreign experts, they succeeded in building up an arms industry. Its products were often crude, but they did the job. As, for example, the World War II Yak-9 fighter and T-34 tank did. And as the Kalashnikov assault rifle famously does to the present day.

The situation with non-military Russian industrial products the situation was just the opposite. Though serviceable, more or less, they tended to be crude. As a result, they never commanded much of a foreign market. Whoever has seen an item marked, “made in Russia”? Until 1917 at any rate the Russians enjoyed an agricultural surplus, mainly wheat, which they sold in Western Europe. Come Communism, though, and that trade disappeared. Not even the collapse of the Soviet Union could repair the damage. Currently Russian agricultural imports are four times as large as its exports. This, in spite of the fact that 9 percent of the workforce is employed in agriculture and fully 25 percent of the population lives on the land. Almost the only commodities Russia produces that foreigners want to buy are oil and gas. As someone has said, first the Soviet Union and then Russia turned into a “Saudi Arabia with an arms industry.”

In terms of its armed forces, the Soviet Union during the last two decades of its existence was probably the second most powerful country on earth. By some calculations it may have been the first. These forces fed on what, at the time, was supposed to be the second or third largest GDP. But things have changed. In terms of GDP Russia now ranks tenth in the world, behind not only the old-established industrial powers but China, Brazil, and India as well. However, its armed forces are still ranked as the second or, at worst, third most powerful. That is hardly a situation that can be sustained for very long.

Particularly enlightening is the comparison with China. Starting in the 17th century Russia, when dealing with China, always did so from a position of strength, enabling it to tear off and annex huge stretches of territory. This remained true even as late as the 1970s when the Chinese, perfectly aware of their weakness, prepared to meet a possible Soviet invasion by waging a “people’s war.” Since then, by contrast, so enormous has Chinese growth been, and so weak has Russia become, that the latter is in real danger of becoming a mere appendage to the former.

Worst of all is the demographic situation. Back in 1914 every tenth person on earth was governed from the Kremlin. Russia’s population exceeded that of the United States, let alone that of every European country. That is why people talked of “the Russian steamroller.” Even as late as 1990 just over one in twenty persons was Soviet and the Soviet population exceeded that of the US 270,000,000 to 240,000,000. Since then things have changed. Currently Russia’s population is just over 140,000,000, rather less than half that of the US. Only about one in fifty persons on earth is Russian.

Behind the decline are two World Wars in which Russia suffered greater casualties than any other country. Also, of course, Stalin’s purges which took the lives of millions, though probably not 20,000,000 as one author suggests. But there has also been at work another factor which, though it is mentioned much less often, may have been the most important of all, especially after 1945. What I mean is the Communist version of feminism.

The way Karl Marx’s friend Friedrich Engels, and, above all, the German Social-Democrat August Bebel saw it, no woman was truly free unless she worked outside the home and earned her own living. To this was added Lenin’s idea that the only way to pull the war- and revolution devastated Soviet Union of his day out of its misery was to have women work like men. Come Stalin, and millions of Russian women entered the factories (and the universities, where the Tsar did not admit them). Women drove tractors and trains. Women operated heavy mechanical equipment. Women did construction work and worked in the mines. During World War II the Soviet Union had the dubious distinction of being the only country in history where female workers formed a majority even among those employed underground. No wonder they died like flies. In return they got the rights of men and the wages of men (but only if they were as high as men in the hierarchy, which seldom happened. Neither of which, in a country like the Soviet Union, amounted to much.

The outcome was predictable. Early in the twentieth century the women of the Russian empire, 90 percent of whom lived in the countryside, were the most fertile in the world, having 6-8 children on the average. Though many children died, there still remained room for healthy demographic growth. With Lenin, Stalin and their female colleagues Nadezha Krupskaya (Lenin’s wife) and Alexandra Kollontai breathing down their necks, things changed. As women found employment outside the home, the birthrate dropped. The more so because of bad housing conditions in the cities which often forced families to share flats. The typical urban Soviet family became smaller and smaller until most counted just four persons: father, mother, child, and a live-in babushka.

The fact that contraceptives were hard to obtain and abortion the most important method of birth control only made things worse. The downward trend was not evenly distributed. Partly because they were less urbanized, partly because of social and cultural factors, the decline among the empire’s non-Slav populations was much smaller than among the ethnic Russians. By the 1980s, well over one third of the Soviet population consisted of Moslems. Finally realizing what they had done, the authorities started paddling back. Some changes were made to make the lives of working women easier. Party hacks suddenly discovered the virtues of the “traditional” Russian kitchen as a place to relax, socialize, and gossip. Too little, too late. When the War in Afghanistan essentially left the Kremlin without an army able and willing to enforce its wishes the endgame, in the form of Soviet disintegration, got under way.

Today Putin, commanding armed forces that he has succeeded in modernizing during the last fifteen years, is trying to show that his country is still a world power. A part of this effort he has stirred up trouble in the Ukraine and the Middle East (though whether his support of Assad is really more ill-advised than Obama’s attempts to topple the Syrian president is moot). He has even succeeded in raising the birth rate a little bit. But there still can be no question of reversing the overall demographic decline. Let alone of addressing the most important problem of all, i.e Russia’s chronic inability to produce industrial goods anyone wants to buy.

By all historical logic Russia, or the Russian Federation as it pleases to call itself, is doomed. The disintegration may well start with the thirty percent of the population who are not Russian. Against this historical trend, not even Putin’s attempts to shore up his country by flexing its military muscle is likely to be of much avail.

Johnny Has a Hobby Horse

hobbelpaardAs I have written before, I get quite some feedback to my posts. Some praise them, others condemn. Some ask for permission to re-post them on their own blogs, which I almost always grant. I am grateful for all of them, for they make me think. Specifically for one of the last, sent by M. E. in response to “Sickly, Sick, Widowed.” It went as follows:

“About feminism, have you ever wondered/suspected that you are riding a hobbyhorse?”

A hobbyhorse, my correspondent was kind enough to explain, “is a polite way of saying that the rider is not entirely compos mentis… You are making a fool of yourself with your grand theory about feminism. From your title I infer that you are widowed and ailing. This seems to be hinting that what you’re writing is not to be taken as entirely (or at all?) seriously but that can’t be so if you went to the trouble to write a book on this subject.”

Thank God, I am neither widowed nor ailing. Not yet, any rate. But never mind. Twenty-four centuries ago, there was an Athenian named Socrates. He was poor, but not because he did not know how to look after himself. In fact the sources present him as a man who was perfectly able to make money had he wanted to. And so brave in battle that no one dared stand in his way. But instead of exercising these talents he had a hobbyhorse. He used to go around the agorai (public squares) and streets, buttonholing people and asking them to tell him the meaning of such things as justice, beauty, truth, etc. For riding that hobbyhorse he was executed.

Four hundred years ago, there was a Dominican monk called Giordano Bruno. A follower of Copernicus, he argued that the earth revolved around the sun, instead of vice versa. Much worse still, he raised the possibility that the universe might be infinite and have no center. It might even contain other suns with planets with life on them. For riding that hobbyhorse, he was burnt at the stake.

A hundred and sixty-two years ago there was born, in the little known Dutch village of Zundert, a man by the name of Vincent van Gogh. Growing up, he started painting like no one has ever painted before or since. However, the fact that he painted like no one else meant that no one wanted his work. He lived in dire poverty—but for his brother’s support, he would have starved. Frustrated because no one understood what he was trying to do, he became “not entirely compos mentis.” He spent time in various lunatic asylums and at one point cut off his ear, offering it to a prostitute he met in a brothel. At the age of 36 he put a gun to his chest and fired. He, too, rode a hobbyhorse. As he is supposed to have said, what would life be if we had no courage to attempt anything?

Fifty years ago there was an American woman journalist named Betty Friedan. As she told me during an interview she gave me in May 2002, she lost her job because she was pregnant. Not once but twice. That made her seethe with anger. Turning her face against the prevailing wisdom of the time, which considered that women’s proper place was the home, she wrote The Feminine Mystique. This hobbyhorse made her world famous. Based on our conversation, though, I suspect that, had she risen to witness today’s feminism which, seeing every woman as a victim, makes a mockery of the equality she sought, she would have returned to the grave as fast as she could.

Briefly, it is hobbyhorses that make the world go round. That does not mean that anyone who rides a hobbyhorse will necessarily turn out to be a Socrates, a Bruno, a van Gogh, or a Friedan. Of course not. For every titan there are a thousand, perhaps ten thousand, dwarfs. Yet it is also true that, but for the dwarfs, the titans almost certainly could never have grown as titanic as they did. Who ever heard of the painters Willem Roelofs? Or of Anton Mauve? Yet in their own time they did their best and enjoyed modest success. More important to our purpose, they were among van Gogh’s earliest teachers and had quite some influence on him. To Mauve he even dedicated one of his own paintings.

Having studied Mars for so long, I became interested in Venus. After all, it was she who required protection, often instigated the enterprises he undertook, and loved him after he had successfully completed them. That is why I devote a considerable part of my time and energy to trying to understand the respective natures of men and women and the relationship between them. Past, present, and, if possible, future. I studied this subject just as I did all the rest: meaning, by doing it my way. Not that of certain others, however learned and however aggressive in pushing their views while trying to ridicule or shut up everyone else.

Nietzsche says that no one grows up until he recaptures the absolute earnestness of a child at play. Like the anonymous toddler in the photograph, I am very proud of my hobbyhorse. The following Dutch rhyme, which I remember from my childhood, sums it all up:


Johnny has a hobby horse

Without a purpose, without a cause.

Around he rides, without effect

Quite naked, just like that.