The Strategic Influence Game 2: China in Space

On 29 September at 1316 hours GMT a Long March 2F missile, China’s latest lifter, powered into the sky carrying Tiangong-1, Beijing’s first space laboratory. Shortly, China will launch Shenzhou 8 which is designed to link up with the orbiting laboratory some 350 kilometres above the Earth. Soon the Long March 5 will be in service capable of putting a 50 ton payload into low Earth orbit. On 10 August China’s first aircraft carrier began its sea trials. Although it is a re-fitted former Soviet carrier and by no means state-of-the-art, taken together with China’s investment in submarines, a new ‘carrier-killer’ ballistic missile and stealth aircraft Beijing is clearly intent on entering the strategic Premiership of world power. This ambition should be clearly understood as such…with all that implies for the West.

The timing is no mere coincidence. With the West mired in debt and much of Europe suffering strategic depression China is signalling that the Western world order is over. A challenge is being laid down to the United States and its allies that has enormous implications for NATO and European defence. Critically, as China invests in expeditionary military capability much of Europe is effectively unilaterally divesting itself of said capabilities. This is not without a certain irony. The loss of Europe’s conventional deterrent will almost certainly lead to much greater reliance in time on nuclear deterrence, something the legions of soft power disarmers in Europe might wish to consider.

Like Russia, China has a classical view of international politics. The state comes first – at home and abroad. Alliances, such as they exist, are designed merely to further the national strategic interest the aim of which is decisive influence over the neighbourhood and in time peer competitors. China’s grand strategy, which is euphemistically entitled Strategic Harmony, represents a world view that is essentially zero sum – a stronger China means a weaker America.

It is within than context that the space launch must be seen. Beijing clearly understands the psychological impact of power symbolism. With the Euro crisis accelerating Europe’s precipitate decline into strategic impotence China is establishing its psychological and ‘moral’ supremacy over much of the West. Strangely, Europe seems to be happily complicit in its own decline with little regard for the medium and long-term strategic consequences of its debt-dependency on China. This can be partly explained by the decadent nature of the debate in Europe about the ‘right’ to power. Indeed, so confused have Europeans become about the relationship between values and interests that the making of what might be termed European grand strategy is now nigh on impossible.

With Europe trapped in a self-defeating debate about the morality of power China is driving forward to make best use of it by re-defining the rules of the strategic game. China’s practice of power is to use the West against itself. By keeping the Yen artificially low China has used the West’s consumer obesity to force potential peer competitors into debt by effectively warping the global economy in its favour. The global economy is no level playing field. When the US threatens retaliation (Europeans are of no consequence in Beijing) China concedes just enough ground to maintain the system in its favour.

The transfer of wealth from West to East generated by China’s effective capture of globalisation has been used in part to fund an increase in defence expenditure of some 247% over ten years. It has also been used to fund national prestige projects that help convince the world of China’s emergence as a superpower and mask the many contradictions that exist in the Chinese economy and its complex society.

Cleverly, the Beijing elite is strengthening its grip on power by offering China a new social contract. The Communist Party agrees to draw back from overt interference in the lives of its citizens (to a point) and to promote improved living standards by embracing capitalism in return for the Party enjoying an untrammelled right to the exclusive exercise of power – both at home and abroad.

Having created this new social contract the reform pressure on the Party has by and large gone. However, the pressure on Beijing to exert Chinese power and influence abroad has increased. It is a high-risk strategy. So long as economic growth can be maintained the Party’s freedom to act will be maintained. However, if China’s economy falters then the temptation to resort to narrow Chinese nationalism will become a very real danger. Like Russia massive state power is concentrated in the hands of a relative few with a very traditional view of power and strategy.

When the ‘correlation of forces’ is deemed appropriate Beijing will certainly move to resolve the status of Taiwan and China’s various territorial disputes in the South China Sea. Over time China will seek to further extend its strategic footprint further into the Indian Ocean and South Pacific. And, this process will inevitably lead to increased tension with the US as China seeks to remove the US from its sphere of influence.

Chinese strategy does not mean war is inevitable nor does it suggest that China is implicitly or explicitly warlike. China is merely the latest player of a geopolitical game that Europeans invented but have now forgotten. However, China’s determination to exert strategic influence is clear. The power to influence is after all the purpose of its wealth creation. This simple strategic truism of Chinese power and strategy will thus shape the strategic balance of power of the century to come.

Forays into deep space are merely steps on the Long March of Chinese national strategy on the road to a new strategic space. China’s strategic space. Who or what will exert strategic influence over China?

Julian Lindley-French is Eisenhower Professor of Defence Strategy at the Netherlands Defence Academy, Fellow of Respublica in London, Associate Fellow of the Austrian Institute for European and Security Studies and a member of the Strategic Advisory Group of the Atlantic Council. He is also a member of the Academic Advisory Board of the NATO Defence College in Rome. This essay first appeared on his personal blog, Lindley-French’s Blog Blast.

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