Asia is in a state of flux. As many see the Western ideas of democracy and freedom retreating in the Orient, there is potential for history to repeat itself. This was most recently experienced in the 1930s, when the Japanese tried to reshape Asia in their image and millions died as a consequence. The Greater East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere was an effort by the statist Shōwa government to mask Japan’s belligerency to establish themselves as Asia’s hegemon. We all know what happened in the end. TASEANoday, Red China is working in the same manner as they cover blatantly imperialistic moves as acts of self-defense, eminent domain, and foreign aid. Xi Jinping’s government is using their newfound economic prosperity, kick started by Western aid, to push their influence into the rest of Asia at the cost of economic, democratic, and navigational freedom to the rest of the region. This is encapsulated in the military buildup that China is rapidly undergoing.
The question is whether China will repeat the ill-fated history of Imperial Japan. From a purely geopolitical standpoint, China’s military buildup, especially its naval buildup, mirrors Japan’s wishes to challenge American supremacy in the Pacific. While China claims it’s merely for defending its own coastline, the evidence is far from such. China is envisioning its power projection units, capital ships such as aircraft carriers and battlecruisers, sailing far from their own coast. The nine dashed line that China uses to assert their claims over the South China Sea scarily imitates the Japanese demands in the 1920s and 1930s. The militarization of these reefs and small islands in the South China Sea shows that Beijing seeks to control a global lynchpin of trade. However, China is grossly underestimating the will of Western countries who may push back. As of early 2017, the United States regularly patrolled the South China Sea. France and the United Kingdom will be sending their carrier groups into the region as well. Japan, Taiwan, and Vietnam are using their own naval and air forces to help stabilize regional security (while heightening tensions). Sharing American concerns over China, India is deepening ties with the US via joint war games and drills with the two nations. The United States has made it quite clear that China cannot militarize the South China Sea, and American naval units will continue to guarantee freedom of navigation even if it means war.
China has massive industry and could easily fight a prolonged war. That is an extreme overestimation that many pundits make the mistake of saying as they simply cannot see the tough geographic area China is in. What China does not have in this situation is space. Like Japan they can be backed into a corner by various Western and Asian powers. The People Liberation Army Navy will have a very tough time not only with breaking out into the Western Pacific but denying enemy navies access. China’s industry, though massive, is also a large target. America’s industry was safe enough in the World War II due to its geographic isolation from the combat zone, and that still applies today. China does not have that luxury as the majority of its industry is clustered in the eastern provinces near the coast. In the event of a war, China’s infrastructure could be easily crippled by thousands of allied cruise missiles attacks and airstrikes layered on top of cyber and electronic attacks. While China’s land based cruise missiles and navy may be able to do some damage, the air force will be unable to provide air superiority for either as they quickly become sitting ducks hunted by allied submarines, cruisers, and airstrikes. In summation, from an economic and military stand point, a war with America is not a war that China can win. Escalation would have devastating consequences, and they will soon find the limits of what they can and cannot do, and what lines they should not cross.
Xi Jinping has large ambitions for China but is just as naïve as any other antagonize to the west; he simply underestimates the resiliency and potential of the United States and her allies. This may be one reason why he keeps North Korea in existence as a thorn in the side to America to handle, and this may come to bite him back, as he is learning now. Many nations are slowly but surely seeing through China attempt to expand its influence as a blatant imperialistic move to expand the authoritarian government’s grip on its own people and poor people abroad. Beijing is playing with fire and should back down before it is too late.