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LIFE MATTERS: The United States, China and the Specter of War

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First part of 3 parts

By Colonel Dencio S. Acop (Ret), PhD

Battling for Supremacy Amidst Unprecedented Radical Change, Challenged Ideology, and Global Order

‘We live in interesting times’ as the popular saying goes! So much is happening in the world today! This much can be said probably at any time in man’s history. Except that today, the unprecedented dominance of technology in our lives makes this early part of the 21st century perhaps the most that mankind could ever hope for in trying to maintain the global order that has brought relative world peace the past 78 years. This written work will attempt to argue about the ongoing battle for supremacy between rising China and the United States, the world’s dominant leader, amidst a sea of unprecedented changes in the world which include radical technological innovation and the decline of liberal democracy. In its argument, the paper will essentially discuss the grand strategy of China towards asserting itself in a world dominated by liberal democracies led by the United States. Inevitably, the discussion will conclude that in China’s pursuit to challenge the liberal order, it risks conflict with the United States and its allies. Thus, the specter of another global war looms in mankind’s horizon. This work’s first aim is to make people aware about this impending doom unless a miracle happens. And its second goal is to hope that its warning doesn’t go unheeded by a distracted world. That some collective action can be taken to avert a brewing global crisis.

This work tries to accomplish the following: Its first section discusses how the prevailing liberal order in the world today is being challenged by unprecedented changes which favor dictatorships of every kind. These changes include radical technological innovations presenting alternative facts, fake news, and influential algorithms. The second section argues that these profound changes along with China’s economic dominance and believed U.S. decay have encouraged China to assert itself in the world today using its grand strategy before this window of opportunity closes. Finally, its third section discusses how the United States and its allies are responding to China’s challenge in the Asia-Pacific region and the rest of the globe. Unfortunately, this brewing conflict between two opposing ideologies led by the world’s two most powerful nations may plunge the world in yet another global war unseen in almost a century.

Challenges to the Prevailing World Order

Any serious challenge to the prevailing order of democratic peace in the world by China is bound to end up in a regional and then global conflict between adherents of liberal ideology and those of modern era feudalism. If the trend of human aspirations through history is a gage, nations have opted for electoral liberal democracy beginning in the 20th century (Herre, Ospina, & Roser, 2013). Today in 2023, the World Population Review records that there are 74 democracies (45%), 56 authoritarian states (34%), and 34 hybrid states (21%) among the 164 United Nations member countries (World Population Review, 2023). Also, 192 U.N. member states are signatories to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights (The Danish Institute for Human Rights, 2023). While some of the signatories are of the position that certain provisions of the Declaration are not binding, they nevertheless signed on to the document. And why not? Universal advocacy and advancement of human rights benefit all peoples of the world regardless of political, economic, or socio-cultural differences. Democratic, authoritarian, or hybrid, the leaders of the nations of the world signed the document for their constituent peoples and citizens. The efficiency and effectiveness rates of assuring respect for human rights to the domestic population are theoretically better in democratic republics where people govern themselves through freely elected representatives who derive their power from the people. But in a world characterized today by blurred liberal values, challenged governance and enforcement practices, globalization impacts, and relativism of almost every value known to man, the global playing field interacting with domestic values and systems has become perfectly ripe for exploitation by powerful national governments and individuals.

While governments and their leaders are presumed to serve the best interests of their countries, there are different ideologies and systems that they use in order to achieve them. These ideologies and systems are the products of each nation’s unique history and culture. There are two main ideologies and systems used by countries toward serving their national interests: liberal democracy and authoritarianism. Some countries use a hybrid of these two. Although it is assumed that both systems pursue the same goal of serving the best interests of the constituent peoples they serve, each system is vastly different from the other. The basic difference lies in who controls the ultimate power in the life of a country. One allows the majority of the domestic population to determine how they live either through direct self-determination or through credible election of representatives who work on their behalf. The other allows power to one individual or a party of individuals who are then presumed to work for the best interests of the country and its citizens.

What is democracy?

“Democracy comes from the Greek word, ‘demos’, meaning people. In democracies, it is the people who hold sovereign power over legislator and government. Democracy is government in which power and civic responsibility are exercised by all citizens, directly or through their freely elected representatives. Democracy is a set of principles and practices that protect human freedom; it is the institutionalization of freedom. Democracy rests upon the principles of majority rule, coupled with individual and minority rights. All democracies, while respecting the will of the majority, also zealously protect the fundamental rights of individuals and minority groups. Democracies guard against all-powerful central governments and decentralize government to regional and local levels, understanding that local government must be as accessible and responsive to the people as possible. Democracies understand that one of their prime functions is to protect such basic human rights as freedom of speech and religion; the right to equal protection under the law; and the opportunity to organize and participate fully in the political, economic, and cultural life of society.” (Principles of Democracy, accessed Nov 2023).

“Democracies conduct regular, free, and fair elections open to all citizens. Elections in a democracy cannot be facades that dictators or a single party hide behind, but authentic competitions for the support of the people. Democracy subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal subjects governments to the rule of law and ensures that all citizens receive equal protection under the law and that their rights are protected by the legal system. Democracies are diverse, reflecting each nation’s unique political, social, and cultural life. Democracies rest upon fundamental principles, not uniform practices. Citizens in a democracy not only have rights, they have the responsibility to participate in the political system that, in turn, protects their rights and freedoms. Finally, democratic societies are committed to the values of tolerance, cooperation, and compromise. Democracies recognize that reaching consensus requires compromise and that it may not always be attainable. In the words of Mahatma Gandhi, ‘intolerance is itself a form of violence and an obstacle to the growth of a true democratic spirit’.” (Principles of Democracy, accessed Nov 2023).

On the other hand, “Authoritarianism is a political system characterized by a controlling government and the rejection of democracy, human rights, and political plurality. It involves the use of strong central power to preserve the political status quo, and reductions in the rule of law, separation of powers, and democratic voting. Authoritarian regimes may be either autocratic or oligarchic and may be based upon the rule of a party or the military. States that have a blurred boundary between democracy and authoritarianism have sometimes been characterized as ‘hybrid regimes’. Authoritarianism has four qualities: (1) Limited political pluralism, which is achieved with constraints on the legislature, political parties, and interest groups. (2) Political legitimacy based on appeals to emotion and identification of the regime as a necessary evil to combat ‘easily recognizable societal problems, such as underdevelopment or insurgency’. (3) Minimal political mobilization, and suppression of anti-regime activities. And (4) Ill-defined executive powers, often vague and shifting, used to extend the power of the executive.” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov 2023).“An authoritarian government lacks free and competitive direct elections to legislatures, free and competitive direct or indirect elections for executives, or both. Authoritarian states include countries that lack civil liberties such as freedom of religion, or countries in which the government and the opposition do not alternate in power at least once following free elections. Authoritarian states might contain nominally democratic institutions such as political parties, legislatures, and elections which are managed to entrench authoritarian rule and can feature fraudulent, non-competitive elections. In contexts of democratic backsliding, scholars are able to identify authoritarian political leaders based on certain tactics, such as: politicizing independent institutions, spreading disinformation, aggrandizing executive power, quashing dissent, targeting vulnerable communities, stoking violence, and corrupting elections. Since 1946, the share of authoritarian states in the international political system increased until the mid-1970s but declined from then until the year 2000.” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov 2023).The preceding review of the two dominant political ideologies and systems clearly reveal how absolutely opposed they are. In sum, “freedom to vote, freedom of speech, liberty and justice are not followed in an authoritarian state.” (Brainly, accessed Nov 2023). But while the universal appeal of human rights seems unanimous, how come there is a resurgence of authoritarianism in the last two decades? Psychological science explains that “viewing the world as a dangerous but not necessarily competitive place plants the psychological seeds of authoritarianism” and that “contextual threats to safety and security activate authoritarian predispositions”. Supporting this worrying trend is a recent report citing that “at the end of 2021, just 20.3% of humanity lived in a ‘free’ nation, marking the 16th consecutive annual global decline in citizens’ political rights and civil liberties. The resurgence of authoritarianism implicated in this trend underlies some of the most divisive moments in recent history, including Donald Trump’s successful 2016 US presidential election bid, the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, and the rebirth of far-right political parties in Western Europe. The re-emergence of authoritarianism in the general public weakens democratic institutions and sows societal division by fostering out-group hostility, anti-immigration sentiment, and a general intolerance of out-groups. Thus, authoritarian impulses threaten people’s personal freedoms, as well as the democratic foundations upon which these rights are enshrined.” (Nature Reviews, 2023).Perhaps the most significant illustration about the decline of democracy on the world map is the case of India. Once touted as the world’s biggest democracy with its 1.4 billion people, India today is considered a “hybrid democracy” at best. “The modality of India’s democratic decline reveals how democracies die today: not through a dramatic coup or midnight arrests of opposition leaders, but through the fully legal harassment of the opposition, intimidation of media, and centralization of executive power. By equating government criticism with disloyalty to the nation, the government of Narendra Modi is diminishing the very idea that opposition is legitimate. India today is no longer the world’s largest democracy.” (Price, 2022).

The polarization of the world appears nothing new based on history. But this author thinks the kind of division that currently exists on the planet is unlike anything the world has ever seen. This polarization has been exacerbated by overly rapid technological advances cutting across every facet of a nation’s life be it political, economic, or socio-cultural. On top of it all, the world is no longer predominantly black and white as it once was. The gray in between has gotten much bigger and it keeps on growing by the day. There was a time when the proximity of information to accuracy and truth better governed the policies and doctrines of countries and multilateral institutions. Not anymore. These days, even certain types of information once held sacred can now be subject to false narratives or outright lies. Learning from the bitter lessons of the Second World War, the United Nations Organization came to be in 1950 to rally the world together and avoid World War III. To better govern the countries of the world for global peace, the U.N. founded the universal principles of human rights for all peoples. But even the U.N today has lost its much of its effectiveness victimized by the same polarization affecting its members.

Global developments over the last five decades have favored China turning it into the world’s largest economy on purchasing power parity basis. The last decade especially has seen how rising China visibly challenged the dominance of the United States in a power struggle reminiscent of the Cold War. But whatever it does, China has been careful to execute short of outright confrontation resorting to alternative forms of diplomacy. Guriev and Treisman in their 2019 study concluded that “authoritarian regimes have over time become less reliant on violence and mass repression to maintain control. That they have increasingly resorted to manipulation of information as a means of control. And that authoritarians increasingly seek to create an appearance of good performance, conceal state repression, and imitate democracy.” (Wikipedia, accessed Nov 2023).

China is the leader of the authoritarian world and is a nuclear power. It is one of nine nuclear states as of 2023. China is currently building up its nuclear arsenal to catch up with the West. It is arguable that nuclear power may act as a deterrent to actual war or its escalation with an adversary. But since nuclear weapons proliferate, their existence does not negate the possibility of war from actually happening. “Because of the broad lethality and destructive potential of nuclear weapons”, all countries had accepted the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty except North Korea which withdrew in 2023. Countries with nuclear weapons are: “the United States, Russia, the United Kingdom, France, China, India, Pakistan, Israel, and North Korea. Together, these countries possess approximately 12, 512 nuclear weapons, of which 9,576 are considered potentially operational.” (SIPRI, accessed Nov 2023). According to the Pentagon, China has defied the calculated expansion pace of its nuclear arsenal and is now on its way to quadruple the size of its warheads “to 1,500 by 2035” in its bid to catch-up to the US’ “3,750 active nuclear warheads”. China’s goal under Xi is to “have a world-class military by 2049”, the first century anniversary of the Communist State. (Associated Press, 2023).

How imminent the threat is to the Asia-Pacific region and perhaps the rest of the world if war comes is partly indicated by the timetable the Chinese Communist Party under Xi is trying to follow. Indicators include the fast-tracked development of the People’s Liberation Army to give it the capability to invade Taiwan by 2027, if necessary, and become a “world-class” military by 2049 as well as increased military activity in the region. Leaving behind its previously defensive “asymmetric” stance, the PLA’s further “development” includes both conventional and nuclear components priming it ready for any confrontation, regional and or global. While China’s more than expected pace of nuclear build-up including intercontinental ballistic missiles that could reach as far as Hawaii, Alaska, and the US mainland worries Pentagon, China is likewise expanding its conventional arsenal. As reported by the Associated Press (2023),

“China’s military spending for 2023 rose 7.2% to 1.58 trillion yuan ($216 billion), outpacing its economic growth”. Some of the PLA upgrades pursued by China include the Air Force’s 5th-generation J-20 fighters, H-20 and medium to long range stealth bomber developments; (Hadley, 2023); the Navy’s projected five aircraft carrier fleet by 2030 and six by 2040 three of which have already been built (Perrett, 2023); ten nuclear ballistic missile submarines by 2030 (Grady, 2022); among others. While China expands its military arsenal, it continues to engage the world diplomatically denying any malicious intent. Defending its ongoing nuclear build-up, Beijing “accused the U.S. of ratcheting up tensions and said China was still committed to a ‘no first use’ policy on nuclear weapons”. In reaction, the U.S. said it “does not adhere to a ‘no first use’ policy” and that “nuclear weapons would be used only in ‘extreme’ circumstances”. (Associated Press, 2023). As is the problem with a nuclear arms race, the U.S. recently announced it will develop the B61-13 nuclear gravity bomb whose yield (360 kilotons) will be 24 times more powerful than the uranium bomb it dropped on Hiroshima during World War II. (Anand, 2023). The US DOD announced that “the B61-13 represents a reasonable step to manage the challenges of a highly dynamic security environment”. According to Assistant Defense Secretary John Plumb, “the announcement is reflective of a changing security environment and growing threats from potential adversaries and that the United States has a responsibility to continue to credibly deter and, if necessary, respond to strategic attacks, and assure our allies”. (US DOD, 2023). Meanwhile, on the conventional side of things “China is intensifying military, diplomatic and economic pressure not only on Taiwan but also toward all its regional neighbors to push back against what it sees as US efforts to contain its rise”. To avoid any derails to its avowed timeline, China is using lessons learned from the Russia-Ukraine War towards industrial and economic self-reliance bypassing any potential Western sanctions against it.

China’s expansion at this time in history is now plainly in sight with its actions in the South China Sea, support of Russia against Ukraine (Stent, 2023), and support of Iran which in turn supports Hamas against Israel (Myers & Frenkl, 2023). Russia and China are helping Hamas and Iran against Israel and indirectly against the US, a long-committed Israeli ally. Today’s wars are total wars whose final resort may be military confrontation but first fought economically, politically, and socio-culturally. Myers and Frenkel, investigating for the New York Times, wrote: “Putin, who met with Hamas leaders after the war began, described the wars in Ukraine and Israel as part of the same broad struggle against American global dominance.” The authors further wrote that China was “employing deceptive and coercive methods to sway global opinion behind its worldview”. “Russia and China, which have grown increasingly close in recent years, appear intent to exploit the conflict to undermine the United States as much as Israel and shape the global information environment to their advantage.” More significantly, the strategic efforts of China and Russia in this regard illustrate the extent to which authoritarian states at this point in history assert an alternative world order to the one that has been championed by the free world until recently. As Myers and Frenkel wrote: “The war has heightened concerns that an alliance of authoritarian governments has succeeded in fomenting illiberal, antidemocratic sentiment, especially in Africa, South America, and other parts of the world where accusations of American or Western colonialism or dominance find fertile soil.”

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