A Slippery World Without Brakes?

di: Francesco Sisci

Is the world sleepwalking into a new war, be it hot or cold? And is the virus the oil to lubricate and fuel the clash that is centered on China and the US but impacts the world? Are countries playing a bizarre game of chicken where neither wants to step back for fear of losing domestic support? It is hard to miss this trend and most importantly, this is all happening without checks and stops. There is no international organization apparently able to pull the brakes, mediate in this predicament.

The slippery slope

On May 18 Chinese president Xi Jinping addressed the World Health Organization (WHO) defending Chinese actions during the Coronavirus epidemic. He underlined his support for the organization from which the US, which accused the organization of having covered and abetted Beijing’s murky behavior during the crisis, had withdrawn funds.

«In China, after making painstaking efforts and enormous sacrifice, we have turned the tide on the virus and protected the life and health of our people. All along, we have acted with openness, transparency and responsibility. We have provided information to WHO and relevant countries in a most timely fashion. We have released the genome sequence at the earliest possible time. We have shared control and treatment experience with the world without reservation. We have done everything in our power to support and assist countries in need»,[1] said Xi.

He also announced a US$ 2 billion extra support package for the WHO and the establishment of a supply center to distribute health care equipment worldwide. Xi didn’t mention the US. From the US point of view, it looks like China is stepping in globally, and in the WHO, whose role is objectively important during this crisis, replacing and pushing away the US.

It can be a clear victory for China, but this is not the end of the story. Two days later, Mike Pompeo US Secretary of State sent a congratulatory note to president Tsai Ing-wen, president of Taiwan, the island formally part of one China and de facto independent. The US congratulations de facto enhance Taiwan’s factual independence, always the biggest thorn of China’s relations with the US.

Tsai didn’t mince words in her speech:[2]

«A better country requires a greater emphasis on national security. Over the past four years, we have pushed for national defense reforms, active international participation, and peaceful, stable cross-strait relations. We hope that Taiwan can play a more active role in the peace, stability, and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific region. Over the next four years, the direction of our policies will remain the same, and we will do even more… First is accelerating the development of our asymmetrical capabilities. While we work to bolster our defense capabilities, future combat capacity development will also emphasize mobility, countermeasures, and non-traditional asymmetrical capabilities. We will also work to strengthen our defenses against the threats of cyber warfare, cognitive warfare, and “unrestricted” warfare to achieve our strategic goal of multidomain deterrence».

The mention of unrestricted warfare quotes directly China’s famous hawk strategists Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui who in 1999 penned the very influential text Unrestricted War. A few days earlier[3] incidentally Qiao Liang has reportedly argued against any rash move on Taiwan. Qiao argued that Beijing should make clear that its priority was not to take Taiwan back but to achieve its long-term goal of “national rejuvenation” – President Xi Jinping’s plan of becoming a fully developed nation by 2049. «The Taiwan issue is actually a key problem between China and the US, even though we have insisted it is China’s domestic issue», Qiao pointed out. «In other words, the Taiwan issue cannot be completely resolved unless the rivalry between Beijing and Washington is resolved».

Then Pompeo’s congratulations and Tsai’s remarks look like a reaction to Xi’s move at the WHO. It is very difficult for China. Internally however, Xi may now look stronger than his US counterpart, Donald Trump. Xi has struck a balance, especially important with the ongoing plenary session of the Chinese parliament, between being firm and conciliatory with the US. He didn’t lash out against the US at the WHO and on Taiwan, as Qiao put it, he just set the issue aside refusing to be drawn into a trap. At the same time, he stepped into the opportunity left out by the US at the WHO, a crucial organization with global reach and clout both at the moment and for as long as the epidemic continues, which could be for a couple of years.

Objectively Trump is in a much different and more difficult position. He promised wealth and jobs and now America is up to its chin in the deepest recession of the history of capitalism, the first epidemic ever is hitting the whole country killing tens of thousands and ravaging its whole health care system. Lastly, the US is withdrawing from international institutions, like the WHO, and from global affairs, yielding space to China and gaining little or nothing in return for it. That is, the US seems lost, lacking leadership, while Trump is fighting all for his re-election, which may not happen after all, although it is all very hard to say since his competitor Joe Biden so far has looked quite weak. In these tough moments it is easy to lose control and quicken the pace of confrontations.

new war

Inevitable?

On June 28 1914, archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian empire was killed in an attack that eventually led to World War I. In fact, war had been brewing for years. The complex web of pacts and alliances upholding peace in Europe for decades had been slowly crumbling out of rivalry and neglect. Nevertheless, it took over a month after the assassination for the fighting to actually begin. In retrospect, it was all but inevitable.

The clash may have been avoided or further delayed had all opponents recognized as legitimate some interests of the others, unlike in World War II and in the Cold War, when bitter ideological divides made real lasting compromises very hard. The slow preventable plunge into hostility spurred countries at the end of World War I to set up the League of Nations, which flopped, and at the end of World War II, the United Nations was established. For decades the UN served, although imperfectly, as a compensatory chamber for small and big divergences.

Yet since the end of the Cold War, the UN failed to reform. Then, when the world as a whole changed this organization was no longer reflecting reality. Now, with heightening tensions between the US and China, there is no de facto international mitigating chamber like the UN, which had so many times defused frictions between the US and USSR. Because of this, the ongoing slow dive into Cold War II seems unstoppable as the global pandemic reaps and will reap hundreds of thousands and perhaps millions of lives in the next year or two, while leaving a worldwide economic wasteland in its wake.

Frantic US?

Against this backdrop, US President Donald Trump on May 14 threatened to cut diplomatic ties with China.[4] In fact, with a mounting death toll, in America the situation of the epidemic is quite chaotic. Trump had taken it lightly at the beginning and in any case even now the answer is confusing. He wanted a booming economy for reelection, and therefore more or less consciously underestimated the disease.

Today the situation is practically unrecoverable from an economic point of view: economists see a huge depression looming. Therefore, it may be easy to fall into the temptation to demonize China and have a scapegoat for the anger voters feel about the 30 million lost jobs. This can be easy because hostility to China is perhaps the only issue on which there is bipartisan agreement in the US.

China’s choice could be parallel: just as Americans blame China for the epidemic, so China may blame America. Tensions in this sense are already clear in growing nationalist rhetoric, even if, as also in America, there are also more cautious voices.

«The aim is to promote the Chinese political system as superior, and to project the image of China as a world leader in combating a global health crisis», Shi Yinhong, an international relations professor at Renmin University of China, said during an online seminar arranged by the college on Friday. «But the problem is, [these efforts] have failed to recognize the complexities that have emerged on the global stage during the pandemic, and they are being done too hastily, too soon and too loudly in tone, so there is a huge gap between what is intended and what is achieved», he said.[5]

In practice, industrial production in China is recovering and growing rapidly, which means strengthening economic relations with Asian countries, which are politically closer to the US. Thus a “double oven” situation increases in which countries like Thailand or Vietnam or Indonesia may say one thing to China and one to the US, and perhaps yet another to their neighbors. This increases entropy and confusion.

Crisis and clashes

In this confrontation, the Holy See may remain trapped and crushed, accused on both sides of being too pro-China or too pro-America.

Certainly, the US will not really break diplomatic ties anytime soon. But just the threat already poisons the climate. By early June, the American election campaigns must begin, and when you start that car, it is difficult if not impossible, to reverse it. If Trump begins with strongly anti-Chinese rhetoric, with a threat of breaking diplomatic ties, the Democrats may go after him, and at that point there may be a snowball effect.

There is anger in the United States for the depression caused by an epidemic that might plague the country for one or two years directly and bring about the largest depression in the history of capitalism. Then, it’s easy for scaremongers to peddle the idea of a virus manufactured at a military laboratory in Wuhan and to believe that China hid data and facts to hoard materials and dodge blame. Washington asked to inspect the laboratory and for granular data to help prepare for the onslaught of the epidemic, but Beijing – fearing traps and wary of poking holes in its domestic propaganda story – stonewalled the requests.

There are reasons on all sides of this complicated story. Interestingly, though, during the Great Depression, in the 1930s, America was shepherded through by the then popular angels of Frank Capra’s comedies; this depression is ushered in by now trendy demons and vampires of Stephen King’s horror novels.

Moreover, there is a shadow cast over this situation. Russia has an objective interest in a US-China clash. Moscow’s economy depends on the export of oil, whose price has crashed and will stay very low for the next 12–24 months. If China wins, the US will withdraw from Europe and Russia will move back into the territories that it lost with the end of the Cold War I. If the US wins, China will weaken and Russia can step back into Central Asia.

The US and China should also defuse Russian objective temptation for warmongering, but neither seems able to exercise global leadership, and both are rather concentrated on their domestic priorities.

China feels it ought to gain global influence and partake in the world leadership, with or without the support of the US, in line with or against the present “American-led” order. But whatever its intentions, it cannot do so by relying on gifting masks to rich countries like Columbus bestowed glass beads to Indians.

In fact, even if Beijing neglected the wellbeing of the rest of the world, the goal was just making the country rich and strong, in a war-like vision of its internal and international politics. This is in line with Sunzi’s tenets. After all, he starts off saying that in the state everything depends on war: «Military affairs are of vital importance to the State. It is a matter of life and death, a road either to safety or to ruin. Hence it is a subject of inquiry which can on no account be neglected». And as Victoria Tin-bor Hui put it:

«The state of Qin developed the highest state capacity to engage in total mobilization for war. Second, states made war as self-strengthened states could mobilize more wherewithal of war, enjoy higher chances of victory, consolidate conquered territories and extract resources from conquered populations. The system thus witnessed increasingly intense international competition, with frequent warfare, recurrent territorial transfers and dramatic rise and decline – even death – of great powers. The war-make-state-and-state-make-war cycle produced such a Hobbesian-cum-Machiavellian world that it eventually reached the logical culmination, producing the triumph of the universal Leviathan […] It is noteworthy that war also weakened rather than strengthened the state in early modern Europe. While ancient Chinese states pursued self-strengthening reforms (i.e., they mobilized the wherewithal of war by increasing the state’s administrative-extractive capacity), early modern European states, in particular, “Spain” and “France,” followed self-weakening expedients (i.e., they mobilized the wherewithal of war by relying on intermediate resource-holders such as military entrepreneurs, tax farmers, creditors and venal officers) […] While war made the state through self-strengthening reforms in ancient China, war deformed the state through self-weakening expedients in early modern Europe».[6]

new war

Balance of power

But actually, in the context of ancient Chinese states’ self-strengthening movement, European states’ weakening push was very different. In Europe, there was the idea of a balance of power, which was also preserved by the role of mediation of the Pope. The idea of balance of power was born out of earlier Byzantine relative military weakness. Unable to impose peace on its own terms to the enemies besieging the empire from all directions, the rulers of Constantinople developed slowly an idea of balancing enemies against one another. This was also used by the Pope in helping or not helping this or that state of the Christian world by calling for crusades. Yes, indeed, and it is true of Europe and other places, too. But why did China go to such an extreme of “state-war efficiency”? And why didn’t Europe, even after Athens lost to Sparta (more war-structured)? I don’t have a clear answer; my guess would be with Feng Youlan’s political interpretation of geography: the Mediterranean versus the Yellow River flatlands.[7] As Mark Elvin argued,[8] for centuries one of the real enemies of early Chinese civilization expansion were the jungles full of elephants that trampled the crops and encroached on the land cleared for agriculture. The enemies were also the limited number of neighbors living in the river basin (200–300 kingdoms at most). Impervious steppes, deserts, and mountains in the north and the west, impenetrable jungles all the way to the south, and an ocean to the east all made the Yellow River basin a rather isolated place.

Conversely the Mediterranean was very different. It had basically an infinite number of enemies coming and going on a system of seas that stretched all the way to the Caspian and Central Asia, all without impossible geographic barriers. Most importantly, the economy here was based on raiders/traders, invasions, et cetera, while China was based on intensive agriculture, which would benefit from a highly organized state. Raiders/traders would be hampered by a highly organized state. Now raids are impossible and trade has been regulated. It is the essence of growth and development. The highly organized state was impossible.

In any case, we can see that before the Qin unification, the same could be true. The different hegemons (ba 霸) of ancient China achieved their positions through maneuvering alliances with other states. At the same time, the Mohists[9] called for a system centered on revamping the role of the Son of Heaven (Tianzi 天子), who could order punitive expeditions (almost like crusades) against states rebelling against the established order.

The Qin emperor was able to cancel this tradition that had lasted hundreds of years, thanks to two things: the great efficiency of the Qin state, attained by its legalist reforms, inspired by philosopher Hanfei Zi and guided by Prime Minister Li Si; and the confined world of the Yellow River basin, practically impermeable to strong sudden interference from outside.

Nowadays, an open market and open politics are necessary instruments for even a purely self-strengthening option for China. Without them, China is weaker. Certainly, there is a difficult balancing act. An open market and open politics are difficult to manage and can lead to social disruption, but without an open market and politics, China is certainly much weaker.

After all, open debate was deemed crucial to keep the state healthy and strong even in ancient China, as Xunzi, master of both Hanfei Zi and Li Si, beautifully put it:

«Zixiang said: the son following the father’s orders is filial, the minister following the prince order is true. Master is correct? Confucius said: “this is of petty people, this attribution doesn’t get to the real knowledge of the matter. In ancient times a state of 10,000 chariots, would have four ministers arguing with one another and the borders and guards would not fail; a state of 1,000 chariots, would have three ministers arguing with one another, and the rituals for the spirits of the crops would not be in danger; a state of 100 chariots, would have two ministers arguing with one another, and the altars of the ancestors would not be ruined. If the father has a son arguing with him is not against the proper manners; if a scholar knight has a friend arguing with him is not against what is righteous. Therefore, if a son obeys the father, is he filial? If a minister obeys the prince, is he true? One must examine what is obeyed to call it filial or true».[10]

War is paradoxical

Therefore, open debate – freedom of expression, as we would call it 23 centuries after Xunzi – is essential.

After all, politics like war is paradoxical. Edward Luttwak[11] describes it starting from its ancient Roman tenet: si vis pacem para bellum, if you want peace prepare for war. The US is a master of this paradox. It won every war it took part in, but then, like in Vietnam or in Afghanistan or Iraq, it lost the peace. But then again, the US won all the same, because 40 years after having defeated the US, Vietnam came around and sought support from America, which by then had won the Cold War I against the USSR and was about to start Cold War II against China. Similarly, Xunzi seems to suggest to us, loyalty and control need their apparent opposite, disobedience and freedom, to be true. This is simply because the ruler has limited knowledge, and he needs greater access to different opinions, something that can be achieved only through free and unhampered debate.

That is, in the next few months, in the middle of the presidential campaign it is hard for the US to come up with a new strategy on China that will find ample consensus in Washington. This gives China a few precious months to find ways to start initiatives to defuse tensions and set bilateral ties on a new path. Will Beijing do it? And most importantly even if Beijing will be able to come up with a new plan in the next couple of months, will Beijing’s offer meet the mood in Washington? It looks all very difficult, and even more so without brakes as the cart is gaining speed day after day in the dreamy slippery slope of epidemic, economic depression and growing tensions.


[1] Global Times.
[2] Focus Taiwan.
[3] South China Morning Post.
[4] Financial Times.
[5] South China Morning Post.
[6] See Victoria Tin-bor Hui in «Does War makes States?», Cambridge University Press.
[7] See Feng Youlan’s introduction to A History of Chinese Philosophy, 1952.
[8] Mark Elvin, The Retreat of the Elephants, 2006.
[9] See Mozi Fei Gong chapters.
[10] Xunzi 29, 3 (translation mine).
[11] Strategy: The Logic of War and Peace, 2001.

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  1. Yuske Kudo (Mr.) 21 maggio 2020

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