The Rebirth of the East Asian Coprosperity Sphere?
Dr Demarche has asked some bloggers to comment on China in 2015 and beyond. He hasn't explicitly asked me but I'm going to shoot my mouth off anyway. What I'm going cover however is not so much China as the likely reaction of China's neighbours, in particular Japan. (Brief note - in general I references to China refer only to the mainland and exclude Taiwan)
In the history of the world a lot of people forget that in 1895 Japan, having opened itself up to western ideas, kicked China's butt over access to Korea. The result of this war was that Japan gained significant access to Korea, but due to Russian, German and French intervention Japan's military gains were somewhat reversed [In my mind the lack of support by Britain to Japan at that time to prevent this reversal was the one of the root causes of Japan's subsequent turn towards militarism and extreme nationalism. It is true that there is a certain amount of "for want of a nail..." in that analysis but I think it is valid none the less. It is also not particularly germane to this discussion]. Anyway, despite losing some territory Japan did get significant access to Korea and effective hegemony over Taiwan. While Korea-Japanese relations were not exactly rosy, the Taiwanese relationship was both strategically more important and after a rocky start rather more successful in economic terms at least. The reason why Taiwan was strategically important is that Taiwan plus Okinawa plus mainland Japan make an effective blockade of all Northern Chinese ports. Since geography has not changed in the last 100+ years the calculation made then applies today as well. This strategic value was recognised in Japan's American advisor Gen LeGendre in 1874:
" Unless Japan take possession of the series of islands from Karafuto (Sakhalin) Island in the north to Taiwan in the south, encircling China mainland in a crescent shape, and maintain foothold points in both Korea and Manchu, it is inadequate to ensure the safety of Empire and control East Asia."
and explicitly recognised by the Japanese government in the 1895 war
"Everyone knows that we must fight for the sovereignty of Korea, but nobody knows that Taiwan is even more worth fighting for... Korea is unable to be independent after all... To become its protector may win an honorable name of chivalry, but there is hardly any real profit, while in the case of Taiwan, there is. With Taiwan in Japan's possession, we can not only control the navigation rights of Yellow Sea, Korea Strait as well as Japan Sea, but also able to open and shut the door of Far East region. Moreover, linking with Ryukyu and Yaejima Islands, we can check on the coming and going foreign vessels with stretch of one hand. If this big island falls into other hands, it would disturb the peace of our Okinawa islands, and therefore, make a world of difference in pros and cons to the contrary...If we lost this opportunity, Taiwan would surely fall into the possession of some big country, or become neutral and no longer a place to contend"
Since geography has not changed in the last 100+ years the calculation made then applies today as well. While I am not in any way either advocating or expecting Japan to recolonise Taiwan this blocking potential both explains mainland China's desire to "reunify" Taiwan and Japan's interest in allying with Taiwan to counter any military threat from China.
Indeed when one looks at a map of the 1940s "East Asian Copropserity Sphere", if one excludes that portion currently under Chinese control, most of it would seem to be likely allies in any action against China. North Korea is clearly the exception but South Korea, the Philipines and Vietnam are all likely to be nervous about Chinese expansion and even more distant countries such as Thailand, Malaysia and Indonesia could feel threatened.
The problem of course is that saying that the Coprosperity sphere was unpopular is rather like saying that Hitler killed some Jews, it massively understates the reality of the event. It has been 60 years since the Coprosperity sphere collapsed and it hasn't been forgotten. However when these former coprosperity sphere members look at the choice between an essentially mercantilist, democratic, law abiding Japan and semi-communist, lawless China the idea of voluntarily forming an alliance with the former to withstand the latter looks highly attractive.
The good news about such a hypothetical alliance is that it can in fact seriously threaten China, the bad news is that it can in fact seriously threaten China. Taking the good news first. As you may have noticed the oil price recently has been remarkably high compared to what it was a few years ago. The explanation for this is that China's demand for oil is growing fast. However China gets the vast majority of its oil by sea and the proposed alliance could stop all oil arriving in China quite easily. The same allianc could blockade almost all China's exports too not to mention its other imports and thus cause economic chaos quite fast. The bad news is that an embargo like this was pretty much exactly what caused the Japanese to attack Pearl Harbour. The world does not need a nuclear China to feel as threatened as Japan did in 1941.
On that note it is worth pointing out that according to strategy page, China is considering the options for a surprise "out of the blue" attack on Taiwan. If the rest of Asia wishes to contain China it is in their interest to come up with a clear unambiguous set of responses (such as a blockade of China) to such an attack and to be prepeared to weather the resulting howls of outrage from the Chinese about "meddling in the internal affairs of China". This is not going to be easy but it is probably the only way to dramatically swing the risk/reward calculation against such an attack. Of course these countries could not do such as thing on their own so America would need to back up this threat with the promise of military support.
When it comes to the mooted attack on Taiwan I suspect the best parallel is Saddam Hussein's attack on Kuwait. Unfortunately China is a rather more serious opponent that Saddam Hussein's Iraq was. If the Chinese communists manage to instill widespread national chauvinism amongst the population as a replacement for communism as a unifying force then defeat of China is going to be militarily very very difficult. China is still defeatable because of the geostrategic calculation I outlined above. You can blockade it and it will collapse economically as a result - of course the rest of the world will also suffer some major economic dislocations at the same time - but it is a credible threat none the less and one that is hard for China to counter. In fact it is much worse for China than the equivalent problem for Iraq because China's size means that smuggling is likely to be of limited value in offsetting the effects of blockade. In theory China could get its oil in and exports out through its border with Russia but while this border is considerably better for trade than most of its other ones (which tend to feature Himalayan mountains, jungles or deserts (or combinations of them)) it is still not as ready for traffic as the ports of the Pearl delta, Hong Kong and Shanghai and most of the major export producing industry is in the coastal provinces.
One way that China could hope to escape this potential strangehold would be to devlop a serious experienced blue-water navy which could stand up to the US Navy. Probably the best way to go about getting the necessary experience would be to go into piracy supression in a big way in the S China Sea and then perhaps in neighbouring places such as the Molaccan Straits between Indonesia and Singapore/Malaysia. There is a LOT of piracy in both these places and in the short term a lot of people would welcome Chinese assistance in patrolling them - of course in the S China Sea quite a lot of the pirates seem to have a good relationship with mainland China - so if the Chinese were to push for some UN-badged anti-piracy patrol it would be hard for other countries to protest. On the other hand China has yet to take any serious global role at all and the communist leadership seems to show absolutely no concern for anyone outside China so the chances of this happening seem slim.
One final point. All this assumes that China is going to remain a dictatorial sort of place with limited rule of law and not much interest in playing well with the rest of the world. Despite the crackdowns on dissidents and despite the censorship, China does have a significant middle class and that middle class is keen to travel. It could well be the case that as the more oppressive regimes in neighbouring countries turned themselves into democratic regimes the same will happen in China. 20 or 30 years ago Indonesia, the Philipines and Korea, to name but three, were repressive corrupt dictatorships. These days they are far more open and democratic, as are (to a lesser degree) Vietnam and Cambodia. It is not impossible that the next generation of Chinese leaders will include the equivalents of Gorbachov or Yeltsin willing to tear down the current system. But I'm not going to hold my breath.