The Brexit upside for China

Peter Lee June 26, 2016 8:32 AM (UTC+8)
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Ah, Brexit.

Yes, there are some China angles.

If the world economy goes into the dumper — though my definition of “end of the world” is a bit more double-digity than the 3% hiccup the Dow experienced post-Brexit vote on Friday — the West may be less inclined to add to its economic problems by pursuing confrontation with the PRC in the South China Sea.  Maybe.

The PRC will also derive some consolation from the outsized horror that neo-liberal globalists have expressed at the excesses of direct democracy as displayed in the referendum: “emotional, bigoted, low-information voters” delivering “catastrophic” outcomes against the earnest but unheeded advice of their intellectual and moral betters.

Certainly, the prospects for the PRC yielding to demands for a referendum on the future of Hong Kong were not improved by musings such as “Britain’s Democratic Failure” (Kenneth Rogoff, Harvard boffin, previously chief economist of the IMF) and “The American Founding Fathers Had It Right: Direct Democracy is a Dead Duck” (Franz-Stefan Gady, over at The Diplomat). Give us proper guidance by the proper sort of people, seems to be the message, one that the CCP, with its allegiance to the Leninist principle of leadership by a revolutionary vanguard — and its practice of the rather sleazy minutiae of non-representative elite governance delivered via the Legco constituencies in Hong Kong—will happily endorse.

But the practical consequences of Brexit to the PRC are probably more disadvantageous.

Ride with Queen to naught?

The PRC had made a sizable investment of time, effort, political capital and who knows what combination of behind the scenes arm twisting & enticements to get a ride for Xi Jinping in the royal coach with Queen Elizabeth … and to get the UK to sign on for a “golden era” of cooperation that would involve the UK serving as a springboard/preferred partner/generously-rewarded co-conspirator/Trojan horse for PRC economic and diplomatic penetration of Europe.

With Cameron out and the UK-EU relationship an incipient omnishambles, that plan will need some re-thinking.  How much actual reworking is needed depends on the ability of Europhiles in the UK to turn “Brexit” into “Brexit-Lite” or even, with apologies to Sartre, “No Brexit.”

Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, accompanied by British Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, ride carriages to Buckingham Palace in London, Britain, Oct. 20, 2015.
Chinese President Xi Jinping and his wife Peng Liyuan, accompanied by British Queen Elizabeth II and Prince Philip, ride carriages to Buckingham Palace in London, Britain, Oct. 20, 2015.

Beyond the sunk costs of its UK investment, the PRC leadership apparently regards the travails of the EU with some uneasy sympathy and fear of democratic/nationalist contagion.

One element of Brexit that, I imagine, especially occupies the mind of the PRC leadership is the rather unnerving specter of regional political and economic disintegration, with indications that Brexit may spark EU-friendly secession movements by Scotland and Northern Ireland and even trigger a rush to the exits by disgruntled EU member states on the Continent.

Things falling apart obsesses the CCP, because the People’s Republic of China is something of an anomaly in a world of largely nationalist and ethnic identity politics: an avowedly multi-national empire.

The main bits are Han, Manchurian, Mongolian, Uyghur, Zhuang, Yi, Tujia, & Hui.  Everybody’s favorite aggrieved PRC minority, the Tibetans, are around 9th on the list, with a population of about 5 million.

One of the most furious and reliable sources of scholastic spittle on the Internet is official PRC academic invective against “New Qing History.” The “NQH controversy” embodies CCP fear and indignation at the skepticism of modern social science toward the objective, enduring existence of something called “China” (including the Tibetan and western holdings, to which the PRC positions itself as the “rightful heir”), as opposed to viewing East Asia as the parade ground for an irregular march of multi-ethnic kingdoms and ill-defined territorial ambitions through history, and “China” as little more than a self-serving post-modern backward projection by the current rulers.

The passion is understandable because denying “China” and exploiting China’s local divisions to seize the more useful and profitable bits has been a preoccupation of adversaries and competitors ever since nationalism became the driving principle of geopolitics.

Divide and conquer reprise

The West started it with “spheres of influence” and the “Open Door,” both of which assumed an effective absence of “Chinese” sovereignty during Manchu Qing rule. Japan continued it during the Republic of China period by asserting superior claims and needs of the Japanese empire to the Korean peninsula, “Manchuria,” and even Tibet and Mongolia.

A lot of the breakup maps floating around the Internet thanks to Tibetan and East Turkestan independence enthusiasts have their roots in Japanese World War II partition schemes for China.

In the PRC era, India has continually entertained hard-liner plans to wrong foot China by encouraging Tibetan separatist movements; the CIA famously stuck its oar in, working through the Dalai Lama’s brother as liaison to train a force of anti-PRC guerillas in Leadville, Colorado in the 1950s and 1960s for insertion into the PRC’s Tibet holdings.

During the Sino-Soviet split, the USSR looked at destabilizing western China through the large Uyghur population of Kazahkstan.

If one regards Taiwan as part of China — observers can agree to disagree on that issue — yes, the US and Japan has done a pretty good job of hiving off the island.

Today, there is increasing enthusiasm for playing the nationalities card as a weapon against PRC “assertiveness.” India hawks talk about putting both Tibet and Xinjiang in play by providing material and moral support to separatist movements. Hong Kong self-determination and Taiwan independence are well on their way to becoming default options for globally-minded liberals. In the West I see rumblings that some activists want to give Uyghur and Tibetan militants the status of “freedom fighters” in “struggles of national determination,” which would remove the “terrorist” legal and moral onus from their actions.

Keeping together a multi-national empire in the modern age, in other words, is not easy.

Recent examples of multi-national empires that were unable to make a go of it include the Ottoman Empire, the USSR, Yugoslavia, and the British Empire…and maybe the EU.

FILE PHOTO - Chinese and British flags fly in London's Chinatown, Britain October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/File Photo
FILE PHOTO – Chinese and British flags fly in London’s Chinatown, Britain October 19, 2015. REUTERS/Suzanne Plunkett/File Photo

Which brings us back to Brexit and the attendant hysterics.

There is a not unfounded fear that a genuine Brexit, if it does occur, would embolden right-wing nationalists in the Netherlands, France etc. to vote their countries out of the EU and collapse it.

I am not particularly sympathetic to xenophobic and racist hatred of outsiders that motivates a lot of right-wing nationalism in Europe, but my thesis is “racism feeds on failure” and the failures of the EU have been pretty epic.

On the geostrategic side, the EU proved itself helpless to moderate US/GCC behavior on Syria and actively enabled regime collapse in Libya. The result was a politically troublesome influx of refugees, exacerbated by the machinations of everybody’s favorite EU interlocutor, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, and by the absence of internal EU border controls thanks to the spirit of Schengen kumbaya.

On the economic side, abolishing national currencies and placing monetary policy de facto in the hands of the belt-tightening and testicle-squeezing-inclined German central bankers yielded youth unemployment rates of up to 50% in peripheral countries like Spain and Greece instead of EU-wide economic nirvana.

All in all, an experiment ripe for a rethink, one might say. And maybe the departure of Great Britain, the least cooperative and most demanding EU partner, might be the catalyst for the creative destruction of a dysfunctional order, something that neo-liberals are usually extremely fond of.

But no, according to dismayed Atlanticists, neo-liberal strategists, progressives, and elite thinkers of every stripe. A Google search for “Brexit” and “disaster” yields over two million hits and no, it’s not just one article on Buzzfeed.

Decline of the West

One key issue, apparently, is it makes the West look weak. Per AFP:

Analysts said losing a UN Security Council permanent member and NATO lynchpin like Britain would likely diminish the EU’s influence and respect around the world, while also making it more inward-looking.

“It would be bad news with a view to the role of the EU. It would increase the loss of image if the EU shrinks for the first time in its history,” Janis Emmanouilidis, director of studies at European Policy Centre, told AFP.

“The signal would be that the EU gets slowly but steadily in a downward trend,” he said, suggesting that such weakness could be exploited.

“The Chinese and the Russians might use that … to exert pressure and divide further.”

Pertusot said there would also be a loss of influence in areas such as Latin America and Southeast Asia which regard the EU as a model for regional groupings such as Mercosur and ASEAN.

There’s a special reason why the apparent failure of the EU model would be bad.

That’s because it is presented as the superior alternative to the authoritarian model of regional integration, not just in principle but in application.

passout

In the 1980s the US, and the democracies of Western Europe combined to disintegrate (literally, not figuratively!) the Soviet Union, dissolve the Warsaw Pact and Comecon structures that tied the Eastern Bloc to the USSR, and replace them with a liberal-democratic order composed of nation-states and keystoned on NATO and the EU.

The West’s ideological and emotional investment in the success of this model is illustrated by persisting in the disastrous attempt to apply it to Ukraine even as it resulted in the permanent annexation of Crimea to Russia and the de facto partition of the country into two near-failed states.

If the EU itself goes down the tubes, it implies the EU is simply the 21st century analog to the USSR — an unsustainable collection of diverging national, regional, and economic interests i.e. another ambitious failure with Cameron in the accidental spoiler role previously played by Mikhail Gorbachev.

If the prospect for dissolution of the PRC is not integration of its happily post-historic bits into a triumphant neo-liberal economic and political order symbolized by a successful EU …

… if an equally likely outcome is division, disintegration, conflict, and poverty — something that the disastrous exercises in Kosovo and South Sudan imply is the genuine norm for western nation-building — then the case for injecting chaos into China in the name of western-style progress becomes less compelling.

Open dysfunction in Europe, at the very heart of the globalist regime, might make things harder for the alliance of neo-liberal and neo-conservative strategists now constructing a useful dichotomy between “the rules-based liberal international order” and “revisionist authoritarianism” in order to prepare public opinion for an eventual open conflict with China.

If the war with the PRC is postponed, I’d count that as an upside of the Brexit phenomenon.

Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.

The opinions expressed in this column are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect the view of Asia Times. 

Peter Lee
Peter Lee runs the China Matters blog. He writes on the intersection of US policy with Asian and world affairs.
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