Tuesday, 25 September 2012
Now that China has an aircraft carrier...
...lots of Americans are going to worry that their days of hegemony are numbered.
The news that the Chinese have today launched their first aircraft carrier (above) seems designed to hack into American fears of inevitable decline. 'Declinism', we call it in a British perspective - the organicist, determinist but almost certainly incorrect view that national decline is inevitable.
It is certainly possible that rising tensions between Japan and Taiwan might escalate into fully-fledged armed conflict - though hardly likely at this point. Still less does it look likely that the mainstream Chinese leadership would ever mount an armed challenge to Taiwan's independence, a foolish adventure that would indeed lead to a dangerous confrontation - with the USA.
But for now, China's carrier is a perfect paraable for that state's ability to project power itself. It looks good, arrayed with rank upon rank of naval personnel. It makes a statement. It rattles a sabre. But underneath all that pomp, it's an ex-Soviet ship that spent years rusting away in the Ukraine. There's not much of a strike force capacity off its deck. And just who is it aimed at, in any case? The whole thing is a 'look at me' pennant shoved up a not-particularly-impressive flagpole.
It is indeed the case that China is now the third biggest economy in the world - though of course its population is vast, so it ranks at only 121st in wealth per person. And although the United States faces vast challenges managing its debts (partly because its politicians are so bone-headed they won't compromise, even as they head towads a fiscal cliff), Chinese prosperity has in fact been propping up and reinforcing American growth prospects.
Fear of China is at this stage irrational - despite its launch of an aircraft carrier, sure to evoke echoes of Wilhelmine Germany's launch of a battle fleet in the last years of the nineteenth century. It's the equivalent of the persistent idea, virulent at the height of the Cold War, that the USSR was going to 'bury' the West's economy because of its purposeful, superior use of science and technology.
It wasn't true then, and it isn't true now. China is going to run into capacity constraints, labour conflicts, inflation and good old-fashioned political dogfighting as the years go by. Come back and talk to us historians when they've got some of the marks of successful economies: the rule of law; labour rights; a functioning patent system; representative government... and two or three proper carrier battle fleets.