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The Decisive Fleet Engagement at the Battle of the Yalu River

By Aidan Clarke

When war broke out between Japan and China in 1894, few expected a Japanese victory. Qing China had undergone its period of self-strengthening and modernization for much longer than the Japanese Meiji modernization period, had invested more money in its naval  programs and platforms, and the Japanese Navy was supposedly outmatched both qualitatively and quantitatively. However, at the Battle off the Yalu River the Japanese defeated the Qing Northern Fleet in a decisive battle. So what went wrong in Qing self-strengthening? What left the Chinese so vastly unprepared for naval conflict?

Upon a close review of both primary and secondary sources, three key answers emerge. Firstly, the lack of a unified Chinese Navy under the Qing Empire proved fatal in the First Sino-Japanese War. Second, corruption and inefficiency in the institutions of the self-strengthening movement ensured poor commanders and a lack of equipment in the Beiyang Fleet. Finally, Japan’s unified command, professional officer corps, rigorous training, and use of French Jeune Ecole tactics won the day.

Naval Power and Combat in the Sino-Japanese War

Li Hongzhang, the Chinese scholar, diplomat, and military leader, remains a critical figure in understanding the self-strengthening movement in China. He led modernization efforts across the Qing Empire, setting an example through his own Huai Army and the Beiyang (Northern) Fleet. Regional armies and fleets like the Huai and Beiyang soon became the model on which the Qing Empire built its new armed forces in the wake of the Taiping Rebellion. This practice would prove to have fatal consequences during both the Sino-French and Sino-Japanese Wars as factional politics would override any sense of national duty in the Northern and Southern Qing Fleets.

On paper, the Qing Navy dwarfed that of the Japanese in 1894. The total size of the Chinese fleet at the time was “about 65 large ships and 43 torpedo boats.”1 By contrast the Japanese could boast just “32 warships and 23 torpedo boats.”2 These numbers bely the true strength of each fleet however, as “China’s navy still had a fourfold division in the Beiyang, Nanyang, Fujian, and Guangdong Fleets.”3 This division was foolhardy for several reasons. For one, it meant that the Chinese were never able to apply overwhelming force or superiority in numbers during battle. Despite the fact that the Beiyang Fleet was the largest of the regional fleets, and technically could match the size of the Japanese Navy, during the decisive Battle off the Yalu River, the Japanese had an 11 to 10 numerical advantage.4

The biggest problem the division created was that each fleet was regionally loyal and lacked loyalty to a central command or state. During the Sino-French War, the Qing Southern Fleet was annihilated by a French surprise attack. The Beiyang Fleet did little to help the Southern Fleet in this predicament, as “Li Hongzhang only sent two of the ships requested from his Beiyang fleet, and he withdrew these from the battle by asserting that the Japanese threat in Korea mandated their return north.”5 While this may have seemed a prudent maneuver at the time, allowing Li to protect two of his modern ships from senseless destruction, it cost him in the future. Just as the Beiyang Fleet had protected its own ships during the Sino-French war, in the Sino-Japanese war “the Nanyang officers now got their revenge on the Northern Fleet by keeping the Southern Fleet out of war with Japan for the most part.”6 

Factionalism went beyond simply Northern versus Southern Fleet rivalries, as it even existed within the fleets themselves. Regional factions seem to have particularly irked Ding Ruchang, Li Hongzhang’s commander-in-chief of the Beiyang Fleet, where “there were many officers from Fukien in the navy, Ting Ju-ch’an (Ding Ruchang), being a Huai-chun man and being placed above them, found that his actions were constantly being circumscribed.”7 This reflects the latent issues of the regional army system as it created centers of power aside from the Emperor or the state. This in turn meant that there was a lack of loyalty, discipline, and efficiency in the fleet, all flaws that were exposed in the Battle off the Yalu River.

Another major issue faced by the Beiyang Navy was the corruption rampant in the late Qing empire. This was a major disappointment, since to many observers, the institutions behind the Self-Strengthening movement were initially very successful. The Japanese only began producing large scale warships some 15 years after the Qing successfully did so at the Jiangnan Shipyard. Even then those ships produced in Japan could not compete with those produced at Jiangnan where “In terms of armaments, those manufactured at the Jiangnan Arsenal were by and large superior to Japan’s.”8 The Fuzhou Shipyard, located further south, was even bigger, and where Dr. Benjamin Elman even refers to it as “probably the leading industrial venture in late Qing.”9 However, this success was not to last. Chinese regional leaders were skeptical of Li Hongzhang and the naval board, and refused to pay anything more than the bare minimum required for the basic maintenance of the fleet. They were wary of the naval board because, “its ineffectual Manchu director, Prince Chu’un, and his successor, Prince Ch’ing were unable to administer its funds properly and could not prevent the Empress Dowager from diverting the funds for other purposes.”10 Another observer commented that “the Admiralty has had big sums paid to it yearly the last ten years and ought to have a balance of 36,000,000 taels, and lo! It has not a penny, having allowed the Empress Dowager to draw on it for the many whims she has been indulging in.”11

Worse still was the impact the corruption within the Qing government had on the commanders of the Beiyang fleet, particularly those in command at the Battle off the Yalu. Even before the war this appeared to be a common concern amongst observers of Asian naval affairs, with one newspaper article commenting that the commander-in-chief of the fleet, Admiral Ding Ruchang, was not adequately trained for his role, “Ting (Ding), whose knowledge of naval matters does not fit him to do any of the real work.”12 Another article states that when compared to Japanese officers, the officers of the Beiyang fleet “labored and still labors under disadvantages arising out of birth, habit, and system.”13 The Qing Empire’s insistence on maintaining Chinese essence while embracing Western characteristics meant that soldiers and sailors remained undervalued in society, while Confucian scholars with little experience in war or tactics found themselves in positions of leadership. These ideas are reflected in secondary sources as well, with one going so far as to say that “Li Huang-Chang had characteristically staffed it (the Beiyang fleet) with ‘needy relatives and greedy henchmen.’”14 While the aforementioned article does seem to take a Japanese viewpoint, the author is correct in noting that Admiral Ding had no experience as a naval commander regardless of his past as an excellent cavalry commander under Li. In the end, the author’s label of Ding as “gallant but incompetent” seems to be fair.15

The ordnance supply officer for the Beiyang Fleet was Li Hongzhang’s son-in-law, Chang P’ei-lun, who Professor Wiliam Lockwood refered to as a “champion swindler.”16 He describes the cost of Chang’s corruption, whose ordnance department regularly filled shells with sand, and “When the shooting began, the Chinese fleet found that its total supply of ammunition amounted to fourteen shells per gun. Two 7,000-ton ironclads had only three shells in all for their 10-inch guns.”17 Benjamin Elman also notes that the Chinese were “hampered by woeful shortages of ammunition” at the Battle off the Yalu and that “Some were filled through the black market with cement rather than explosives.” Elman argues that this “suggests serious corruption problems in Li Hongzhang’s supply command.”18 Not only did this corruption limit the Chinese fleet’s ability to fire its guns during the battle, but having a limited number of shells also prevents effective live-fire gunnery training.

Japanese cruiser Matsushima pictured in 1896. Matsushima served as flagship of the Japanese Union Fleet at the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

This lack of practice was certainly reflected in the opening exchanges of the battle, as the Chinese opened fire first, “The Chinese Admiral opened fire at a range of 6,000 meters (about three and three-quarters miles), the shot on both sides falling short, the effective range being around 5,000 meters.”19 The primary armaments of the main Chinese battleships fired 197 rounds, and scored just 10 hits.20 When they did hit, they knocked the Japanese flagship out of the battle, but they simply did not hit often enough to have a decisive impact. Overall, the Chinese fleet “scored about 10 percent of her tries. The Japanese, on the other hand, with their quick-firers scored about 15 percent of their tries.”21 While the Japanese ratio does not at first look overwhelmingly favorable, the Japanese guns had three times the rate of fire of their Chinese opponents, meaning that they were more accurate even as they fired many more shots.22

In perhaps the most staggering display of outright corruption, at the commencement of hostilities between China and Japan, Elman tells of an observer who noted that Chinese ships had about half their crews, while the salaries for the crews were still being paid in full.23 These gross indiscretions helped doom the Beiyang fleet at the Battle off the Yalu River. Underequipped, undertrained, understaffed, and with the wrong men at the helm, the battle could only go one way.

What is staggering is that for every institutional shortcoming suffered by the Chinese, the Japanese could point to an institutional success. While the Qing were unable to coordinate or consolidate their forces under a single command, the Japanese fleet was always unified, and trained extensively together as a single fighting force. This goes a long way to explaining the contrast in the conduct of the two fleets during the battle. While the Chinese opened fire from the extreme range of 6,000 meters, a Japanese account holds that the Japanese fleet held its fire until it had closed the distance to just 3,000 meters. Furthermore, the Japanese carefully coordinated their fire, “All the big guns on the Japanese vessels were directed towards the upper decks of the Ting Yuen (Dingyuan) and the Chen Yuen (Zhenyuan), the rest of the Chinese ships being fired at with guns of smaller caliber.”24 This tactical decision showed remarkable forethought on the part of Japanese commanders who knew their lighter weaponry could not hope to penetrate the armor belt of the two Chinese battleships. Although it is likely these sources were carefully checked by the Japanese government (who provided the authors with sources and documents), this tactic is borne out as fact by the reports which indicate that Admiral Ting was injured in the early stages in the battle, as Japanese fire crashed into the bridge of his ship and took out the signals mast, leaving him unable to communicate with the rest of the fleet.

Battle map of the fleet combat action at the Yalu River, 1894. By J. Hart, based on sketch by Philo N. McGiffin, 1895. (Wikimedia Commons)

The Japanese remained steadfastly disciplined throughout the battle while chaos reigned in the Chinese formations. This is due to the fact that while the Chinese had neither the funds nor the supplies for extensive training the Japanese prepared for war by “incessant training at sea. Special importance was devoted to gunnery, torpedo work, and steaming efficiency.”25 Another major failing of the Chinese fleet was the reluctance to create a true naval academy and professional officer corps. The Japanese did not hesitate to do so, forming a naval school in 1866. The Japanese naval academy had existed for nearly thirty years by the time the Sino-Japanese War began. Using graduates from the school Japan had built a professional officer corps, and could count on well-trained commanders throughout the fleet.

Chinese officers on the other hand, could boast of no such training. While some, like Captain Deng Shichang of the Zhiyuan, (who was recognized for his heroic conduct during the battle) had spent time overseas evaluating foreign fleets, they constituted a small minority, negating their impact in the chaos of battle. The vast majority of Chinese officers were trained in the Fuzhou arsenal, and “some observers described the Fuzhou-trained officers as cowards.”26

Chinese battleship Ting Yuen which participated in the Battle of the Yalu River. (Wikimedia Commons)

Many naval scholars suggest the Chinese focused too heavily on building ships while neglecting the training of their sailors. “The material growth continued at a rate more impressive than that of the Japanese Navy, obscuring the fact that the Chinese were doing little right other than acquiring more warships.”27 In Power at Sea, Lisle Rose attacks the Chinese mindset more directly, “China had chosen to concentrate on material power, Japan on the intelligence of its men behind the guns and in the engine rooms.”28 Perhaps the Chinese determination to adopt Western technology but maintain a Chinese essence blinded their mindset in this instance. The Japanese had no such pretensions, and strove to learn as much as possible about French Jeune Ecole tactics. Designed to help smaller fleets confronting a numerically and technologically superior enemy, these tactics were perfect for the young Japanese Navy. The Battle off the Yalu should be viewed as a textbook example of the Jeune Ecole in use against a quantitatively superior fleet.

Conclusion

The picture which emerges after an examination of the two fleets on the day of the Battle off the Yalu River yields up a stark contrast. The Chinese had more ships, thicker armor, and bigger guns, but were led by corrupt and incompetent officers, faced a dire shortage of ammunition, and had no overall strategy or tactics. Against them was a far smaller Japanese navy, designed and built around a cutting edge strategy taught to them by French officers, with a professional officer corps and years of extensive training at sea under their belts.

During the period from 1850-1941 practically every naval officer and expert was writing about the “decisive battle” that would invariably occur on the high seas in the next great war, where one fleet’s massive battleships would meet the others, and the two would go toe to toe just as Nelson and Villeneuve had at Trafalgar. This “decisive battle” seldom occurred however, with opportunities missed at Jutland, Heligoland Bight, Doggers Bank, Leyte Gulf, and more. But this decisive meeting of capital ships did occur at the Battle of the Yalu River and the Battle of Tsushima. This makes the Battle of the Yalu River one of the most fascinating moments in naval history.

The question of why the Qing failed despite their extensive modernization efforts and why Japan was so much more successful has occupied the minds of many historians throughout the years. Perhaps we have an answer in the form of Chinese failure to consolidate their regional fleets, rampant corruption, poor training, and inadequate personnel. These deficiencies were all exposed by a superior Japanese Navy off the Yalu River in the final, decisive battle of the Sino-Japanese War.

Aidan Clarke is an undergraduate student at Furman University, double majoring in History and Politics and International Affairs, with an interest in naval affairs. He has previously researched the U.S.-Soviet naval showdown during the Yom Kippur War, and is currently conducting a research project on the Russo-Japanese War.

The author would like to thank Dr. Lane Harris of the Furman University History Department for his assistance on the research and writing of this paper.

References

1. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

2. Ibid.

3. Ibid.

4. Herbert, Hilary A. “The Fight off the Yalu River.” The North American Review, vol. 159, no. 456, Nov. 1894, pp. 513-28. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

5. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

6. Ibid.

7. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

8. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

9. Ibid.

10. Spector, Stanley. Li Hung-Chang and the Huai Army. Washington UP, 1964.

11. Ibid.

12. “THE SOUTHERN CRUISE OP THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 6 June 1890. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

13.“THE PEIYANG SQUADRON.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 29 June 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

14. Lockwood, William W. “Japan’s Response to the West: The Contrast with China.” World Politics, vol. 9, no. 1, Oct. 1956, pp. 37-54. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

15. Ibid.

16. Ibid.

17. Ibid.

18. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

19. “Summary of News: LATEST INTELLIGENCE HANDS OFF! RUSSIA IS FIRM LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME THE BATTLE OF PINGYANG THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE MOOR APOLOGISES LOCAL NEWS FROM HOME TO REASSURE JAPAN BAD NEWS FROM ST. PETERSBURG THE MILITARY CONTRIBUTION OF THE STRAITS SETTLEMENTS THE JAPANESE AT HAIYUENTAO THREATENING NEWS THE NAVAL FIGHT OFF THE YALOO GREAT FIRE AT MANILA THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO THE SAFETY OF THE TRANSPORTS THE NAVAL FIGHT AT THE YALOO.” The North – China Herald and Supreme Court & Consular Gazette (1870-1941) [Shanghai], 28 Sept. 1894. ProQuest Historical Newspapers. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

20. Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

21. Ibid.

22. Ibid.

23. Ibid.

24. Eastlake, Frederick Warrington, and Yamada Yoshi-Aki. Heroic Japan: A History of the War between China and Japan. London, Sampson, Low, Marston, & Company, 1897.

25. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

26.  Elman, Benjamin A. “Naval Warfare and the Refraction of China’s Self-Strengthening Reforms into Scientific and Technological Failure, 1865-1895.” Modern Asian Studies, vol. 38, no. 2, May 2004, pp. 283-326. JSTOR. Accessed 3 Dec. 2017.

27. Sondhaus, Lawrence. Naval Warfare, 1815-1914. E-book, New York, Routledge, 2000. Warfare and History.

28. Rose, Lisle A. The Age of Navalism, 1890-1918. Missouri UP, 2007. 3 vols.

Featured Image: The Battle of the Yalu River by Kobayashi Kiyoshi. (Wikimedia Commons)

Is the Belt and Road Initiative Too Big to Fail? Pt. 2

What could and should the United States do if the Belt and Road Initiative collapses? 

By Grant Newsham and Tuan Pham

Part one of this two-part series discussed the growing concerns of a Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) bubble that may burst, and that China’s hurried and reckless BRI investments through the years are beginning to drag down its already slowing domestic economy.

So to advance the strategic dialogue, let’s assume that the BRI bubble has, or is close to bursting, and is exacerbated by a weakened Chinese economy and a destabilizing trade war. In part two, each author individually offers his perspective on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof. 

Opportunities – What to Do 

Pham: Make the most of the strategic opportunity and build more economic leverage on the issues of China’s unfair trade policies and practices, discriminatory trade barriers, unequal trade balances, forced technology transfers, and intellectual property rights theft. Leverage the recent U.S.-European Union agreement to ally against China which has nearly broken the world trading system. Then, convert the accumulated economic leverage into additional political leverage in the geographic spheres of North Korea, South China Sea (SCS), East China Sea, and Taiwan and contested domains of space and cyberspace – similar to how Beijing uses the BRI. When appropriate and expedient, rejoin the Trans-Pacific Partnership to complement the other U.S. instruments of national power; bind America to the other regional economies; blunt the other Chinese economic initiatives like the Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership and Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank; and ultimately offer an enduring alternative to the BRI. From there, use the added influence to further encourage and challenge China to become a more responsible stakeholder that contributes positively to the international system and uphold the international rule of law and respect for global norms (human rights, freedom of navigation, etc.); and in the long-run, possibly consider a grand bargain to adopt mutual agreements and avoid another Cold War (no large-scale conflict directly between the two sides, but each may be supported by major regional “proxy” wars) and the Thucydides Trap (a rising power challenges a dominant power leading to a great power competition for preeminence).

Of note, the concept of the Thucydides Trap has detractors who understandably and fairly warn against the Chamberlain Trap (avoiding conflict through concessions) and cite the years of ill-advised U.S. acquiescence and accommodation (strategic patience and wishful thinking) in the SCS. Nevertheless, no matter which side one takes on this philosophical debate, the reality remains that China and America are interlocked in a strategic competition for regional and global pre-eminence. So, how best to contain and manage this competition and keep it from escalating into a “no-win” conflict?

Newsham: Recognize that China’s objectives with the BRI are ultimately political. BRI is one front in an existential, multi-front campaign to displace and overtake the United States – and America’s pernicious notions of individual liberty, rule of law, and equality among nations – that have served the world well for the last 70 years.

As such, the U.S. Government (USG) ought to do several things with the BRI in mind. First, develop and implement a political warfare effort that exposes the BRI as ultimately a combination of colonialism and loan-sharking. As often as not, BRI investments and projects are over-priced, poorly thought out, and shabbily constructed; and benefit China and Chinese companies more than the recipient countries. 

Toward this end, the USG might also profitably direct its vast intelligence resources toward exposing the corruption and payoffs that are part and parcel of Chinese business and government efforts connected with the BRI. The USG bringing charges against Patrick Ho, a former top Hong Kong official, for bribing African officials on behalf of a Chinese company shows what is doable. Locals who resent Chinese heavy- and under-handedness will welcome exposure of such improprieties.

Second, keep trade pressure on China in response to longstanding unfair trade practices. This pressure – and attendant reductions in the foreign exchange needed to keep the Chinese economy chugging along – reduces funds available for BRI activities – to include investments, bribes, and bailouts. It’s ironic that U.S. and Western businesses have effectively funded the BRI efforts – not to mention China’s military development.

But it’s not enough to criticize China and the BRI – even if well founded. Indeed, one must admire China and Chinese companies’ willingness to get involved in countries where American companies refuse to go. The USG needs to work closely with the private sector and change the “risk profile” for American companies so they might show some initiative and go where Yankee Traders of old used to go. And since this is ultimately a political struggle, why not link the public-private partnership effort with that of allied countries such as Japan, Australia, South Korea, the United Kingdom, and others?

In summary, recognize the BRI for what it is, expose its vulnerabilities and rapacious aspects, keep trade pressure on China and thus reduce the foreign exchange available for its BRI activities. And as importantly, the United States and like-minded countries need to offer a better alternative.

Challenges – What Not to Do

Pham: In light of the deepening economic stagnation, the present risk of domestic political instability may drive Beijing’s future foreign policy. Economic prosperity (purse) and nationalism (people) – buttressed by the People’s Liberation Army (gun) and propaganda (pen) – have long been the principal sources of legitimacy, credibility, and stability for the Chinese Communist Party (CCP). As the prosperity and nationalism wanes, President Xi Jinping (undisputed core leader of CCP) may increasingly rely on propaganda and security – tempered to a certain extent by fiscal constraints – to maintain the party’s (and his own) power and influence over the masses. In other words, make people look outward at the forest and not inward at the trees.

But here lies the strategic quandary for U.S. policymakers. The tricky part is to avoid strategic overreach and to find the right balance of making the most of the strategic opportunity without  triggering the CCP to a tipping point that elicits a strong nationalist response (including military confrontation).

Newsham: Don’t bail out Xi and China if they’ve been overextended on the BRI. They won’t appreciate the gesture. The more problems Beijing has with financially draining overseas ventures – and the inevitable local opposition they provoke over time – the less China can concentrate its efforts on military development and bringing its regional neighbors to heel while being able to take on its declared main enemy – the United States. It also dispels the image of inexorable Chinese domination.

Don’t try to calibrate just the right mix of pushback and engagement (to include on the BRI) that will make Beijing become a “responsible stakeholder.” Why should it? China has done well enough over the last 40 years without adjusting its behavior. Robert McNamara also tried “calibrated” pressure with North Vietnam. It didn’t work very well. Instead, stand up for America’s own interests and keep the pressure on.

Don’t consider the chance for a few American firms to make some money on BRI projects to outweigh the existential threat the CCP-led China poses to the free, liberal world order. And don’t forget that today’s China holds over one million people in internment camps and is trying to do the Uighurs what King Edward the First tried with the Scots. It is also a repressive security state along the lines George Orwell wrote about and where modern technology is creating new and unprecedented tools of oppression. At the end of the day, regardless of the highways, ports, and bridges it might build (for a considerable price and of questionable quality) in far-flung places, it should always be remembered that the BRI is an outgrowth of a staunchly authoritarian and repressive regime. 

Conclusion 

China risks big with the BRI, and accordingly, could lose big if indeed the declining trend lines are proven correct. If so, how does it impact Beijing’s strategic ambitions for national rejuvenation and ultimately global preeminence? But more importantly, how could and should Washington make the most of the strategic opportunity?     

Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies.

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. The personal views expressed therein are their own. 

Featured Image: Officials attend the groundbreaking ceremony of the rail project linking Bangkok and Nakhon Ratchasima, on Dec. 21 in Nakhon Ratchasima, Thailand. (Photo by Yukako Ono).

Is the Belt and Road Initiative Too Big to Fail? Pt. 1

What could and should the United States do if the Belt and Road Initiative collapses? 

By Tuan Pham and Grant Newsham

More and more China Watchers, to include these two observers in Japan, are having increasing doubts about the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), Beijing’s trillion-dollar wide-ranging infrastructure enterprise that spans across Asia, Africa, Europe, Oceania, and the Americas to elevate Chinese global economic and political standing. The grandiose national plan seeks to make a lot of money, acquire more resources, gain additional power, and expand influence to advance Beijing’s strategic ambitions of national rejuvenation (the Chinese Dream) and ultimately global preeminence – or even better, dominance. So what if these pundits are correct and the possibly over-leveraged BRI continues to underperform and not deliver the promised returns, receive increasing political backlash (buyer’s remorse over crushing debt burdens), and eventually collapses? What are then the ensuing opportunities and challenges for America?

This two-part series is a thought exercise to engender strategic thought, dialogue, and planning on this possibility. Part one starts with making a case for a BRI bubble that may burst. In part two, each author individually offers his perspective on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.      

A BRI Bubble

There are growing concerns of a BRI bubble that may burst, and that China’s hurried and reckless BRI investments through the years are beginning to drag down its already slowing domestic economy. Beijing reportedly is applying the brakes. Chinese officials are now expressing qualms that Chinese corporations need to be cautious on how much they lend under the flagship project, but interestingly are not mentioning how much state funding is being expended on the BRI.

Nonetheless, Beijing reportedly has begun a comprehensive accounting of how many deals have already been done, on what financial terms, and with which countries. Beijing has also tightened capital and exchange controls to better manage BRI investments out of concerns over China’s domestic financial conditions. Altogether, the moves are intended to rein in the “wild west” investing environment, hedge against an uncertain Chinese economic outlook, and curtail the worrying capital flows outside the country. Since last year, Beijing appears to be trying to bolster an apparent lagging enthusiasm for the BRI.

However, to fully understand the nature, scope, and extent of the problem, it is best to start at the beginning. In the early 2000s, Beijing implemented the “Go Out” policy, which incentivized Chinese corporations to seek business ventures abroad by providing easy credit, cheap loans, and attractive financial guarantees from China’s national banks. Ten years later, stimulated by the government-sponsored BRI and fueled by relaxed financing, Chinese firms undertook even more speculative investments based on the flawed assumptions that the BRI was too big to fail and the central government will simply bail them out if they do fail. Not surprisingly, many of these risky BRI projects have underperformed and incurred massive debts and the impacts for the Chinese banks, and through them the Chinese economy, are now becoming evident. That is why Beijing has been assertively (and some might say desperately) cajoling (pressing) other countries and international organizations to invest in the BRI – and take on some, or most, of the risk.

China’s Economic Stagnation

Many observers have long worried that the BRI (with its hidden nationalist agenda and geo-political implications) represents an economic and political power play by Beijing, buttressed by its vast monetary reserves and driven by the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) preoccupation with realizing its long-term goal of achieving global influence and ultimately global preeminence. But even with its immense economic power (second only to the United States), China still has its limits. Its economy is showing signs of slowing, and it is in a nascent trade war with the United States. At the same time, Beijing is struggling to tame its own mounting debt problems – problems that international lending and domestic spending sprees haven’t helped – and may even be letting up on its campaign to arrest debt growth as it faces a weakening economy at home and escalating trade tensions abroad.

Weeks before the onset of the trade war, a government-affiliated Chinese think tank, the National Institute for Finance Development, warned of impending financial panic potentially leading to financial crisis. It pointed to this year’s cascade of bond defaults, tightened liquidity, declining stock markets, and weakening Yuan. The report added that U.S. interest rate hikes and a looming trade war suggest that “the Chinese people are very likely to experience a financial panic very soon,” and that Beijing had best come up with a crisis management plan to deal with the panic.

The Chinese stock market lost two trillion dollars in value in the last six months, a worrisome economic indicator for Beijing, particularly in the midst of a destabilizing trade war that is beginning to increasingly impact the Chinese economy. The CCP’s claim to unopposed rule explicitly and implicitly depends on economic performance (prosperity), and an underperforming market is a poor reflection of its governing competence and by extension its political legitimacy. A bearish Chinese stock market is also a psychological reflection of how the Chinese people think of their current and future economic prospects. If so, once public doubt builds and takes hold, the wave of pessimism could intensify and spread, and if left unchecked become pervasive fear and panic.

Trade War Wildcard

The ongoing Sino-U.S. trade war is proving to be a propaganda quagmire for Chinese President Xi Jinping and the CCP, both on the domestic and international fronts. Regarding the former, they lose “face” if they say nothing or too little and they face public anger and political risk if they say too much and cannot deliver on their promises. As for the latter, Xi may have realized that jingoistic rhetoric may not be helpful and may even be counterproductive to ending the trade war on favorable terms and instead undermines Beijing’s carefully crafted international image as a defender of global trade.

The official CCP response to the trade war has aimed at depicting China and the Chinese economy as being strong enough to cope with a trade war. Yet, Beijing’s statistics bureau has reportedly published inaccurate economic data to bolster the arguably false impression that the Chinese economy is handling U.S. trade pressures well. Indeed, the CCP might be in more distress at this point if the world realizes that it has been exaggerating (bluffing) about its economic strengths and capacities to withstand a trade war, as evident by its continued “optimistic and suspect” gross domestic product (GDP) outlook despite lack of corroborating economic data and growing skepticism of Beijing’s statistical methodology.

All in all, the trade war has cornered Xi and the CCP as is evident by the changing and inconsistent public messaging and media censorship to control domestic narratives. If they cannot cope with the trade war and lose control of the aforesaid narratives, then their control over Chinese society might diminish while undermining Xi and the Party’s power and authority. If so, expect even fewer civil liberties, greater censorship, and more draconian crackdowns in the coming months to restore the CCP’s grip on public order and confidence in Xi’s leadership. The latter apparently showing some political vulnerabilities in the form of a surprising rebuke at home and telling personal affirmation of the need for resolute leadership. In recent weeks, Beijing’s government, intellectual, and media have been rife with “rumors” over leadership discontent with Xi – particularly over his bold power consolidation and brazen rollback of collective leadership norms, mismanagement of the all-important bilateral relations with Washington, and poor handling of the ongoing trade conflict with the United States.         

Beijing has also embarked on an aggressive media campaign to influence foreign audiences (sharp power). The latest being a short satirical video by the China Global Television Network (international offshoot of state-owned broadcaster China’s Central Television), mocking President Trump and highlighting many of China’s concerns (grievances) in the ongoing trade dispute; and an op-ed piece in the Los Angeles Times, pushing the narrative that “the American people need to hear the truth about U.S.-China trade, instead of Trump’s charges of bad faith…despite what the president says, trade is free and fair, and these 10 points explain why.” They are:

(1) Although China, as a developing country, has higher tariffs on U.S. goods than the United States does on Chinese goods, its tariffs are still lower than those of many other developing countries.

(2) As for goods coming into the United States, inexpensive Chinese imports have helped the U.S. middle class.

(3) It isn’t Chinese barriers but U.S. export controls that limit our economic exchange.

(4) Trade deficit numbers can be deceiving.

(5) When American protectionists talk about the trade deficit with China, they deliberately ignore the U.S. surplus in “service trade.”

(6) Another thing protectionists deliberately ignore is that the sales of U.S. companies in China have surpassed $500 billion.

(7) In 2017, China’s external payment of intellectual property fees reached $28.6 billion, 15 times more than when it joined the World Trade Organization (WTO) in 2001. U.S. intellectual property owners are the biggest beneficiaries.   

(8) No laws or regulations compel technology transfers; joint ventures are based on deal-by-deal negotiations and some U.S. companies are willing to transfer technology for Chinese market access.

(9) President Trump wants to stop “Made in China 2025,” the state-subsidized plan to modernize Chinese industries, and he charges China with “state capitalism.” However, Chinese subsidies are not out of line with WTO regulations, and they are available to foreign-funded enterprises too.

(10) China’s trade practices are generally in compliance with WTO rules. 

This is of course better characterized as Chinese “advocacy” rife with half-truths and questionable assertions rather than a fair-minded assessment. Hopefully it is not taken at face value.

Conclusion

This concludes a short discourse on why the BRI bubble may burst. The dialogue sets the conditions for further discussion in part two on what America could and should do (and conversely not do) as the result thereof.     

Tuan Pham is widely published in national security affairs and international relations. Grant Newsham is a retired U.S. Marine Officer and a Senior Research Fellow at the Japan Forum for Strategic Studies. The personal views expressed therein are their own.

Featured Image: A Chinese flag flies over Tashkurgan, a small town at the front line of the $62bn China-Pakistan economic corridor (Cpec). (Tom Phillips for the Guardian)

Competition and Neutrality of Southeast Asian States in Indo-Pacific Strategy

By Shang-su Wu

Due to their central location between the Indian and Pacific Oceans, maritime Southeast Asian countries have increasingly important roles in the Free and Open Indo-Pacific (FOIP) Initiative. Despite some constraints, such as the inability of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) to coordinate its membership’s defenses, these regional states and their relatively weak but growing navies, with a home field advantage, matter in terms of the balance of power in the Indo-Pacific region. Based on their non-alliance tradition and economic interests with China, Southeast Asian countries would not join FOIP, but engagement between them would be crucial for the strategy connecting the two oceans.

Geographically, Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore are the most relevant to control of the critical straits, whilst other coastal states, such as Brunei, Myanmar, the Philippines, Thailand, and Vietnam have a potential influence over adjacent sea lines of communication (SLOCs). These Southeast Asian countries are not militarily or economically equivalent with any member of the Quad (the U.S., Japan, Australia, and India), or China, and it is unlikely that these relatively weak countries could challenge the rights of passage under the United Nation Convention on Laws of the Sea (UNCLOS). However, while their naval and air bases are strategically important for securing nearby SLOCs, the physical capture of such locations appears politically and militarily infeasible nowadays.

Politically, it would be very difficult for the UN Security Council (UNSC) to pass any resolution authorizing any power to conquer one or more Southeast Asian countries, as a veto would be expected from other permanent UNSC members. Although hybrid warfare, such as a Crimea-style invasion, could not be excluded, lack of similar historical and ethnic linkages could make such operations more uncertain, if not unlikely. In addition, unlike some “trouble-maker” countries that challenge existing international norms, Southeast Asian countries generally remain neutral, taking modest positions which keep them from becoming legitimate targets in the international community.

Militarily, force projection in Southeast Asia is already a certain challenge for most aggressors, and to secure control over local populations could be even more difficult. For example, territorial defense with grassroots organizations prepared by the Indonesian Armed Forces (Tentara Nasional Indonesia, TNI) would provide systematic resistance during and after conventional warfare in cases such as Sunda, Lombok, Makassar, and other Straits in the Indonesian Archipelago. Securing control of the Malacca Strait is further complicated since it falls under the control of three countries. Given that conquering the islands at chokepoints in key straits would be difficult, the roles of maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP need to be discussed in various scenarios.

Scenarios, Positions and Policies

The potential maritime conflicts between sea powers in the Indo-Pacific region can be categorized into three scenarios: major conflict, tight confrontation, and peacetime. A major conflict between China and the U.S., and perhaps its allies, would only likely impact Southeast Asia if China is able to maintain sea control over the first island chain. If Beijing loses the first battles or cannot retain sea control over the specific disputed area, its dream of sea power could vanish and make Southeast Asia strategically less important. In contrast, if China is able to gain the upper hand over the U.S. or another Quad member in a first-round exchange, this could force the latter to choose between preparing for the next battle or blockading the key straits in Southeast Asia, aside from negotiating for peace. In a blockade, there is no doubt as to the importance of the maritime Southeast Asian states along the straits. Another scenario is a major Indo-Sino conflict shifting from land borders to the maritim domain, where Southeast Asia is an inevitable chokepoint for both navies. In a scenario of tight confrontation where aircraft and vessels of China and the Quad members follow each other with occasional provocations, the relatively narrow sea passes in Southeast Asia are convenient for such tailing operations. During peacetime, the straits in Southeast Asia still provide critical locations for surveillance and deterrence.

Southeast Asian countries would have three political positions in the face of such scenarios: strict neutrality, loose neutrality, and aligning with one side. Loose neutrality would be the common practice in the region, evidenced in all maritime Southeast Asian countries’ policies and participation in the non-alliance movement. Although the Philippines and Thailand retain their defense treaties with the U.S., their current policies are notably different. During the previous Aquino administration between 2010 and 2016, Manila was probably seen as pro-Washington due to countering Beijing’s territorial claims in the West Philippine Sea, but President Duterte has replaced these policies with Beijing-friendly ones. In contrast to the common practice, strict neutrality and alignment with one side would be less favorable options for Southeast Asian countries during peacetime or even in crises of tight confrontation due to different concerns. Strict neutrality does not fit the complicated inter-state competition overshadowing the era of globalization, but alignment would present risk for being on a loser’s side.

Under these loosely neutral positions, each Southeast Asian country may have certain policies favoring a specific power. Arms procurements and intelligence sharing would represent relatively implicit policies showing their preferences or linkage. Joint exercises, foreign military presence, and deployments are clearer indicators.

The Regional Military Capacity

Thanks to decades of economic growth, maritime Southeast Asian countries have significantly modernized their navies and other related forces, which have strategic values for two main reasons. Firstly, as an overt invasion of Southeast Asian countries is unlikely, their military capacity is unlikely to be fully neutralized. As a result, their specific capabilities, particularly submarines and other sea denial means, can deter potential aggressors. Secondly, despite inferior quantity and perhaps quality, regional militaries have home field advantages, such as theater familiarity and shorter LOCs.

Several characteristics appear when examining Southeast Asian naval modernization. Firstly, the naval modernization among regional states is diverse on both national and asset level. On the national level, some countries, like Singapore, are comprehensively armed, and some others, such as Brunei, are at best partially equipped. On the asset level, vessels and aircraft in the same classes may have differing performances due to different designs and costs. For example, some regional frigates are armed with layered defense against anti-ship missiles, but some have only a single system of short-ranged surface-to-air missiles (SAM) without any additional margin.

Secondly, despite the diverse practices, regional countries take a balanced fleet approach and invest in both sea control and sea denial capabilities. The level of distribution between sea control, such as major surface combatants, and sea denial, such as submarines and fast attack craft (FAC), depends on each country’s strategic circumstances. The balanced fleet approach weakens the capacity of Southeast Asian navies in conventional warfare against a stronger adversary, as most ships remain vulnerable in the face of superior firepower and are unlikely to achieve their sea control mission during wartime. However, the regional navies have to deal with peacetime missions, such as counter piracy and maritime territorial control, where large surface platforms are essential. In other words, the balanced fleet approach reflects the compromise between the needs of peacetime and wartime.

Thirdly, regional submarines provide a vital deterrence by denial capability. Southeast Asian submarines within their home waters, despite their small numbers, relatively little experiences, and less sophisticated technologies, would still pose a credible threat to intruding sea powers. An external sea power may have the capacity to absorb some losses, but these losses would stretch limited expeditionary capabilities, damage its national pride, and possibly affect domestic political decision making. Striking the home bases of these submarines would be an effective measure to lower their operational sustainability, but it would significantly escalate the situation during a crisis and threaten whatever argument for legitimacy the invader was trying to use to justify their actions.

There are some drawbacks in regional naval modernization. Although more and more capable surface combatants are joining the service, a great portion of the fleets have weak air defense and anti-submarine capabilities which makes them vulnerable to modern anti-ship missiles and submarines. Maritime patrol aircraft would provide the main method of surveillance, but are vulnerable and unable to conduct patrols in a hostile air space. Without maritime patrol aircraft, these regional navies would have limited surveillance capacity. Southeast Asian states possess fighters with airborne sea strike capability, and they may be able to respond to challenges from a ski-jump aircraft carrier with limited capacity and support. However, as all these fighters belong to air forces which focus and train for more missions than maritime operations, their jointness with navies would be limited. Due to these drawbacks plus the issue of relatively inferior quantity, maritime Southeast Asian countries have little room for escalation.

Gaining Support

The traditional methods of formal alliance may not successfully work with maritime Southeast Asian countries under the present context. Trade, investment, and other economic ties with China would constrain the willingness and likelihood of direct participation by maritime Southeast Asian countries in the FOIP Initiative. Moreover, Beijing is also endeavoring to develop and deepen security ties in the region, evidenced in arms deals, personnel exchanges, joint exercises, and other forms of interactions. However, it is possible to gain the contribution of regional countries to the FOIP Initiative, under their loose neutrality position. As maritime Southeast Asian countries have relatively less experiences in various military capabilities, the militaries of Quad members with rich operational experiences could provide more interaction based on the existing foundation.

Intertwined interests would be another significant motive for supporting the FOIP. Given their maritime interests and territory, Southeast Asian countries are likely to further expand their maritime capacity and the Quad members can supply proper assets and technologies to fill their existing shortfalls, while arms deals with logistical and training packages provide another channel to strengthen military-to-military relations. Last but not least, the Quad members, with their combined market share dwarfing China’s, should build up economic ties with maritime Southeast Asian countries. It would not be easy for regional countries to formally participate in the FOIP, but their cooperation or other positive responses would be the core of a strategy across the two oceans.

Shang-su Wu is a research fellow at the S. Rajaratnam School of International Studies (RSIS), Nanyang Technological University in Singapore.

Featured Image: Marina Bay Sands Resort in Singapore (Wikimedia Commons)