Beware another Pearl Harbor: China may start a war when its economy falters

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China has threatened Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam with war over islands in the South China Sea which under international law belong to Japan, the Philippines and Vietnam.

China has built up its military forces opposite Taiwan, even though the new Taiwanese government seeks closer ties to Beijing.

China is building up military forces along its border with India, India's intelligence service reported in July.

If that weren't saber-rattling enough, "China will not hesitate to protect Iran even with a third world war," a Chinese general said last month.

China bullies its neighbors because it can, most analysts think.

"Beijing is deploying superior power in an effort to repeal basic [geography] and clearly written treaty law," wrote James Holmes, a professor of strategy at the U.S. Naval War College. He suggests that Southeast Asia "learn to love Big Brother."

There could be a very different reason for Chinese bellicosity.

"The Chinese leadership could be tempted to galvanize inherent xenophobic fervor to divert domestic attention to an external threat," said an analysis by India's intelligence service.

Picking a quarrel abroad to distract a restive populace from troubles at home is a time-honored practice among despots everywhere. No one has played the "foreign devil" card more often than the Chinese.

Nearly all Chinese dynasties have ended violently.

Deng Xiaoping bought the communist dynasty more time with his economic reforms. Political control was kept tight, but he gave China as close to a market economy as a totalitarian system could permit. China escaped from the stagnation that has characterized communist economies everywhere else. Growth hasn't been as spectacular as the government has claimed, but it's been enough to lift substantially the standard of living for hundreds of millions of Chinese.

Now, time is running out. Chinese prosperity was based on exports, boosted by currency manipulation. But since Western economies crashed in 2008, neither we nor the Europeans have bought nearly as much. So "China's economy is sinking like a heavy dumpling in chicken broth," said one analyst.

To conceal slower growth, China's rulers inflated a housing bubble much larger than ours, and accumulated enough debt to make our politicians seem frugal. Most of the money went to state-owned enterprises "known mainly for their unique ability to sink perfectly good money into bottomless holes," wrote professor Minxin Pei of Claremont-McKenna College.

Now the housing bubble is bursting, and what Mr. Pei calls "the mother of all debt bombs" is about to explode. The Chinese economy will contract.

"There will be hell to pay" when that happens, because the people no longer will tolerate the ostentatious corruption of Communist Party officials, Hillsdale College professor Paul Rahe predicts.

What will happen in China will be very much like what happened during the French Revolution, Mr. Rahe believes. In the years leading up to it, things had been getting much better for the French, Alexis de Tocqueville noted in his 1856 book "The Ancien Regime and the Revolution." Then progress stopped.

"What happened in and after 1789, Tocqueville argued, was a revolution of rising expectations -- expectations that eventuated in disappointment," Mr. Rahe wrote.

Communist Party officials are passing around copies of de Tocqueville's book, an Australian newspaper reported in November.

Desperate people do desperate things. When, in a year or so, economic contraction becomes too big to hide, China's rulers may start a war to redirect public ire onto a "foreign devil."

India's Research and Analysis Wing thinks the most likely targets for a Chinese attack are the Scarborough Shoal belonging to the Philippines or Tibet. The Lowy Institute, an Australian think tank, believes war may start over the Senkaku Islands, an uninhabited pile of rocks administered by Japan, because new Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe isn't backing down in the face of Chinese threats.

To make sure America couldn't interfere with their territorial ambitions in Asia, the Japanese attacked the Pacific Fleet in Pearl Harbor on Dec. 7, 1941. If China starts a war, it may begin the same way, for the same reason.


Jack Kelly is a columnist for the Post-Gazette (, 412-263-1476).


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