The Hegemon’s Handbook*

The Hegemon’s Handbook

China has a goal. It’s a pretty straightforward one.

It wants to take over the world.

Not quite like Dr. Evil …, but not so different either.

It wants to be the one and only global hegemon, a position it held for most of the past 1500 years. Chinese President Xi’s aspiration is for China to regain that premier position – along with the economic, political, cultural, and technological spoils that necessarily accompany global dominance. To do so, China must replace the United States … militarily, culturally, politically and economically. That’s precisely what China has been working towards …, and Covid-19 has given it an opportunity to make further progress towards that goal. Therein lies danger.

The Hegemon’s Handbook[1] describes the steps a country must take to attain global dominance. Gaining economic and/or military control over bordering territory and militarily defanging nearby countries is the first step. At the same time, an aspiring hegemon will be planting cultural, economic, political and military seeds at carefully-gauged distances from the hegemonic motherland with the goal of radiating power outwards over time. That’s also precisely what China has been doing …, and Covid-19 is giving it opportunities to make further progress there as well.

China began its active campaign for global hegemony in 2014 by grabbing what others had thought was common, international territory – in the East China Sea and the South China Sea –, strategically-sensitive stores of natural resources and global commerce corridors previously shared with Japan, Vietnam, Indonesia, the Philippines, Brunei and Malaysia. It built artificial islands in both areas and constructed military bases that staked a powerful claim to ownership … and functional hegemony over the Far-Western Pacific, an effective annexation (over time) of both seas. This thus-far tactically-ingenious territorial coup not only pre-empted claims to natural resources and a right to commercial use by neighboring countries, but also creates a military buffer against projected American naval and air power. The existence of China’s armed islands also undercuts America’s co-defense alliances with Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines. As a 2018 Rand Corporation study explained, Chinese armed forces are not merely seeking to compete with the U.S. military. Their goal is to be in a position to defeat it …, and its newly-constructed military bases go a long way to achieving that goal in the Western Pacific. When added to China’s investments in hypersonic weapons’ technology to counter America’s aircraft carrier forces, China is well on its way to being secure on its western flank …, and to separating Taiwan, South Korea, Japan and the Philippines from their American alliances.

In 2020, during the Covid-19 pandemic, China has ratcheted up its activities in the South China Sea – where one-third of global shipping flows. Chinese paramilitary and coast guard ships have been harassing fishermen, U.S. and Southeast Asian countries’ military ships and aircraft, and local countries’ oil and gas rigs. In March, Vietnam accused a Chinese patrol ship of ramming and sinking a Vietnamese fishing boat and, also in March, the Chinese navy carried out combat drills with a fleet of submarines, fighter jets and missile boats. The exercises occurred as the American aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt was stranded thousands of miles away when its crew members became ill with COVID-19. In March as well, China opened two new “research stations” on militarized reefs in areas claimed by the Philippines and others and, in early April, China announced that it had formally established two new districts in the South China Sea that include dozens of contested islets and reefs.

China has taken advantage of the pandemic to take action in Hong Kong and Taiwan as well. (“Never let a serious crisis go to waste…. [I]t’s an opportunity to do things you think you could not do before.” – Rahm Emanuel.) Great Britain handed Hong Kong back to China in 1997 with a 50-year guarantee of constitutional protection set out in the Sino-British Joint Declaration and Hong Kong’s Basic Law. Nevertheless, in mid-2019, China sought to impose a new law that would have allowed the extradition of Hong Kong citizens to mainland China for trial and incarceration. A majority of Hong Kong citizens recognized this as a violation of their constitutional guarantees … and pro-democracy protests erupted with business in Hong Kong slowing significantly. With the protests at a standstill because of Covid-19, China’s Hong Kong representative on April 13th called for national security legislation to put an end to Hong Kong’s pro-democracy movement … which is what China did on April 18th by arresting 14 high-profile Hong Kong democracy activists, using the cover of Covid-19 to quash Hong Kong dissent.

China also has used the Covid-19 crisis to ratchet-up pressure on Taiwan, escalating military incursions into Taiwanese airspace and sea lanes. In a further step, an official Chinese media website on April 15th featured a long article advocating uniting Taiwan with China by force. China undoubtedly will continue to increase the pressure … to an extent and with an outcome yet to be determined.

Although Covid-19 has provided China with the opportunity to aggressively expand territorially in Southeast Asia and the Western Pacific, Covid-19 is likely to slowdown China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), a set of massive construction projects intended to bind Eastern Asia’s, Europe’s, and Africa’s economies to China. The BRI is an ingenious scheme whereby China is building infrastructure for client countries through (1) loans funded by China, (2) that are built with Chinese labor and (3) that use Chinese contractors and Chinese materials. China accordingly has committed trillions of dollars to build infrastructure in 152+ countries and to connect those infrastructure projects to China’s supply chain. The web of contractual arrangements thus far has buried recipient countries in debt (creating a so-called Debt Trap). Although Covid-19 will slow construction, it also will strangle the economies of recipient states, preventing timely repayment of Chinese debt. At some not-too-distant time, there will be a reckoning. To date, China has used its economic clout to obtain military and commercial concessions from recipient states, including by securing port facilities in Sri Lanka (providing it with a gateway to the Indian Ocean), Djibouti (past which almost one-third of the world’s shipping travels en route to and from the Suez Canal, the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean), Piraeus in Greece, Trieste on the northern Adriatic Sea, Genoa, Italy’s biggest seaport, and the enlarged Gwadar Port Complex in Pakistan.

Politically and culturally, China’s centrally-managed, State-run monolith has positioned itself as having had the greatest success in fighting Covid-19 (at least based on Chinese-supplied facts), contrasting the Chinese Communist Party system with the American and European democratic ones. China has been doubling down on its educational system as well – China’s students have been holding the lead in all PISA educational achievement rankings – and in the promotion of “Chinese thought” through the Confucius Institute, a “not-for-profit public educational organization” that operates under the auspices of the Ministry of Education of the People’s Republic of China. The goal of the Confucius Institute is to promote Chinese language and culture, support local Chinese teaching internationally, and facilitate cultural exchanges. Because it is an arm of the Chinese government, its mission is also to spread Chinese influence. According to a Chinese Politburo member, the Confucius Institute is “an important part of China’s overseas propaganda set-up.” There are currently over 500 Confucius Institutes operating in 142 countries. They will continue to have a significant impact.

China has not yielded ground to any extent in its battles for economic supremacy, having committed itself in 2015 to “Made in China 2025” … even after being rebuked and tariffed by America. Made in China 2025 provides a blueprint for making China competitive preeminent in a wide range of high-tech fields, including pharmaceuticals, automobiles, aerospace, semiconductors, IT, AI and robotics; making its universities preeminent world-class to spread Chinese values and influence; facilitating corporate China’s acquisitions of strategic technology and mining companies in Europe and the U.S. and mining companies and assets in Africa and South America; using its substantial expatriate population to influence governments and their economies; making its currency preeminent competitive with the U.S. Dollar; inaugurating an alternative to the U.S. SWIFT global payment system (the “China International Payments System”); constructing sophisticated stock, fixed income and derivatives markets that have attracted significant volume (the Shanghai Stock Exchange already is the fourth largest in the world behind the NYSE, NASDAQ and Japan); and maintaining its preeminent status as the world’s principal producer and stockpiler of gold. Covid-19 will enable China (and its agents, including Huawei, a Chinese multinational telecommunications equipment manufacturer that is at the forefront of cutting-edge 5G networking technology) to continue to make inroads and, in time, to replace American technology and economic leadership (and perhaps also to defeat America militarily, as Graham Allison warns in his book, Destined for War).

Any American weakness arising from Covid-19 will indicate vulnerability. Vulnerability will invite growing Chinese aggression. Any strength arising from China’s success in dealing with Covid-19 also will invite growing Chinese aggression. Based on The Hegemon’s Handbook, therein lies danger.

Finally (from a good friend)

The Washington winning submissions to its yearly “neologism” contest in which readers are asked to supply alternative meanings for common words are:

1. *Coffee* (n.), the person upon whom one coughs.
2. *Flabbergasted* (adj.), appalled over how much weight you have gained.
3. *Abdicate* (v.), to give up all hope of ever having a flat stomach.
4. *Esplanade* (v.), to attempt an explanation while drunk.
5. *Willy-nilly* (adj.), impotent.
6. *Negligent* (adj.), describes a condition in which you absent mindedly answer the door in your nightgown.
7. *Lymph* (v.), to walk with a lisp.
8. *Gargoyle*, olive-flavored mouthwash.
9. *Flatulence* (n.), emergency vehicle that picks you up after you are run over by a steamroller.
10. *Balderdash* (n.), a rapidly receding hairline.
11. *Testicle* (n.), a humorous question on an exam.
12. *Rectitude* (n.), the formal, dignified bearing adopted by proctologists.
13. *Pokemon*, a Rastafarian proctologist.
14. *Oyster* (n.), a person who sprinkles his conversation with Yiddishisms.
15. *Frisbeetarianism* (n.), (back by popular demand): The belief that, when you die, your soul flies up onto the roof and gets stuck there.
16. *Circumvent* (n.), an opening in the front of boxer shorts worn by Jewish men.

[1] Although there is no such book, treatise or tome – TLR has simply made one up imagined one –, The Art of War by Sun Tzu provides a rich canvas for the tactical pursuit of hegemonic power.

*┬® Copyright 2019 by William Natbony. All rights reserved.

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