Lessons From French Failures in 1936 Applied to China Today

Chinese Containment

In today's rapidly shifting geopolitical landscape lessons drawn from history are more vital than ever. In my new book, The Road to Wars, I discuss the algorithmic expansion of an aggressive and aspirational hegemony. I utilise both past and present to better understand and predict Chinese intentions and actions.

 

Lessons From Hitler's Expansion

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tropps in Rhinelands

German troops marching into the Rhineland, March 1936

Hitler's Third Reich was an excellent example of algorithmic expansion from a military state. As Bismark noted, Germany was forged in the fire with the Austro-Prussian War of 1866, the Franco-Prussian War of 1870 and World War One. Having failed the first time, Germany's second great challenge for power commenced in 1936 with the re-occupation of the Rhineland. This act violated both the Treaty of Versailles and the Locarno Treaties. Debatably, it was the critical moment when Hitler realised that France and Britain would not act against him, despite these countries possessing vastly superior military capabilities. Most of all it signalled to Hitler that France, as well as the continent of Europe, could be Germany’s for the taking. So, why did France and Britain fail to act? Why did France and Britain allow themselves to become so vulnerable? The main reason was that both were in decline. Following World War One and the Wall Street Crash, they were economically exhausted. To compound this, France was gripped in a financial crisis as the franc struggled to be linked to the gold standard. This highlighted French economic and industrial weakness. This mindset is of great relevance to the current Wuhan pandemic, its economic impact and that mindset potentially disabling a decisive American response.

Emboldened by the Rhineland reoccupation, Germany began to support Franco in the Spanish Civil War from July 1936. Again, France and  Britain did nothing. Encouraged by the lack of opposition,  Hitler annexed Austria in 1938. Thoroughly emboldened after this event, Hitler aimed his sights on the Sudetenland in Czechoslovakia where a minority of Germans lived. Ultimately, Britain and France acquiesced and agreed to the annexation of the Sudetenland too in an effort to appease Hitler. Chamberlain came home to echo the deluded words “Peace for our time”. Only a year later World War Two began. 

The lesson is very clear. Unless an expansive, aggressive totalitarian state is deterred from the outset it becomes emboldened and strengthened with each acquisition. In essence, the fear of war starting on behalf of the established hegemony precipitates the very outcome they seek to avoid. Deterrence backed by military capability and a strong political intention to act is the only historic measure that has proven effective in preventing wars.

 

China Today

Let us roll the clock forward to the present and China’s aggressive hegemonic aspirations. First and foremost China, like Germany, has been forged in fire over the 20th century. It began with the Boxer revolution of 1902 and rolled onto the Civil War of 1927-1950, the Korean War of 1950-1953, the Taiwan Straits Crisis of 1954-1958, the Tibitan uprising of 1959, the Burma Border Wars of 1960-1961, the Sino-Indian War of 1962, The Sino-Vietnam War of 1979-1991 and the Third Taiwan Straits Crisis in 1996.

However, the most notable similarity between German and Chinese expansion is the implementation of the Island Chain Strategy. Like Germany, China is blatantly violating an international agreement on the placement of military forces. The building of a chain of military bases constructed from coral atolls have effectively annexed everything within its arc. In Germany's case, the Rhineland was both a block to France and a key resource to build up the industrial-military complex. Similarly, the Chinese Island Chain Strategy is a mechanism to gain control of the access to the world's oceans. At the same time it pushes the US Navy back to a distance that protects the Chinese mainland. It also increases China's natural resource base and places the productive power of the Far East within Chinese control. This resource base includes Taiwan, South Korea, and Japan. For China, this represents the first vital step to becoming the next global maritime hegemony. Sadly, like with Germany, the West has done little to stop the expansion. 

 

 

The Chinese Island Chain Strategy

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bases

A PLN Island Base on the first island chain

The Chinese strategy defines the first, second and third chains.

The First Island Chain begins at the Kuril Islands and finishes towards Borneo and the northern Philippines. The key part of the first chain is Tawain, occupying a strategic position in its centre. Controlling Taiwan can effectively cut off the strategic choke point between the East and South China seas. It also provides a convenient channel to the Second Island Chain, as well as to the rest of the Pacific. Because the island chain is built from a series of landmasses, it is also called the ''unsinkable aircraft carrier'' This is especially prevalent in the case of Taiwan. 

The Island Chain Strategy holds strong echoes of Japan's strategy to control the region against the US Navy in 1941. The PLN and PLA view the First Island Chain as the area it must secure to deny access to US aircraft and aircraft carrier groups. The doctrine aims to seal off the Yellow Sea, the South China Sea and East China Sea inside an arc running from the Aleutians in the north to Borneo in the south, buffering the Chinese mainland from attack. 

The Second Island Chain refers to the island chain formed by the Bonin Islands and Volcano islands of Japan, in addition to the Mariana Islands which are United States territories. If secured, it will act as a second strategic defence line against the United States. If this is accomplished, it will push the US Navy carrier and strike groups far enough away to become impotent against the Chinese mainland. 

The Third Island Chain is the final part of the strategy. It begins at the Aleutian islands and finishes up in Oceania . The key part of the Third Island Chain would be the Hawaiinan Islands of the United States. This would then constrict US power and place it back on the defensive, providing a launch point to invade the Western seaboard.

China's construction of atoll bases (with dubious legality) is of a similar magnitude to Germany's reoccupation of the Rhineland. In essence, it inhibits America's ability to support its allies within its boundary of the First and Second Island Chains. This is just like the French being unable to support their Eastern allies after 1936 due to the annexation of the Rhineland. Xi, just like Hitler, will be emboldened by Western inaction and continue to make aggressive moves. If we are to avoid war and a repetition of history, America must redouble its commitment to deterring Chinese expansion and aggression in the Pacific region. If that fails, it needs to act decisively to reverse any Chinese invasion. 

One thing is for certain. China will only narrow its military capability gap with America  with every passing month.

 

The Situation Today

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DF-21

A DF21D preparing for launch

Today, the PLN consider the First Island Chain almost secure due to the military bases built on the new coral atolls. The Chinese have also deployed DF-21D ballistic missiles (with a 1500km range) that can destroy US carriers, providing great risk if the USN chooses to operate inside the chain. This pushed the carriers further out where their aircraft's combat radius of about 640Nm becomes ineffective. Positioning these current missiles on the new atoll bases along the first chain immediately extends Chinese influence and control to the Second Island Chain. This position will soon be reinforced with the future additions of the air-launched version of the DF-21D, a missile possessing a 3000km or 1560NM range, as well as the DF-26 with a range of 4,000 km or 2,200 NM. Both of these systems could be based on the Chinese mainland, creating an extra layer of power projection out to the Second Island Chain. The obvious next step will be to mount the DF-21D missiles on ships and submarines that will then bring the Third island Chain into range.

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DF-21 Range

The result of Chinas expansion is that as of today the Second Island Chain has come under PLN and PLA influence. Therefore, the USN cannot act with the impunity to deter and stop Chinese aggression inside the First Island Chain without risking a major conflict which could inflict significant casualties on their major fleet units. Most importantly, it could result in a major loss of global prestige and power even if the USN are successful.

 

US Chinese Polarisation is accelerating.

As we highlighted in THE ACCELERATION OF US-CHINA POLARISATION, the polarisation between America and China is both alarming and inevitable. New examples are splattered across our headlines every day. America is fully engaged in the process of reactionary secondary polarisation. Examples of this include Trump blocking future US investment in China, the US forcing Britain not to use Huawei 5G technology and Pompeo encouraging Israel to limit military technology exports and trade to China. Pompeo has also correctly publicly stated that China is a danger to the free world. This is all transpiring as we predicted with lawmakers in America preparing to make China pay for its actions around the spread of the Wuhan Virus. In the Senate, Republican Linsey Graham has introduced the Covid-19 Accountability Act which paves the wave for sanctions, asset freezes, and travel restrictions against China.

Meanwhile, China has responded with anger and indignation as if it is innocent! It has sought to use its economic power wherever it thinks it can bully other nations into submission. It is threatening to stop Australian beef imports as the Australian government seeks to determine the true source of the Virus. This would be an ideal moment for Britain to step in and agree on a trade deal to buy the excess.

The key point is that US-Chinese polarization level is at a stage where a proxy conflict is becoming a realistic threat.

 

Deterring the Risks Going Forward

There are two possibilities that China may seek to annexe next, when and if it perceives that US resolve is weak enough not to respond. The first is Mongolia, although that risks a response from Russia which would push it into the fold of the West. The second,and most important, is Taiwan. 

We are talking about a country Beijing has promised to retake with force if necessary by 2050. 

Accomplishing this would bring the Chinese Civil War to a conclusion and more importantly secure the center of the First Island Chain, severely damaging US power. There is no doubt that China, if it were to  take Taiwan by a force, would make such an invasion look like liberation. Acting in this fashion would draw yet more parallels between Nazi Germany and China; Hitler presented the acquisition of the Sudetenland as just such a liberation.

The rumours swirling around on social media have been given substance by Beijing's announcement that the PLA and PLN have planned major amphibious exercises in August. These will simulate an invasion against the Taiwanese Prats Islands (Dongsha in Chinese), positioned midway between Hainan island and Taiwan. A Taiwanese military airbase is located there. Such a show of strength has three goals. Firstly, to bully Taiwanese separatists into silence. The second, to test America's response and estimate its intention as well as its ability to prevent an invasion of Taiwan. The third is that the exercise provides cover to gather forces that could be aimed at a surprise invasion of Taiwan if Chinese intelligence estimates believe that America cannot stop an invasion in time.

The PLN and PLA calculate that they could complete the invasion of Taiwan within a week. By this time the USN would have to mount a major war to win it back. This is something America is in no condition to do. Following this, China could then start to acquire lesser countries in the region, including South Korea via North Korea. This would leave Japan isolated and threatened. Such an expanded resource and industrial base, once consolidated, would put China in a strong position to mount its hegemonic challenge.

Xi has long declared the unification of Taiwan is an essential step of national rejuvenation. Thus, if at any stage Xi is considers he could get away with an invasion of Taiwan with the pandemic in full swing and imminent economic collapse impacting a potential American response he may order a lightning invasion. It is one thing to defend and defeat a one-off invasion. It is quite another to mount a costly contested invasion to retake an island inside China's sphere of influence. 

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