20 July, 2010

Futuristics, Geopolitics, and National Resilience

Earlier this month Antoly Karlin (of Sublime Oblivion) wrote an interesting post outlining several possible trajectories India may take in the near future. A fair amount of the post is devoted to comparing India with Asia's other billion-person behemoth, China. The two giants are likely to remain engaged in intense strategic competition for the next half century, and as Mr. Karlin sees it, the inevitable winner of this great geopolitical game will be China.

A quick statistical comparison reveals why:

India China
GDP / capita 2009 2900$ 6600$
Literacy rate 1995-2005 66% 93%
Manufacturing sector (current prices) 2008 190bn $ 1800bn $
Internet penetration 2008 5% 22%
Planned infrastructure spending 2008-11 240bn $ 725bn $
Naval tonnage 164,000 346,000
Table taken from Antoly Karlin's post, "The Century without an Indian Summer"

Given the evidence presented, I must agree with Mr. Karlin: all long term trends clearly point towards a future of Chinese dominance. If growth rates and naval tonnage are the name of the game then this is a game India cannot win.

But must these be the name of the game? It is a question worth the pondering. The course of history is rarely decided by nothing but the demographic and economic trends of the long duree. Just as important as any long term trend are the short jumps and leaps of history. "Punctuated equilibrium", "critical transitions", "black swans" - a whole host of terms have been created to name those unexpected events that truly change everything.

This is a problem that undermines the very foundation of future studies. Futurists use the data of days past to make projections for the future. Such extrapolation suffers from a crippling weakness: it only works in a world where these trends are allowed to play themselves out absent hidden variables. This world is not ours. No state on this Earth operates in a vacuum. As complex adaptive systems they are subject to the unexpected stresses of a system disruption. There are plenty of possible yet unpredictable "discontinuities" (e.g. epidemics, ecological disasters, major war, assassinations or terrorist strikes, large-scale social unrest, ect.) that could throw even the steadiest trend off its given course. While we can be reasonably sure that these discontinuities will happen in the future, it is a fool's game to try to predict the scale, shape, or timing of any one disruption.

This places clear limits on the futurist's craft. Theirs is not a doomed art, however. I am reminded of a few words I wrote for an earlier post on theories of social decline:

T. Greer. The Scholar's Stage. 27 February 2010.
It hardly needs to be said that most civilizational collapses are unexpected 'black swan' events - if they were anything else, the great majority would have been averted. However, the unpredictability of an empire's final throes does not render theories of collapse and social decline useless. The metaphor of the camel's back serves us well here. Few can predict the exact manner in which a stray straw floating in the air might fall onto a camel's back. More difficult still is to predict the precise straw that will break the poor creature. But the wise herdsman can know when the camel has been overburdened to the point where a straw might break the back.

As are the camels of metaphor, so are the civilizations of reality. The proper concern of civlizational theorists should not be the prediction of the exact moment or cause of a collapse. Rather, theorists should concentrate their efforts on developing models that predict when societies become most vulnerable to these 'black swan' events. Plagues, barbarians, terrorist, famines, recessions - such ills befall all complex human societies. Some of the societies find the power within themselves to overcome these challenges; others fall prey to them. The difference between the two is rarely found within challenge itself. A people are brought to its knees by what came before the last straw. Societies, states, empires, and civilizations do not fall simply because they are confronted with unexpected challenges. It is when they lack the capacity to respond to these unexpected challenges that collapse ensues.
I term a country's ability to respond to challenges and recover from disruptions national resilience. While it is harder to quantify than concrete economic statistics, resiliency is just as important - in a few cases quite a bit more important - than are long term trends in GDP growth and military spending. Futurists who ignore national resilience threaten the credibility of their predictions from the get-go.

Resilience is a tricky thing. An ecologically resilient country may be financially brittle; social resilience may come at the cost of political collapse. In most cases a failure in one part of the system will spill over into the others. A key aspect of any resilient system is its ability to reduce the damage these spill overs cause or otherwise contain disruptions before they bring down the entire system. It is on this count the comparison of China and India is most revealing.  

The Chinese Communist Party prevents the conflagration of financial and social disruptions by holding a tight reign on Chinese society. There could be no paralyzing bandh of the type that shut down the Indian economy earlier this month; if it were attempted the perpetrators would be promptly rounded up and arrested. Social unrest and financial volatility are closely monitored by the ruling regime; it does not hesitate to use means arbitrary or coercive to stop trouble spots from spiraling out of control. In China the government is the guarantee of societal resilience. 

There is but one problem with this approach: the Chinese system is dependent on a strong functioning government. If the Chinese Communist Party cracks, so does the rest of China.

This problem is made worse by the general brittleness of the Chinese regime. It suffers from a malady common to authoritarian states: there is no established process for resolving severe disagreements among the political elite. Bandhs are one of many ways the Indian political system channels the opposition away from true instability and violence. Where is the Chinese counterpart? The CCP has no vehicle for dissent. As long as China's political elite are united in consensus this poses no danger. But this consensus will not last forever. A serious schism would threaten to bring the whole system crashing to the ground. 

We do not know if such a schism will occur. What we do know is that if the politiburo was to crack apart, or if the general staff of the PLA were to find themselves in sharp disagreement with the leading bodies of the CCP, the consequences would have a much longer reach than if similar schisms occurred in the ranks of their Indian counterparts. And what emerges from the fray may be much worse than the fray itself. Even if even if the internal struggle of the Chinese elite is both quick and bloodless China's leaders would remain a small clique whose will is law. This is another bug of authoritarian systems.:If the foolish gain control there is very little that can stop them from ruining everything. The contrast with India proves the point. India would recover from another Long Emergency at a much faster rate than China could hope to rebound from another Cultural Revolution.

Of course, one cannot know if the 21rst century's great authoritarian will find his (or her) way to power in China, India, or another place altogether. Futuristics is a blind man's dice game. One can never be quite sure where the next disaster will strike or when the next miracle will occur. To whom fortune deigns to give her frowns and smiles is known by none but her. However, with few reservations I can say that her frown will harm Beijing more than New Delhi.


Sublime Oblivion said...

While I agree that "national resilience" is important, I disagree with the specifics - in particular, that China is much worse off in this respect than India.

Let's look at the Big Three possible shocks facing China:
1) Political fracturing. But the chances of a Cultural Revolution or Warring States are almost non-existent, since practically no section of the Chinese elites are interested in this. IMO, this is more likely to follow the traditional route of democratizations in neighboring regions, e.g. Taiwan or S. Korea. While there was a slow-down in growth, it wasn't big and counterbalanced by becoming more even. However, if I had to bet, I'd say that the CCP will gradualistically forge their own road to democratization. It will be different from what prevails in the West - more like a "deliberative dictatorship" (Mark Leonard) based on opinion polling and local elections within an entrenched one party system - but much more responsive and capable of amicably resolving social disputes than is the case under the present authoritarian system.
2) Economic collapse due to bad debts. Unlikely for now, since the catch-up momentum is strong. Will become a major issue once it reaches the level of development of Japan c.1990 and growth slows, but by then it would be an advanced industrial state anyway.
3) Resource-based economic slowdown, possible collapse. The thing you didn't mention here, but which I think may well be the most important one, is the actual size of China's coal reserves and how long its industrial expansion based on this cheap energy source can go on. Some projections have it peaking as early as 2015 (Richard Heinberg), others around 2020-30 (Energy Watch Group). If the downslope is steep, & efficiency & renewables substitution cannot make good the difference, and we may see China beginning to decline... or pursue aggressive designs abroad. Fortunately for China it will likely be well positioned for such an endevour within the decade.
4) I doubt the foolish can gain control of the CCP. It has a very strong technocratic ethos at the upper levels.

But India too has its share of possible black swans.
1) A nuclear war with Pakistan cannot be excluded. It will not cripple India but will set it back by a few years. China has nothing that could set it back on anywhere near this scale.
2) India has a much poorer resource base (oil, metals) than China. So even though its industrialization lags by one to two decades, it likewise has less potential for indigenously sustaining said industrialization. Resources will have to flow from abroad... and in *direct competition* with China. At this point the fact of China's much greater industrial base and more naval tonnage becomes important.

T. Greer said...


I agree, the CCP is trending towards democratization (indeed, I have briefly touched on the subject on the Stage). I also do not dispute that India's environmental and industrial base is less prepared for a major crisis than is that of China.

But this is besides the point.

A funny thing about black swans: they are black. Unexpected. By their nature they are not found on lists.

9/11 is the case example - a completely unexpected event that shifted the course of America's national strategy and has fundamentally changed its security architecture. But who would have said c. 2000 that terrorist hijacking a plane and ramming into prominent buildings was one of the "Big Three possible chocks" facing American society?

I do not know what type of shock China will face in the future - or even if it will face such a shock. As said earlier, futuristics is a blind man's game. But were an unexpected event to fracture Standing Committee (particularly if this came in a time of transition anyway) I suspect the stability of the current regime would crumble.

In contrast, a member of India's Council of Ministers could murder his fellows and I doubt it would damage the stability or legitimacy of the Indian government on the long term. The Indian government is not entirely dependent on one cabinet to function properly, and Indian society is not held in balance by the government. Their political system is simply more resilient.