A counterintuitive take on the risk that China poses to the world

David Archibald, an Australian scientist and analyst, counterintuitively argues that China is weaker than we think. I don’t agree with everything Archibald says, both factually and theoretically, but I thought his essay is interesting enough to bring to your attention.

The premise of Archibald’s claim that China is not as formidable as Xi Jinping makes it appear is summed up in a single sentence: “China has a lot of structural problems that make it a fragile state, a frail state and even potentially a future failed state.” Archibald makes five major points:

One: China’s demographic games have been disastrous. Mao, who believed in big battalions, deliberately encouraged massive population growth, which peaked at about 1.4 billion. The result is that China cannot feed its population. That continues to be true despite its one-child policy that has now left China in a demographic tailspin with an aging population that a smaller, youthful population must support.

Image: China’s military on parade. YouTube screen grab.

Archibald, who accepts that the population is still roughly 1.4 billion (rather than the low of 1 billion that I’ve heard), says that only a quarter or so of the population engages with the greater world. Over a third of the population is engaged in agriculture:

Another four hundred and twenty-five million are agricultural workers. So your average Chinese agricultural worker only feeds himself and two other people.

Bear in mind that in Western countries about 2% of the population are in agriculture and they feed the other 98%. Recently I visited a farm in Western Australia that produces 40,000 tonnes of wheat per year with three full time staff. So each of those workers feeds about 25,000 other people.

Moreover, says Archibald, China’s staple food crop, rice, is primarily hand planted on terraces. If that’s correct, Chinese farmers operate at a subsistence level, feeding only themselves and their families. No wonder, then, that the Chinese, in 2022, “imported 147 million tonnes of grain and soybeans in order to put meat on the table in the form of chicken and pork.” If China goes to war, those food imports stop.

Two: Archibald believes that the climate is cooling. (It’s a theory that climate cycles support, and that makes leftists despise him, especially because he’s insufficiently credentialed in “climate change” theory.) Archibald writes, “Global temperature peaked in 2016 and the planet is now cooling three times faster than it warmed in the late 20th century.” China, as a subsistence agrarian economy, will be badly damaged by the coming cold.

Three: China is inexorably running out of the coal that has powered its industrial revolution:

In energy terms their current coal consumption rate is equivalent to 55 million barrels per day of oil. And in getting this far, this fast, they have burned through half their original coal endowment.

According to resource depletion theory, once you have extracted half of your reserves of something then operating costs start rising inexorably. The cost of power from coal plants in China used to be four US cents per kilowatt hour. It is now eight US cents per kilowatt hour. The energy cost advantage of the Chicom economy is fading fast.

Four: Archibald points out that, armed with all that coal wealth, China built apartment buildings with a limited lifespan. Also, the building spree left at least 65 million vacant units, which is terribly damaging to the Chinese economy.

Five: China suffers from “world domination” syndrome. Like Bushido Japan, it sees itself being called up to take over the world—or at least Southeast Asia. Archibald believes its two main targets are either “Taiwan by sea or Vietnam by land.” Taiwan is less vulnerable than we think. Since China has no land bases near Taiwan, it must rely on its Navy, which is vulnerable to long-range missile attacks.

However, says Archibald, China has built up land bases near Vietnam, allowing an invasion like Putin’s in Ukraine. The bargaining chip will be that Vietnam must give China its bases in the South China Sea. Notably, “in 1946, Ho Chi Minh, in discussing the Vietnamese strategic situation, said that it would be better to smell French shit for five years than Chinese shit for one thousand years.” In other words, the Vietnamese will fight back.

I have one more thing to add: If China’s industry has brought to military equipment the same level of skill and precision it brings to everything else it manufactures, China may have a problem once it puts its equipment into battle.

Having said that, just as Mao poured untrained Chinese farmers into the frozen Chosin Reservoir or Stalin gave every three soldiers only one gun to fight at Leningrad, you can be sure that Xi won’t mind using his people’s bodies to absorb the enemies’ bullets. The big question, then, will be whether Chinese mothers will allow that.  

For me, the takeaway is that, while China is weaker than it appears, it still has global or regional ambitions and the population heft to cause tremendous harm.

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