U.S. policy through the Bush and Obama administrations was to soft-pedal questionable Chinese trade practices, pirating technology and theft of intellectual property in return for cheap manufactured goods and China’s willingness to finance trillions of dollars of U.S. government debt.
Now Trump has changed the rules of the game. He’s said lost jobs in the U.S. are not worth the cheap goods and cheap financing. He bet that China had no alternative but to keep producing those goods and keep buying our debt, even if the U.S. imposes tariffs to help create manufacturing jobs here.
President Trump and President Xi had been on a collision course involving issues of trade, tariffs, and currency manipulation, which are coming to a head.
It’s important to understand that China’s economy is not just about providing jobs, goods and services. It is about regime survival for a Chinese Communist Party that faces an existential crisis if it fails to deliver. It is an illegitimate regime that will remain in power only so long as it provides jobs and a rising living standard for the Chinese people. The overriding imperative of the Chinese leadership is to avoid societal unrest.
Once the Chinese job machine stalls out, popular unrest could emerge on a scale much greater than the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests. This is an existential threat to Communist power.
If China encounters a financial crisis, Xi could quickly lose what the Chinese call, “The Mandate of Heaven.” That’s a term that describes the intangible goodwill and popular support needed by emperors to rule China for the past 3,000 years.
If The Mandate of Heaven is lost, a ruler can fall quickly.
China has serious structural economic problems and its internal contradictions are catching up with it. Economies can grow through consumption, investment, government spending and net exports. The “Chinese miracle” has been mostly a matter of investment and net exports, with minimal spending by consumers.
The investment component was thinly disguised government spending — many of the companies conducting investment in large infrastructure projects were backed directly or indirectly by the government through the banks.
This investment was debt-financed. China is so heavily indebted that it is now at the point where more debt does not produce growth. Adding additional debt today slows the economy and calls into question China’s ability to service its existing debt.
China is now confronting an insolvent banking system, a real estate bubble, and a $1 trillion wealth management product Ponzi scheme that is starting to fall apart.
Up to half of China’s investment is a complete waste. It does produce jobs and utilize inputs like cement, steel, copper and glass. But the finished product, whether a city, train station or sports arena, is often a white elephant that will remain unused.
Chinese growth has been reported in recent years as 6.5–10% but is actually closer to 5% or lower once an adjustment is made for the waste. The Chinese landscape is littered with “ghost cities” that have resulted from China’s wasted investment and flawed development model.
What’s worse is that these white elephants are being financed with debt that can never be repaid. And no allowance has been made for the maintenance that will be needed to keep these white elephants in usable form if demand does rise in the future, which is doubtful.
Essentially, China is on the horns of a dilemma with no good way out. On the one hand, China has driven growth for the past eight years with excessive credit, wasted infrastructure investment and Ponzi schemes.
The Chinese leadership knows this, but they had to keep the growth machine in high gear to create jobs for millions of migrants coming from the countryside to the city and to maintain jobs for the millions more already in the cities.
The two ways to get rid of debt are deflation (which results in write-offs, bankruptcies and unemployment) or inflation (which results in theft of purchasing power, similar to a tax increase).
Both alternatives are unacceptable to the Communists because they lack the political legitimacy to endure either unemployment or inflation. Either policy would cause social unrest and unleash revolutionary potential.
China has hit a wall that development economists refer to as the “middle income trap.” Again, this happens to developing economies when they have exhausted the easy growth potential moving from low income to middle income and then face the far more difficult task of moving from middle income to high income.
The move to high-income status requires far more than simple assembly-style jobs staffed by rural dwellers moving to the cities. It requires the creation and adoption of high-value-added products enabled by high technology.
China has not shown much capacity for developing high technology on its own, but it has been quite effective at stealing such technology from trading partners and applying it through its own system of state-owned enterprises and “national champions” such as Huawei in the telecommunications sector.
Unfortunately for China, this growth by theft has run its course. The U.S. and its allies, such as Canada and the EU, are taking strict steps to limit further theft and are holding China to account for its theft so far by imposing punitive tariffs and banning Chinese companies from participation in critical technology rollouts such as 5G mobile phones.
My view is that a crisis in China is inevitable based on China’s growth model, the international financial climate and excessive debt. A countdown to crisis has begun. Geopolitical issues will make the economic issues even harder to resolve.
Yes, headlines are dominated by the trade war. That escalating confrontation is a big deal, but it’s not the only flash point in U.S.-China relations, and not even the most important. China is as much concerned about a military confrontation in the South China Sea as it is about the economic confrontation in the trade wars.
China dredged sand surrounding useless rocks and atolls in the South China Sea and converted them into artificial islands and then built out the islands to include naval ports, air force landing strips, anti-aircraft weapons and other defensive and offensive weapons systems.
Not only are the Chinese militarizing rocks, but they are trampling on competing claims by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei, Malaysia and other countries surrounding the sea.
The world has developed rules-based platforms for resolving these issues without military force. The U.S. is guaranteeing freedom of passage, freedom of the seas and the territorial rights of allies such as the Philippines.
So far, the U.S.-Chinese confrontation has been about naval vessels passing in close quarters and surveillance aircraft being harassed by fighter jets. The risk of such tactics is an accidental collision, a rogue shot fired or a command misunderstood.
Any such incident could lead to retaliation, and there’s no telling where it might stop. Trump is not someone to back down, and Chinese leadership does not want to appear weak before the U.S.
That’s especially true at a time of great economic uncertainty. China does not want war at this time. But diverting the people’s attention away from domestic problems toward a foreign foe is an old trick leaders use to unite the people in times of uncertainty. Rallying the people around the flag is a tried and true method to garner support.
If China’s leadership decides that the risk of losing legitimacy at home outweighs the risk of conflict with the United States, the likelihood of war rises dramatically.
I’m not predicting it, but wars have started over less. This is a very dangerous time.
Be sure to hold cash, gold, silver, land and other assets that will cushion you against a market crash.
for The Daily Reckoning
This story originally appeared in the Daily Reckoning
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