The Chinese Premier had learnt how to handle unexpected phone calls from the US President. Typically his American opposite asked him to address the vast difference in their balance of trade, to let the yuan appreciate or to do something about Chinese protectionism. Or, most tiresome of all, he would lecture him about human rights like he was addressing the White House press gallery in public and not the Chinese Premier in private.
The premier would listen politely, promise to look into it – and then, just like the Japanese had done with the Americans decades before, when they were at the height of their powers, do nothing. He wasn’t about to hamstring China for winning at a game that the Americans themselves had help create. The Americans had forgotten one of the rules of international diplomacy: never ask for something you don’t have the strength to take.
The latest G20 summit, where the heads of Europe had offered him and China’s money a rock star welcome while the US President sat fuming on the sidelines, should have told the Americans everything they needed to know about the new global realpolitik.
Yet it was with great alarm that he heard the president rage about the presence of biological weapons of mass destruction on American soil. Worse, that he had proof of Chinese involvement in bringing them to the States, and plans to detonate them. The furious president said that if even one went off he would hold China responsible, and he couldn’t guarantee what would happen next. America had invaded Iraq on the strength of suspected weapons of mass destruction. They were stone-cold paranoid about WMDs. If they had proof of real ones on US soil …
Now coldly angry, both at the threat and the idea that someone had planned this attack behind his back – he would never have authorised something like this during China’s catch-up phase – the premier promised he would do everything in his power to assist the president. That as soon as he got off the phone he would launch an immediate investigation, starting with the background of the assailant that had been caught, now dead. (Did the Americans torture him to death, he wondered.) He would send some of his best men to assist in the investigation. The premier offered the US President China’s full co-operation, and he meant it. The president said he’d phone again soon and that he hoped they could avert catastrophe together.
When the call was ended, the Chinese Premier slammed his fist on his desk. He did not need this kind of headache. He did not want any disruption to the status quo, anything that might make the people restive and question their leaders. He did not want an Arab Spring sweeping his country, where the West hypocritically turned on its former partners and installed new leaders. The lesson of Colonel Gaddafi, that strutting buffoon, was that any country without weapons of mass destruction could be invaded and overthrown by the West. China would never make that mistake. Its leaders would never allow themselves to be pulled out of a drain pipe and shot in the head by rebels like the late Libyan dictator. They would not die suspiciously of “exhaustion” on military trains like the late Kim Jong-il. There would be no Chinese Spring.
He knew that some of his generals had talked about war with America – seemingly welcomed it, even, yearning to embrace China’s glorious military heritage. The military was always pushing the civilian establishment, jostling for position, seeing how far it could go and how much ground it could win from the soft civilians. The premier knew how the military thought: they viewed politicians as weak, corruptible. Yet the premier and his cohorts were far from weak. And corruption was a country-wide problem, from the lowest villager to the most powerful general.
The Communist Party as a principle was firmly against such a war with the US. Not until China’s economy rivalled America’s, along with its army, would they consider such a step. And it wouldn’t be a full-scale war: more like a lesson. Such as seizing the recalcitrant Taiwan and fending off the inevitable US response. Or discouraging American warships in Asia with patrols of their own. No, with trillions of Chinese yuan pumped into the US economy and millions of Chinese working in factories making products to sell to the US, China didn’t want to destroy the US. You don’t destroy your best customer. But China did hope to supplant it, in Asia, in Europe, in Africa.
The Chinese Premier picked up the phone. “Get me everyone,” he said.