Brief reflection: has geopolitics dealt with Liang Qiao?
Are the analyzes of the geopolitical and geo-economic changes we are experiencing taking into account the thinking of the Chinese analyst? It does not seem
There is no doubt that our contemporaries are experiencing an epochal geopolitical turning point. Distinguished and talented specialized analysts do their job well (*) and, in a nutshell, what they expect us as a result of the turbulence, which started from afar and accelerated first by Covid and then by the Ukrainian war, is a multipolar world in which the main actors are in perennial cultural conflict. This is the characteristic that stands out: no longer democracy versus autocracy, much less religious or ideological oppositions, but lineages of common culture that group themselves, according to convenience in the name of [basic, few, changing] shared values, and collide. Alongside the major poles, the minors juggle, in the arts of multilateral balance and regional rebound between one party and another, according to specific gains.
In these analyzes, as I repeat excellent on the side of historicity and logic, one question perplexes me: the role of Africa and the Middle East are always neglected. I am not a geopolitics analyst, and therefore I express my impression quietly, but from a potential point of view at least I think that these parts of the globe (especially some areas of Africa, from a socio-cultural perspective) have something to say about of equilibrium in the medium-term all the more so if, as it seems, it will be in these places that the most harmful effects of short-term international tensions are discharged.
Also on the geo-economic side, the change is epochal. Standard-bearers of, like Parag Khanna, the inevitability of the removal of all systemic blocks (intra subsystems and between subsystems) in which globalization unfolds are necessarily repenting. The question here is to predict what form globalization will take at the end of the day (whether there will be a temporary stabilization). It seems to me, but even this is not ‘my cup of tea’, that the predictions that introduce a further dimensional systemic complexity, at levels, are the most acceptable. To the traditional sub-systems in which globalization is, at the didactic level, subdivided, levels will most likely be added: they will be defined by how information/ commodities/services can transit within and between the poles. To tell the truth, this, as someone points out, has begun to be seen for some years and, as someone else says, it has always existed only that the spring, constituted by the barriers between the levels and between the subsystems, it has now entered a new phase of contraction.
However, there are some new variables that have historically never been present, which could shape the general picture in a totally new way, and which it seems to me not being sufficiently taken into account. Better to say, it seems to me that the two closely related reasons that Ling Qiao, in ‘The Arch of the Empire’ in 2016, brought as factors of progressive decadence of the American empire and of the shaping of the new geopolitical and geoeconomic order are not taken into consideration: technology and finance. Four examples, on a tactical level, can help to understand the importance of the Chinese analyst’s thought, elements in my opinion of moderate importance to which little or almost no attention is currently paid.
The first is the digital big ones (indicated with FAAMG or other acronyms). The big ones have always been there (just think of the British East India Company and its pervasiveness in the globalization of the time or the South American banana republics of the 60s/70s) but the current characteristics are completely new. The new big ones, in addition to their economic dimension, currently take on the importance if not of a geopolitical pole certainly of a separate geo-economic sub-system to deal with. They can be configured as the interacting levels that filter the whole internet, that is, all the information: this situation has never historically occurred before. Filtering has as its object information of economic origin but also and above all that of a social nature.
The multi-polarization process that is subjecting the ‘data’ commodity, however, presents substantial differences. If the poles and sub-systemic components of autocracies can make use of ‘digital sovereign’, and therefore of relative control of an imperative nature, the western ones (i.e. of western culture or with para-western values such as South Korea and Japan) control over cyber flows can officially and formally through indirect frameworks. They must take into account the many social frictions that arise from the needs of the various stakeholders and, in all cases, always negotiate with the big ones: are you sure that the interests are always coincident with each other?
What if this doesn’t happen? And if the big one has a third interest compared to the dominant cultures of the pole to which it belongs? It seems to me that until now, thinking of privacy, for example, the coincidences of cultural interest between Facebook/Meta and Western governments have been very weak. With another example, Apple did give a second about allowing to Chinese government access to its servers in order not to lose the market: it does not seem to me a position aligned with the policies of the hypothetical pole of belonging.
The India Companies and the fruit multinationals were, at their respective times, the economic arm of the United Kingdom and the USA: they enjoyed wide autonomy but, good or bad, ultimately responded socially and culturally to someone who allowed them to better manage the physical infrastructures and the finances necessary for their activities and their supply chains, therefore for their economic pervasiveness: for digital big ones, physicality does not exist (the hardware necessary for digital does not matter).
It is, therefore, reasonable to think of a culturally classified multi-polarity in which a third defining reference is inserted, which we could call post-capitalist with a non-cultural connotation, consisting of autonomous non-state entities and whose paradigm is exclusively the markets in which they are listed (with all that derives): the term ‘techno-feudalism’ (**) has been introduced with reason. Apparently, they are (geo) economic subsystems: in fact, they are (geo) political poles because politics is the filtering power on all information, like the macro-story of Trump banned and Elon Musk/Twitter teach.
The second is the efficiency of the instruments of economic warfare. I live in a country where depending on the moment, everyone is a strategist of football, pandemics, war, and, now, the effectiveness of sanctions: even for the authors of the latest newspapers (or newsletters, or Linkedin accounts), it is difficult to refrain from publishing (or posting) yet another blatant bullshit about how economic sanctions are a powerful tool of economic warfare, with the consequent forecasts that, at 99%, are equally blatantly disregarded in terms of timing and results. Embargoes in general have always been weapons of economic warfare: Iran, Cuba, and Serbia, represent some of the most recent examples and others are easily found in historical literature. What has radically changed with the Ukrainian experience, and which is shuffling the cards, is the tactics of using the weapon.
The evolution of digitization allows, for the first time in history, almost real-time use of important economic weapons. With a switch-off, payment channels, social and often physical channels can be closed almost instantly, thus isolating a country. It had never happened before: the tactical times of effectiveness, and therefore efficiency, of the embargoes, had always been in the medium term. So let’s go back to the first point: those who have digital sovereignty also in this case can think of partially remedying, those who do not have it do not. Russia does the impossible in the last three years to get there, and has succeeded very partially; China, on the other hand, can be said to have the maximum expression of digital sovereignty conceivable today, especially in terms of systemic efficiency.
Having digital sovereignty also means having one’s own cyberspace interacting autonomously with the rest of the world and therefore being able to counter and compensate for any enemy tactics, as Russia is currently partially successful if one observes, for example, the USD/RUB exchange since the beginning of the war. The poles that recognize themselves in ‘Western’ cultures do not possess these weapons directly because they are in fact administered (not only technically) by the post-capitalist economic systems (poles): also in this case are we sure that, in the next global configurations, the interests will always [formally] coincide (as more or less happened in the case of the Russia / Ukraine affair)?
The third. The flaws (intentional and unintentional), even today and even in the most pervasive digital sovereignties, are not lacking. First of all digital platforms, even the Chinese ones, to maintain market value cannot rely only on the internal one, however numerous it may be: this necessarily opens free corridors, niches, of uncontrollable information flows. Then we are moving towards the metaverse: this (unless a systemic cataclysm) is not a prediction it is a statement. The forecasts and scenarios do not concern the ‘if’ but in the short-medium the ‘how’ and the ‘who’, in the medium the ‘when’ (and in the ‘long’ we will all be dead, as they say). The grand strategy of getting to the metaverse is now out of the question, considering who and how is investing in the technological processes that compose it: even theaters are taking shape. The operational perimeters, tactical and technicians, remain less clear for now and inevitably.
The metaverse, indifferently B2B and B2C, involves and allows interactions between users, and between users and services, much more complex and rich than those currently present in the platforms with which Web 2.0 allows reciprocity. If it is correct to say that currently real and digital are interpenetrated in everyday life, the real, today and including humans, is still analog. The transformation still takes place through ‘converters’, the platforms of the Web, of mediated expression of analog physicality. In the metaverse, the ‘transformers’ take a step forward: they make it possible to give even some of the ‘material’ a digital physicality that does not exist today and that it does not possess.
Watching the UpLoad television series broadcast on Prime Video, simple in the plot but fun and, above all, brilliant in the solutions imagined, helps to understand the difference. Luciano Floridi (****) says that the digital has the power of splitting with respect to reality: as it proceeds, physical reality is remodeled ‘ontologically and epistemologically’ and is recomposed in new and previously unknown forms. The metaverse will most likely cause a new ‘copy and paste’ of which the results are not known today.
Therefore, from the current real and digital interpenetration in the medium term, we will arrive at the ‘continuation’ of the real in the digital and vice versa, a reciprocal continuum which, in order to have and create socio-economic value, cannot do without reciprocal interactions between people, organizations and services. In the metaverse, physical frontiers completely lose the already miserable meaning they have today. The ‘copy and paste’ will certainly also have an effect on geopolitics and geoeconomics and, in my opinion, not taking it into account is being blind in the medium term. Therefore, in this case, too, we return to the first two points: China is developing its metaverse, open but controlled, and the big ones have self-delegated to develop it for Western culture. The same goes, in general terms, for the development of AI processes.
Finally, the fourth factor is the CBDCs. Here the discourse is a little different: the big ones have little to do with it if we exclude those who will manage the processes on the infrastructural side (hardware and networking) which, in any case, can be locked down. On the long wave of the de-dollarization process we are witnessing, thanks to technology (and specifically also the blockchain protocol), the genesis of the phenomenon of decentralization of the currencies with which to make payments; this with respect to the currency it owns, since the years’ 940 (Breton Woods), the world monopoly in the regulation of payments (and therefore of credit). If we consider all the de-dollarization policies, initiated above all by China and Russia and with which many countries have associated, implemented over the last ten years, the introduction of CBDC gives, to the process as a whole, a formidable further impetus. Not for nothing, China is a leading country in operations through the digital Yuan but, above all, in regional trans-national regulation agreements through digital currencies created for the purpose, none of which sees the US dollar as a reference currency.
In the medium and medium-long term, CBDCs will be a formidable operational and tactical instrument of economic warfare as they will reduce the power of the sanctions instrument, allowing for both regional and supra-regional bypassing. With the decentralization of payment inherent CBDCs centralized instruments, such as the Belgian SWIFT, will lose their practical usefulness; the card circuits (for the debit card sector) will have to reshape if they are to survive: their practical utility will also fail. This is the basis of the govs De-Fi alongside which, in a much more massive way, private De-Fi is developing: the first does not have the US dollar as a reference point, the second does not only have fiat currencies as a reference but, also and above all, private currencies. In the geopolitical configurations I read, I do not find this issue as an emerging factor for modeling scenarios and, in my opinion, it is a mistake not to consider it.
As an analyst, I do not think that a prediction, a scenario, which occurs historically is a prodromal factor of future infallibility of the author, nor do I think the opposite. However, I believe that an analysis that takes shape, in reality, is, at least, a good credit factor compared to those who developed it: I am of the opinion that it is wrong for geopolitical analysts to ignore the current thinking of Liang Qiao.
With all its limitations, first of all, his obsession with the US dollar, as Fabio Mini underlined in the preface to the Italian edition of ‘The arch of the empire’, and, second, a certain conceptual confusion that emerges in the book between financial war and economic war, Liang Qiao is an analyst who has not missed a beat so far. He predicted the tactical events at their peak on 9/11 more than five years in advance; with more than ten years of the information war; the scenario that is taking place in Ukraine today is the same as that described by him on the occasion of the invasion of Crimea in 2014.
Maybe the credit is due to him.
(*) For example:
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by the author.