By Chris Ogden9th October
CHINA’S dramatic accumulation of economic power over the last 40 years has increasingly focused the attention of western countries upon Asia.
Beijing’s conversion of this prowess into significant military and diplomatic might is now altering the global balance of power. It also suggests that while China is rising to international pre-eminence, countries such as the US and the UK are in relative – if not terminal – decline.
At stake in these dynamics is who determines the nature of the world order in which international politics takes place but also if this transformation can happen peacefully and will be accepted by all involved.
Central to such an outlook from a western perspective are attempts to present China as an imminent threat to the international system. Such narratives claim that Beijing is seeking to use its economic and military might to take over the world in a manner akin to that of the US, who effectively dominated the world since the end of the Second World War until the early 21st century.
This viewpoint overlooks Beijing’s repeated insistence upon wishing for a peaceful international system in which several countries hold power. It also ignores 2000 years of Chinese history during which China dominated Asia, but not the world, and who reigned based more upon respect than brute force.
The ruling Chinese Communist Party (CCP) wishes to restore this past status, which was debased for over a century prior to 1949, and began with the Opium Wars with the British in 1839-42, and also included long periods of war, invasion and then occupation by Japan.
This period of shame is known within China as the “Century of Humiliation”, and was characterised by chaos, uncertainty and instability. Used as a touchstone for nationalism, it included China losing its regional supremacy to Japan, which remains as a significant point of friction between the two sides. Not only did Japan occupy parts of China, its forces also carried out atrocities against the population – most notoriously the Nanjing Massacre of 1937-8 that resulted in between 40,000 and 300,000 deaths (and which is still denied by Japanese nationalists to this day).
Importantly too, Japan’s occupation also saw the loss of territory in the form of Taiwan (then known as Formosa), as well as related Chinese claims concerning some small islands in the South China Sea. When the 1919 Treaty of Versailles wrongly transferred German-occupied portions of Shandong to Japanese control rather than back to China, it also bred a deep-seated suspicion towards the west.
Any actions by western countries that seek to limit China’s regional power immediately trigger such historical memories not only for CCP leaders but also for a population that is well-educated in their history.
The announcement of the AUKUS pact between the US, the UK and Australia, that heightens the west’s military presence in the Indo-Pacific, typifies such triggering. So too will the upcoming meeting of “the Quad” (between the US, Japan, Australia and India) where its various leaders will proclaim a need to bolster democracy in the region as part of their “rules-based” international order. Such aims have been – and will be – interpreted by Beijing as being essentially anti-China, and due to highly virulent nationalist voices in the country, will force CCP leaders to openly and decisively respond.
The AUKUS pact is also indicative of the lengths to which western powers fear that their status is threatened by China. Apart from burning many diplomatic bridges between the EU and the members of AUKUS, by giving Australia access to sensitive technology in the form of nuclear powered submarines, the deal tacitly encourages nuclear proliferation.
It also acts, from Beijing’s perspective, as a new threatening element in the Indo-Pacific region that actively seeks to limit, if not derail, its development and modernisation goals. These goals are essential to China restoring its past status as Asia’s number one power.
In these ways, it is unsurprising that China will now seek to enhance its own military capabilities, and as such the AUKUS pact reduces – rather than maximises – regional security.
It also augments the perception within some nationalist and military circles in China that such moves by the west will affect China’s ability to reclaim Taiwan, which is central to overturning the injustices of the Century of Humiliation.
Such fears explain in part why China has carried out so many incursions into Taiwan’s air defence zone in the last weeks, which are occurring at an unprecedented level. Such incursions are also done to test Taiwan’s defensive capabilities and to put pressure upon its pilots but concurrently increase western and regional perceptions that a Chinese invasion of Taiwan is imminent.
Such reactions and counter-reactions, accompanied by increasingly histrionic rhetoric, again only serve to increase tensions on all sides and do little to foster stability.
Chinese suspicions concerning western intentions were recently only increased further when US President Biden announced to the United Nations that “for the first time in 20 years the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page” despite the fact that the US has active troops in Iraq, Syria and Yemen.
In total, across 80 countries, the US also still has 800 active military bases (versus 70 bases across the world held by all other countries). When heightened by negative historical memories, western actions are thus regarded as hypocritical and duplicitous. This is especially so in light of the huge failed invasions regarding Afghanistan and Iraq that bought insecurity to Central Asia and the Middle East.
In turn, western strategic thinkers appear to have neglected to consider the impact of AUKUS upon North Korea, which continues to enhance its nuclear weapons capability and does so – partly – out of fear of a western intervention.
Given the militarising effect that AUKUS will have on the region, Pyongyang will continue to develop such a capacity and we can expect to see more weapons and missiles tests, which again will act as a catalyst for further destabilising forces in the Indo-Pacific, which are on China’s southern border.
SEEN in the context of a wider narrative that attempts to situate China-Western relations within that of a “new Cold War”, the potential for further competition and friction is palpable.
Not only is such a narrative misplaced – in that the globalised, highly inter-connected world is no longer split into two separate trade and diplomatic blocs – it also casts China as the new enemy of the west despite very deep-seated ties between the two sides.
These primarily include – in 2020 – China being the top trading partner of the US (with $560.10 billion in trade), Japan ($141.6 billion), Australia ($90.6 billion) and India ($77.70 billion). It was also the third highest trade partner of the UK (at $18.6 billion), after the US and the EU.
Such ties beggar the question; if China is such a major threat to global stability, why do these countries have such deep-seated economic relations with it?
China is also a vital partner concerning the climate emergency and managing the global financial system, and is essential to the world finding solutions to such major issues. Pressuring China through AUKUS would appear to be counter-intuitive in solving such questions and may cause China to embolden the economic and diplomatic ties that it is building across Asia and the world.
In particular, China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) is investing between
$1 and $8 trillion in railway, road, and sea route infrastructure, as well as construction, real estate, and power grids. This investment is attracting other countries to Beijing, and by extension greatly reduces relative western influence in global politics. Building such “win-win” ties that are not based upon military force and coercion also helps China to present itself as a more peaceful and more stable alternative to the west.
Notwithstanding the human rights concerns apparent in Xinjiang or the increased control and surveillance of the Chinese population through the Social Credit System, the AUKUS pact and the western insecurities will thus undoubtedly fuel destabilise the Indo-Pacific region.
If a conflict is forced over China’s territorial claims relating to Taiwan or islands in the South China Sea, the consequences will be devastating.
These relate to the human cost of any conflict – in which Chinese, and arguably western, leaders will not wish to be seen to back down – but also concerning the resultant damage to the global economy, which with China at its epicentre will precipitate a decades-long worldwide depression.
The ramifications of such a conflict will be felt everywhere, including in Scotland, and must make us ask why the UK Government is seemingly on a pathway that facilitates such an eventuality.
Coming at a time when much of the British economy is visibly convulsing from the country’s withdrawal from the EU, as well as the ongoing impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, we must also question the value of such badly thought through consequences of the AUKUS pact.
AS a country that is firmly in decline on the world stage, the instinct to punch above its weight and to side with the US no matter the consequences remains (and has little heed for the lessons from the disastrous invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq).
This hubris only underlines the perilous nature of contemporary UK foreign policy, and the unintended consequences that trying to grasp on to the country’s past status will bring.
Chris Ogden is Senior Lecturer in Asian Security at the School of International Relations at the University of St Andrews