China’s behaviour tells story of its ambitions
19 December 2022
ADELAIDE - Dennis Argall, Australia’s former ambassador to Beijing and Washington, has written recently on the breakdown of USA's power as the defining feature of our strategic environment.
I agree with a great deal of what he has written, however, I think that has not demonstrated that China is not bent upon becoming the world’s most dominant and influential power.
He does not pay sufficient regard to the rhetoric coming from within the Chinese Communist Party about China’s destiny to resume its natural place as the world’s foremost power.
To this end it has embarked upon a massive arms program which includes rapidly expanding its naval power to create the ‘blue water’ navy needed to project its power well beyond its shores.
You do not need large aircraft carriers or nuclear armed submarines to simply defend territorial integrity.
Nor do you need to increase your nuclear missile supply to over 1,500 for purely defensive purposes.
Bear in mind that the level of military threat to China from any source is effectively nil.
In short, it is China’s behaviour that tells the story of its ambitions.
There is no denying that the USA is afflicted with many significant difficulties.
These include endemic racism, rising religious intolerance, a comparatively small but dangerous right wing white supremacist movement, and the huge problems resulting from giving people unrestricted access to military grade weapons.
The US also has to deal with the considerable problems caused by its unwillingness or inability to recognise, let alone rein in, the worst excesses of the neo-liberal capitalist model that it has helped unleash upon the world.
Any US president is necessarily beset with many excruciatingly difficult challenges which incumbent Joe Biden is highly unlikely to be able to remedy.
The current geo-political environment is the most febrile it has been for many decades.
Right wing totalitarianism has risen from the supposed dead to reassert its ugly presence in our lives.
Putin’s Russia is the leading example of this unhappy revival.
Its war in Ukraine is clear testimony of its willingness and ability to take any measure it deems necessary to achieve its imperialist aims.
China’s failure to condemn outright what Putin has done is more evidence, if needed, of the moral and ethical vacuum lying at the heart of its foreign policy.
Make no mistake, if something looks like a duck, walks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it is a duck.
I don’t believe Australia’s defence minister, Richard Marles, although not the sharpest of Albanese’s ministers, is as stupid as some commentators believes he is.
At worst, he is a fairly ordinary minister trying to grapple with the awful reality that Australia cannot defend itself in the same manner as the Ukrainians because successive Liberal-National and Labor governments have utterly failed to foresee the rapidly changing geo-political dynamics that are now evident.
In fairness, they were not alone in making this potentially lethal mistake.
Europe was wilfully and spectacularly stupid in its approach to Putin’s Russia and is now paying the price for ignoring the obvious lessons of history.
Similarly, the USA has somewhat belatedly awoken from its self-deluding dream that China, as it became richer, would naturally progress towards being a more open and democratic society.
It hasn’t and it won’t. Indeed, Xi Jinping has materially tightened the Communist Party’s grip on power over the last decade.
The decisions taken about our future defence must reflect a necessity that we become much more self-reliant in our ability to defend ourselves.
This idea has already taken firm root within the various armed forces.
In Australia our military is equipping itself with longer range and more lethal missiles, investing big dollars in cyber warfare, and doing likewise in acquiring technologies like drones and unmanned aerial vehicles.
The Russo-Ukraine War has been a major wake up call for the world’s various militaries which are now scrambling to reorient themselves towards fighting a new type of multi-dimensional warfare.
I mention this because people still seem to believe that our entire defence posture is premised upon our ‘great and powerful’ friend, the United States, coming to our aid.
In fact, the US would not necessarily be able to do this even if so inclined, especially if it was engaged in fighting in more than two major theatres.
Many US defence analysts believe their country is no longer capable of fighting in two major theatres under any circumstances.
Its defence priorities necessarily must lie with the homeland, not remote allies.
It should be noted that the Albanese government is being very careful to treat China with the respect it deserves without being unduly deferential.
Similarly, Australia’s posture in relation to the US is obviously more friendly but not uncritically supportive.
Still, there are still puzzling anomalies I do not like.
There’s the bizarre choice to have Australia’s oil reserves stored in deep underground caverns built into salt domes alongside the Gulf of Mexico.
And the seemingly inexplicable decision to buy nuclear submarines despite the almost total absence of the infrastructure and engineering knowledge required to maintain and operate these very complex weapon systems.
Hopefully, as time goes by, apparent anomalies such as these will be sorted out.
"Ask the Tibetans what they call it?" Is this to augment tourism?
Posted by: Lindsay F Bond | 21 December 2022 at 04:51 PM
I think, among other things and since the diminishment of Russia, China represents the bogeyman upon which we have to project our hates and fears and justify all the posturing and expenditure on defence that our government undertakes.
As a nation we have to have an enemy. It's a need as old as time. The tribe in the other valley with its sorcery or the nation across the sea with its obtuse political beliefs and organisation, its one in the same.
We list all its crimes and aberrations to reinforce our stance while forgetting all our own crimes and aberrations and those of our allies.
And in the process we forget that they are human, just as we are human.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 21 December 2022 at 02:42 PM
Maybe the following can offer an alternative worldview:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 21 December 2022 at 12:55 PM
For your eyes only:
Posted by: Bernard Corden | 21 December 2022 at 07:56 AM
As Chris points out, China is thumbing its nose at the world by blatantly turning its back on the International Court finding for the Philippines over China's incursions into its recognised economic zone.
Likewise, it entered into a legal agreement with the UK over the independent governance of Hong Kong when the UK handed it over to China in 1995.
This agreement provided for a system of governance separate to China for 50 years but in 2021 China invoked National Security and electoral laws in Hong Kong that made the Territory a part of the Chinese political system and ignored world protests.
Posted by: Ross Wilkinson | 20 December 2022 at 09:59 PM
That's essentially the problem, isn't it Chris.
The left screaming at the right over our heads and the right screaming at the left over our heads.
I should ease off reading left-wing websites and try reading a few more right-wing ones.
Or maybe that will just confuse me even more.
Plus I don't think I've got the stomach for it.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 20 December 2022 at 08:15 PM
The article in Pearls and Irritations referenced by Phil makes tiresome and depressing reading.
It contains many assertions and assumptions much beloved of the Australian political left without much in the way of definitive proof.
To take but one assertion, it is claimed that the USA, Australia and Japan are acting aggressively towards China.
This is, at best, a gross misrepresentation of actions taken based upon entirely well-founded and broadly shared concerns about China's huge arms build up and military modernisation program, not to mention its increasingly belligerent rhetoric about Taiwan, dismissal of international law as it pertains to its spurious territorial claims in the South China Sea, failure to outright condemn Putin's criminal conduct in Ukraine, the detention and 're-education' of perhaps millions of Uighurs and so forth.
The author makes no attempt to understand let alone acknowledge the legitimate concerns about some of China's behaviours, preferring instead to resort to the usual tedious demonisation of the supposedly perfidious Americans.
As I have repeatedly noted, the USA has many sins to answer for and is no paragon of virtue when it comes to international affairs, but it is not the entirely sinister and evil force that many of its critics claim.
If the left is to make any sort of convincing argument about how Australia can or should alter its strategic defence posture and priorities, then it needs to make a much better effort to explain why and how this can be achieved and what the logical consequences will be.
This ought not be too hard. After all, the political right's arguments for essentially uncritical engagement with the USA are hardly compelling, especially given the dismal history of the last 20 years or so.
It is enormously frustrating to me that the sort of factually based, thoughtful and well argued debate about defence that we desperately need in this country is basically just a screaming contest between the rabid left and the equally rabid right.
Unless and until there is evidence that this is possible the rest of us are highly unlikely to be either enlightened or enthused by what currently is a dialogue of the deaf.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 20 December 2022 at 04:07 PM
Meanwhile Australia continues on in its mistaken belief that the US is our friend, mainly through the agency of Richard Marles:
I also had to smile at your very correct observation, Chris: "One lesson of history is that nations will engage in self harming adventures if they uncritically accept ideas about their supposed 'manifest destiny' or 'historic rights'."
I immediately thought of 'Make America Great Again'.
Re Taiwan. I think China regards the future of Taiwan as an internal domestic matter, which is why it wants everyone to butt out and why it regards any action by the US or others to defend Taiwan as paramount to meddling in its domestic affairs.
The next couple of years are going to get quite tricky.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 20 December 2022 at 01:00 PM
I guess it depends on what you call invasion, Phil. Ask the Tibetans what they call it?
If however, an invasion has actually a far more subtle form that could be called commercial invasion, that's a different matter?
If you apply that extra definition, then the list of those who might identify with that interpretation grows by the day.....
The Chinese are only practising what they and every other empire has done since history was first recorded.
The real issue is understanding human history and how to interpret and realistically prepare what will eventuate.
Posted by: Paul Oates | 20 December 2022 at 10:13 AM
Phil, I agree with you that we ought not regard China as a direct military threat. It makes no strategic or practical sense for them to do so. After all, we willingly sell them the resources they need from us.
They have long ago worked out that in our neo-liberal capitalist system, money speaks much more loudly than ethics, morality or patriotism.
I also agree that we should avoid being dragged into ugly regional wars, especially those premised upon the idea that democracy can be successfully exported.
The Albanese government's approach is to be respectful of China and cooperate where we can and only criticise if we absolutely must.
This is a sensible position with respect to a country that is our major trading partner and the major economic and military power in Asia.
Our whole posture in relation to China needs to be based upon the understanding that while we do not share many political and social values with the ruling CCP, we must get along with them as best we can.
Neither the USA nor any minor power like Australia can or will be able to successfully stimulate changes to China's political and social fabric, whether through rhetoric or direct action of some kind.
Publicly berating China for its sins, be they real or imagined, is mostly a waste of time and counterproductive.
Talking earnestly, persistently and quietly in the background seems likely to be a more productive approach in the longer run.
The biggest single risk for us in our relationship with China arises if and when Xi Jinping decides to go through with his repeated threats to seize Taiwan by military means.
This will effectively force us and our allies to choose between defending what we regard as Taiwan's right to self-determination and accepting China's repeatedly stated position that Taiwan and its 23 million people are an organic and historic part of China who must submit to the power of the CCP.
I must admit that I have no idea what we should do in such a situation. The consequences of a decision either way will be very bad for Taiwan and for us.
My current guess is that direct military intervention will be ruled out as far too costly and risky while massive economic sanctions and some sort of blockade will be preferred.
The Russo-Ukraine war suggests that this approach will embroil China in an ugly 'small' war while imposing severe political and economic costs as well.
I assume that Xi Jinping and the PLA are smart enough to understand this but, like Putin, they may gravely underestimate the likely consequences of fulfilling their ambitions regarding Taiwan.
Neither Russia nor China are the only countries capable of the 'strategic patience' required to make such an economic blockade extremely damaging over the long haul.
One lesson of history is that nations will engage in self harming adventures if they uncritically accept ideas about their supposed 'manifest destiny' or 'historic rights'.
No nation is totally exempt from such pretensions and the evidence for this is before us all right now. We must hope that those who lead us recognise the risks inherent in this type of thinking and act accordingly.
Posted by: Chris Overland | 20 December 2022 at 09:08 AM
I think you are misreading the intent of the Chinese, Chris.
Nowhere can I find evidence that China wants to become the "world’s most dominant and influential power." Nor can I find any evidence that it wants to "resume its natural place as the world’s foremost power." It was never such a power.
To my mind it simply wants to re-establish its territorial integrity and be respected by the rest of the world.
As for its weapons build-up, can you blame it when the warships of a belligerent and war hungry US routinely ply the waters just off its territorial limits.
Imagine the US reaction if Chinese ships were patrolling off California.
The Chinese are much smarter than everyone thinks. They don't need to go to war. They are much more subtle than that.
They have never invaded another country and have no intention of doing so.
Australia does not have to fear the Chinese. What we have to fear is being dragged into another one of the US's interminable wars.
I think too many people judge the Chinese through the prism of their own values. Projecting a US style ambition on China is a mistake.
The US is in end stage neoliberalism. All the Chinese have to do, like the rest of us, is maintain our territorial integrity and watch it self-destruct.
Getting us involved in its war posturing, as Marles appears to be doing, is plain dumb.
Posted by: Philip Fitzpatrick | 19 December 2022 at 05:26 PM