Like every ascendent economic, political and strategic power, China has used its period of rapid industrialisation and economic expansion to begin establishing its position within the broader global context – fuelled by a long memory of a "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western imperialism, finally ending with the successful Communist Revolution in 1949, China and its political leaders have dedicated the nation to establishing a new era of Chinese global primacy.
As China's position within the global order has evolved and its ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific, in particular, have become increasingly apparent, the Chinese government, driven by an extremely ambitious leader, President Xi Jinping, has identified a number of factors of both 'internal' and 'external' concern for the rising superpower's status.
These 'concerns' extend to traditional areas of Chinese focus, namely central Asia, Tibet and the Taiwan situation, and have now seemingly spread to Hong Kong as dissent continues to grow and nearly 200,0000 military police have been deployed to the border. More concerning for nations like Australia – America's resurgence, characterised by "intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability".
This perfect storm of moves and counter moves raises important questions for Australian, Japanese and American leaders: Is an 'iron curtain' descending across the Indo-Pacific and what does this mean for the future?
No need for concern, they're just domestic issues
While China's recently released Defence White Paper, China's National Defense in the New Era, was quick to identify the issue of Taiwan's independence as a matter of internal security, part of a larger suite of 'internal' issues, the nation has committed to using force to resolve the issue, including against external influences, read the US and its regional partners, as a means of supporting China's primary national defence aims, identified as follows:
- To deter and resist aggression;
- To safeguard national political security, the people's security and social stability;
- To oppose and contain "Taiwan independence";
- To crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as "Tibet independence" and the creation of "East Turkistan";
- To safeguard national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security;
- To safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests – building on the nation's expansion in the South China Sea;
- To safeguard China’s security interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyber space;
- To safeguard China’s overseas interests; and
- To support the sustainable development of the country.
China remains resolute regarding the issue of Taiwan, stating: "China has the firm resolve and the ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the secession of any part of its territory by anyone, any organisation or any political party by any means at any time. We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of 'Taiwan independence' separatists and their activities. The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs." (Emphasis added).
However, Hong Kong, the former British island colony handed back in the mid-1990s, has emerged as a major thorn in the side of the Chinese administration with pro-democracy riots in response to a systematic program by the Chinese government to eliminate threats to the Communist Party, bringing the concept of 'One Country, Two Systems' into question – positioning the small island as the Berlin of the new Cold War.
While both the Chinese government and its recently released DWP articulate that the majority of the rising power's modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion plans are directed toward matters of internal security and reuniting dissident provinces, like Taiwan and Tibet, the direct willingness of the Chinese government to actively deploy troops, albeit military police, in conjunction with dissident 'repatriation' and a recently launched Chinese civilian travel ban to Taiwan raises significant and troubling questions.
South China Sea? No, just China's Sea
Further compounding these 'internal issues' is the superpower's willingness to declare any area of economic, political or strategic interest a part of China, and nowhere is this more evident than in the South China Sea – placing the rising superpower's ambitions in direct conflict with the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order established by the US and supported by a number of established regional powers, including Japan, Australia and South Korea.
China's White Paper clearly articulates its position towards the South China Sea and its construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands throughout the international waterways: "China resolutely safeguards its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory. China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
"China is committed to resolving related disputes through negotiations with those states directly involved on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law."
However, in late 2018 a Chinese colonel issued a stern warning to the US and its regional allies operating in the South China Sea and more broadly the western Pacific ocean where they may challenge China's increased territorial and economic ambitions throughout the regions.
Dr Malcolm Davis of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) told Defence Connect, "2018 has been an interesting year in the South China Sea. It started fairly early on with the basing of anti-ship cruise missiles (ASCM) on reclaimed islands in the SCS, the basing of the upgraded, H-6K nuclear-capable bomber on Woody Island and more recently the USS Decatur (DDG-73) incident really reinforces that China is not backing down from its territorial ambitions."
This growing assertiveness and apparent disregard for international convention and United Nations agreements places increased pressure on regional nations and the security paradigm upon which the stability of Indo-Pacific Asia is built.
China's bullying and intimidation tactics expand beyond direct military confrontation and thumbing their nose at international convention. The recent attempts by China to assert its influence and own wishes over ASEAN regarding the South China Sea Code of Conduct is particular evidence of this.
"What we saw recently with the ASEAN discussion about establishing a code of conduct for operating in the South China Sea was essentially a push by China to prevent all foreign navies from operating in the area. Given the amount of seaborne trade that flows through the South China Sea, that was obviously an unacceptable outcome for both the US and Australia," Dr Davis explained.
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
However, as events continue to unfold throughout the region and China continues to throw its economic, political and strategic weight around, can Australia afford to remain a secondary power or does it need to embrace a larger, more independent role in an era of increasing great power competition?