The post-WWII order is built upon the principle of all countries, regardless of size, are equal and should be afforded the same rights and respect, however for journalist and author Bill Hayton, Beijing’s designs for the ‘next world order’ present a very clear image: big countries matter more than small or middle-sized ones.
At the end of the Cold War, Australia, like much of the victorious US-led alliance, believed that the “end of history” was upon us, that the era of great power and nation-state competition had forever been relegated to the pages of antiquity.
We now know that to be wishful thinking. Australia, like many nations embraced the potential of this new era, lured by the promises of prosperity, globalisation and stability in a monopolar world, dominated by the unrivalled economic, political and strategic hegemony of the US.
However, the rise of many nations throughout the Indo-Pacific, and in some cases, re-emergence of great powers, buoyed by increasing levels of economic interdependence with the West is serving to exacerbate regional tensions driven by historic enmities under the guise of conflicting ambitions, economic, political and strategic designs.
Not least of all is the world's slumbering giant, a nation many have described as a wolf, stalking its prey. There is an old saying that "while the Lion is the King of the Jungle, the Wolf doesn't perform in the circus", which seeks to highlight the unpredictable and dangerous nature of the wolf, even for skilled experts.
While it might seem like an odd analogy, many public policy and strategic policy experts around the world have long believed that they more than suitably prepared for the rise of China and its increasingly belligerent attempts to economically, politically and strategically coerce regional and global powers.
It is now clear that even in the hands of skilled diplomats, politicians and strategic minds, the threat was minimised in favour of the economic prosperity and growth provided by the rising superpower, often to the detriment of national security and resilience, something, in the aftermath of COVID-19's devastating impact, we are now all too aware of.
Australia, in particular, is vulnerable to these efforts and has been for some time, with Chinese foreign direct investment worth approximately $16 billion at its peak in 2016 and the superpower's voracious appetite for raw resources, financial and education services, and quality agricultural land the foundation of the now strained relationship between the two nations.
This new reality comes as a shock, particularly as Australia has enjoyed relative geographic isolation from the flashpoints of global and regional conflagration of the 20th century.
Blessed with unrivalled resource wealth and, despite public commentary, an immense industrial potential, the nation has enjoyed the benevolence of the post-Second World War order, caught up in the promise of easy wealth generation through unfettered globalisation, economic neo-liberalism and the "end of history".
More importantly, how will Australia, a nation that has for better or worse abdicated its own strategic, economic and political interests in favour of supporting the objectives of 'great power' benefactors, like the US and British Empire, respond to a world where its traditional partners and the post-war order it is dependent upon no longer exists?
Associate fellow with the Asia-Pacific Programme at Chatham House and BBC journalist and author Bill Hayton, in his new book The Invention of China and a piece for the Lowy Institute titled 'China's vision of sovereignty for the next world order', reveals concerning details about the rising superpower's ambitions for a new global hegemony, one Australia may not like.
There are clues hidden in Beijing's international engagements
The legitimacy of the post-Second World War and post-Cold War order established by the US is supported by a series of overarching and interconnecting global organisations including the United Nations, World Health Organisation, World Bank and International Monetary Fund, each of which recognise the sovereignty of individual nations, no matter the size or power.
This recognition and acceptance of nation-states and their sovereign right to self determination has served many nations well, including the People's Republic of China, which has benefited economically, politically and strategically from the global systems empowered by this post-war apparatus all of which is underpinned by 'Pax Americana', or the 'American Peace'.
However, it appears as though this doesn't meet with the exacting standards and growing regional and global ambitions of President Xi Jinping, who is eager to seek justice for the nation's 'Century of Humiliation' at the hands of the West.
For Hayton, the telling signs of Beijing's future plans and approach to the 'next world order' are in the rising power's interactions and participation with international agendas, ranging from climate change to the more recent global drives to investigate the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic, something that has drawn extensive flak from Beijing.
Hayton explains, "President Xi Jinping grabbed headlines last month with the announcement that China, the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases, is aiming for carbon neutrality within 40 years. Xi’s speech, to the UN General Assembly, gave no details about how this would be achieved, beyond a commitment to scale up China’s 'Intended Nationally Determined Contributions'.
"INDCs are China’s gift to the world’s strategy for tackling climate change. They are also an indicator of the way China would like to shape the next world order.
"In 2009, at the Copenhagen climate summit, the world’s leaders failed to agree a strategy to save the earth from burning. The stumbling block, attested to by many people who were in the room, was the expectation that each country’s commitment to reduce carbon emissions would be 'measurable, reportable and verifiable' by international inspectors. China absolutely refused to accept this stipulation. The world’s chimneys kept belching out carbon, and its ice sheets continued melting until the rest of the world agreed to water down the text.
Adding to this, Hayton states, "The 2015 Paris summit agreed that each country would be able to measure, verify and report their own emissions. There would be no international inspection to see who was actually living up to their commitments. China had delayed international agreement on climate change for six critical years in order to make sure that it could not be forced by an outside power to do something that it said it wanted to do anyway.
"This was not a question of human rights or media freedom. It seems that it was the principle of 'sovereignty' that was non-negotiable. Why was China unwilling to accept a regime of inspections that every other country was willing to sign up to? I think this question goes to the heart of the Chinese leadership’s vision of the next world order.
Next world order: Big countries matter more than middle or small ones
As part of the analysis forming the central thesis of his book, Hayton links the concept of 'sovereignty' to late-19th century Chinese translations of works provided by British diplomats and American missionaries, which subsequently influenced the last imperial dynasty of China, the Qing dynasty, with follow on impacts for the contemporary policy makers in Beijing.
In particular, for both Hayton and President Xi and his inner circle, the understanding of sovereignty as it related to the international order was very much based upon a belief that "that sovereignty only existed where a state had the physical capacity to assert it".
Expanding upon this, Hayton focuses on the understanding of 'sovereignty' in the contemporary sense and models of sovereignty in a new international system, one where the 'Middle Kingdom' is at the very epicentre of global affairs, stating, "Fast-forward to the present day and a particular version of sovereignty sits at the heart of the Chinese Communist Party’s vision of the next world order.
"Wang Huning is the brain behind Xi, just as he was the theoretician behind Xi’s predecessors Jiang Zemin and Hu Jintao. He currently sits at the apex of political life in China: on the Standing Committee of the Politburo. As a law professor at Fudan University, he wrote his first book on the subject, entitled Guojia Zhuquan – “National Sovereignty”. In it, Wang claims that China invented the idea of sovereignty – and overlooks the 19th-century translation.
"Sovereignty sits at the heart of Beijing’s notion of a 'community of shared future' – another phrase that Xi used in his UNGA speech. It seems that this community is hostile to the idea of shared sovereignty and multilateralism. In Xi’s words, 'We should reject attempts to build blocs'.
"China’s vision of a world order is one in which countries stand on their own and make their way in an international system as individuals. This is clearly a vision in which big countries matter more than small or middle-size ones. It fits neatly with the idea of a regional, or even global, hierarchy – one in which Beijing sits at the top. It is a hierarchy open to all, so long as each knows its place."
This last statement provides critical clues for Australia and other like minded nations as they navigate the challenges of the post-COVID world.
The nation is defined by its relationship with the region, with access to the growing economies and to strategic sea lines of communication supporting over 90 per cent of global trade, a result of the cost-effective and reliable nature of sea transport.
Indo-Pacific Asia is at the epicentre of the global maritime trade, with about US$5 trillion worth of trade flowing through the South China Sea and the strategic waterways and choke points of south-east Asia annually.
For Australia, a nation defined by this relationship with traditionally larger yet economically weaker regional neighbours, the growing economic prosperity of the region and corresponding arms build-up, combined with ancient and more recent enmities, competing geopolitical, economic and strategic interests, places the nation at the centre of the 21st century’s “great game”.
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.
Australia is consistently told that, as a nation, we are torn between our economic relationship with China and the longstanding strategic partnership with the US, placing the country at the epicentre of a great power rivalry – but what if it didn’t have to be that way?
Get involved with the discussion and let us know your thoughts on Australia’s future role and position in the Indo-Pacific and what you would like to see from Australia’s political leaders in terms of shaking up the nation’s strategic approach to our regional partners.