China’s rise is upsetting the post-WW-II international system and is seen by some as a serious threat to global and regional stability. In this respect, what Germany’s foreign minister Sigmar Gabriel had to say at the recent Munich Security Conference sums up such views and sentiments.
He said, “The initiative for a new Silk Road (China’s One Belt, One Road initiative) is not a sentimental reminder of Marco Polo. Rather, it stands for the attempt to establish a comprehensive system for shaping the world in Chinese interest.”
He added, “It is no longer just about the economy: China is developing a comprehensive system alternative to the Western one, which, unlike our model, is not based on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.” He said that “China was currently the only country in the world with a truly global, geostrategic idea.”
Elaborating, Gabriel conceded that, “The liberal order which reformed our world after the devastation of two world wars is certainly not perfect. But where the architecture of the liberal order crumbles, others will begin to move [Russia included] their pillars into the building. In the long term, the entire building will change. I’m sure in the end neither Americans nor Europeans will feel comfortable in this building built to Chinese architecture.”
At the regional level, China’s influence and projection of power are even more pronounced. All this has been helped by a corresponding decline in US power, with the United States engaged in a series of debilitating military conflicts in the Middle East in the nearly last two decades.
Even though President Obama announced, in 2011, his policy to pivot the US attention to contain China’s power in the Indo-Pacific region, the continued military engagement in the Middle East didn’t allow much time and energy to develop the new policy. During prolonged US engagement in the Middle East, starting with Afghanistan, China was able to expand its regional profile, including expanding its control of the South China Sea islands to the point that it is now increasingly looking like its internal lake.
The US attempts to challenge China’s control by sending naval patrols to exercise the right to freedom of navigation have not dented Beijing’s resolve. It has warned the US against the provocative behaviour. Washington’s attempts to rally regional countries to be part of the freedom of navigation patrols have not borne fruit even with its closest ally, Australia.
Regional countries are increasingly seeking to adjust to, what looks like to them, an evolving China-centred regional order. China’s growing economic and military power against a backdrop of perceived US lack of resolve to confront China is driving them in this direction.
Australia’s case is instructive, as it tries to strike a delicate balance between its largest trading power, China, and its military ally, the US. Even though an important factor motivating Australia’s US alliance is its perceived security threat from a powerful China, Canberra continues, in its public utterances, to deny this.
Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the idea that China presents a ‘threat’ even as he started his recently-concluded visit to the United States. Indeed, he warned against a ‘Cold War’ view of China, while seeking to emphasise its role in preventing a nuclear crisis with North Korea. He described North Korea as the ‘first’ priority in dealing with strategic threats to Australia.
Washington’s attempts to rally regional countries to be part of the freedom of navigation patrols in the South China Sea have not borne fruit, even with the help of its closest marine ally, Australia
But the debate here is all about China’s threat to the region and Australia, as well as its pervasive role in creating an influential group of ‘fifth columnists’, serving China’s interests. The latter will require a separate discussion some other time. But the threat to the region is very much being talked about, not only in the context of China’s claimed sovereignty over much of the South China Sea; but elsewhere in the region, as in the Maldives, now in the midst of a political crisis. It is reported that a Chinese naval task force has been in the Indian Ocean, while Beijing’s ally, the Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen wrestles with his domestic crisis by putting his political enemies in jail.
According to Professor Peter Dean at the University of Western Australia, “If it is what it seems to be (to prop up the Yameen regime in Maldives), which is the use of a naval task force to intervene in the Maldives, it’s (China) using military force to influence the outcome of political decisions in another country,which is quite disturbing.” Australia is particularly concerned about perceived Chinese machinations in its own South Pacific backyard. Australia is a superpower of sorts for some of the small South Pacific countries reliant on Australian aid.
Now China is increasing its presence in these countries, doling out concessional loans for infrastructure projects that are said to go nowhere. There is a concern here that these countries, being unable to pay their unproductive loans, will end up being subjected to Beijing’s coercion.
Indeed, this pattern of doling out unsustainable loans to different countries as part of the Belt and Road initiative, and then acquiring a controlling interest in their resources and ports, is emerging as part of China’s overall strategy; designed to create, by the middle of the century, a China-centred world order.
At least that is how China’s rise is being seen, by a number of countries, as a threat to the existing Western-centred world order created after World War-II.
The writer is a senior journalist and academic based in Sydney. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Published in Daily Times, March 6th 2018.