Coming to terms with the ‘China Threat’

Jun 11, 2023
China background design with hexagonal and binary code structure 3d-illustration

Is it not a great irony that the Chinese are now more supportive of the post-war Bretton Woods system than the Americans?

There is a hole in public discourse and strategic analysis regarding the so-called “China Threat”.

Concerned that his critics in the West are blithely unaware of the correlation of China’s values with the “common values of humanity”, Xi Jinping has asked, “To observe and understand China properly… bear in mind China’s past and present.” As the “China Threat” is fast becoming a preordained descent into war, the implications of Chinese thinking, urging the mutual learning between diverse civilisations within a common humanity, have been more or less ignored. This is the case even as Chinese thinking has consigned the final confrontation between capitalism and socialism to Marx’s “dustbin of history”. While Xi Jinping shifts China’s ideological and cultural spectrum towards a new age “rejuvenation”, eschewing hegemonic struggle for world domination, the “China Threat” appears to have cancelled the relevance of China’s “past and present”.

Just as the West’s commentariat misunderstands China’s “past and present”, it also lacks a related analysis of Xi Jinping. He is widely cast as a tough-minded. combative leader like Mao Zedong. The fundamental differences between Mao and Xi’s view of the world are largely ignored. Mao worshipped class struggle. His class analysis abominated Confucian principles such as “courtesy”, “benevolence”, “harmony”, as false consciousness, propping up gross social inequality. The struggle against social inequality is now reinforced in the Confucian tradition of social justice. Giving significantly new policy weight to “let the past serve the present”, Xi “holds high the banner” of the ancient “Great Way”, as part of China’s “rejuvenation”.

Entwined domestic and foreign policies synthesise the themes of “harmony” and “benevolence”, epitomised in Confucian catechism such as “benevolence is the basic characteristic of humanity”, and “justice resides naturally in people’s heart.” In this light, the question as to who is more tough is moot. China’s top leaders share an intuitive sense of “li” (translated variously as “courtesy”, “ritual”, “ceremony”). They do not comment on the personality and motivation of foreign leaders. Contrast Xi with Former US President Trump, who named certain countries as “shitholes”. And when he was outed for rudely pushing past the Prime Minister of Montenegro, Trump hit out, “…he’s just a whiny punk bitch.” Xi’s diplomacy has reiterated that “A strong state does not necessarily have to become a hegemon.” Certainly, Confucius would have made Donald stand in a corner until he understood the true meaning of “He, who with a great state serves a small one, delights in Heaven.” Confucianism presumed that when “good neighbours”, no matter their size, prosper, all sides benefit.

“Rejuvenation” rejoices in “ren” (translated variously as “benevolence”, “compassion”, “perfect virtue” and “humaneness”). “Ren” is, itself, a beautiful Chinese character that pictures “love of humanity”, bringing together the radicals for “person”, or human being, and “two”, implying interactions between people. Offended critics, however, insist that China has not shown Australia the “love”. Xi’s nasty “wolf warriors” have been channelling Sun Tzu’s art of deception so that China can replace the US without “firing a single shot”.

There is no natural limit to such criticism. Xi is anti-West. Nothing he says is true. If you hear “benevolence” think “belligerence”. Offended China phobes claim that any “love” that comes our way is a “Big Lie”, luring innocent Australians into a twisted “Manchurian Candidate” conspiracy. The moral outrage of “wolf warriors” is freely taken as stated foreign policy. Overly iterated cultural preference for “honesty” and “modesty” masks an inner mendacity. Rejuvenated “benevolence”, calling for moderate prosperity and social justice at home, and “common development”, “common prosperity” and the “global security initiative”, abroad, is, therefore, a front. China stabbed the US in the back. Steve Bannon and Donald Trump bitterly resented the “alternative fact” that America had modernised China’s economy and that this modernisation came at the expense of America’s own middle class and manufacturing base. Rather than an international global economic opportunity, China’s growth is a disingenuous process, fuelling the “China Threat”.

The US has lost China for the second time. Xi has been put in the dock and aggressively cross-examined for the second coming of Chairman Mao. The apotheosis of the “China Threat” raises two areas of entwined strategic concern. First, the “China Threat” has, itself, becoming a threatening caricature of China’ pathological tendencies for aggression and territorial expansion. Second, the miscalculation of “threat” ignores the continuing Chinese subscription to “independence” as a means of suppressing conflict, especially in the policy preference for “partnership” as distinguished from “alliance”.

“China’s independent foreign policy” has been constitutionally sanctioned, yet “realist” analysis has barely registered its actual strategic implications. The independence of sovereign states is not the exclusive prerogative of Australian diplomacy. Chinese “independence”, based upon the “Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence”, has long called for “seeking friends everywhere” on the basis of “reserving differences, while seeking common ground”. Tradition has increasingly been conscripted to affirm equal and reciprocal relations between states in the resolution of differences.

At least since 2002, “independence” has affirmed “harmony” over “hegemony”. “Hegemony”, an ancient Chinese term, has now been cast as a self-defeating realism that invites imperial over-reach on an unpredictable basis of extending power in the face of ever mutating diversity and changing international circumstances. “Harmony without uniformity” (or “harmony with differences”) endorses mutual learning within cooperative globalisation as a well-grounded, positive option, challenging claims that China is like Nazi Germany in the pursuit of racial purity and world domination. Warning against “hegemony”, “harmony” condemns preening civilisational superiority. “Harmony” celebrates diversity and the independence of sovereign states against exclusive, one-sided universal claims in a fast-changing complex world.

This approach is rooted in China’s historical support for the UN’s collective security. Even in the context of exclusion from UN membership, denied state recognition, trade blockades, an encircling thicket of US-led alliances and presidential threats of nuclear annihilation, China preferred to avoid costly positional war in favour of diplomacy. The post-1949 record concerning the real scale and true nature of Chinese “aggression” bears closer examination.

Western critics, who eagerly condemn China’s violation of the “rules-based order” often forget the Chinese record for successful diplomatic negotiation as the basis for consolidating China’s state borders. China’s modern boundaries were established without war. China did not with its overwhelming force absorb any of its fourteen neighbours. For fifty years, China waited for the expiration of what it regarded as the spurious “unequal treaties” before reclaiming sovereignty in Hong Kong. Indian border negotiation has been an irritant since the one-month border conflict of 1962, but how is it that India and China have avoided full positional war? Sino-US normalisation was consummated in the midst of full-scale US war in Vietnam. During a short-lived context, Nixon had claimed that ideology need not inform state-to-state relations and accorded a new sense of equality to China. Later, China’s costly 1979 month-long incursion into northern Vietnam reduced the pressure on Thailand and pre-empted Vietnam’s adventurous occupation of Cambodia. Lee Kuan Yew claimed that Chinese initiative “changed East Asia” for the better.

The “China Threat” is doubling down. The related Chinese failure to respect the “rules-based order” is amplified in the widely anticipated invasion of Taiwan. The liberal democracies have lapsed into a state of collective amnesia. 180 of the 193 UN member states signed treaties affirming China’s sovereign legitimacy and “recognising China’s position” regarding the “province of Taiwan”. The core international principle, ‘pacta sunt servanda’, (treaties are to be kept), if overturned to recognise Taiwan’s sovereignty, would not only negate the Chinese state, it likely would invite the dysfunction of the UN Security Council and the “rules-based order” in international order.

As for the “creeping grey zones”, given the allegedly inherent Chinese tendency to aggression, and the complexity of multiple competing claims of six competitive nations, how is it that since the 1970s war has not broken out in the South China Sea? China recently agreed to the second reading of a related code of conduct. Perhaps, even more telling, during the disintegration of the Soviet Union, China did not vent past grievances over Soviet annexation of Chinese territory. It refrained from territorial opportunism and helped stabilise the new states of central Asia in the context of unleashed competitive ethnicity. China’s border negotiations by and large affirmed a “good neighbour” policy. The onus should be on “realists” who are pressing for great levels of “deterrence” to explain the surprising lack of serious sustained military aggression and conquest abroad by the so-called “rising superpower”.

Potentially the world’s biggest economy, and certainly the world’s largest military, sustained in the world’s second largest military expenditure, has not invested in a pro-China, NATO-style Indo-Pacific alliance. Ignoring reiterated Chinese rejection of the imposition of a single model of development on the independence of host developing countries, critics portray the “Belt and Road Initiative” as clever neo-colonialism. The BRI is a “debt trap”, but China has increasingly had to cover the costs of debt forgiveness. China is more predisposed than the US to fund nation-building. While China’s own “independence and self-reliance” has at times qualified globalisation in the national interest, is it not a great irony that the Chinese are now more supportive of the post-war Bretton Woods system than the Americans?

Chinese thinking regards differences as the building blocs of the state system. There is no claim to worldwide superiority, hence China’s leaders dislike the labelling of China as a “superpower” (chaoji da guo). “Harmony” embraces “li” and “ren” and accepts the centrality of equality and reciprocity. “Hegemony”, which justifies imperialism, colonisation and neo-colonialism, accepts war as necessary extension of power. There is a strong defence of China’s equality with other states. Foreign leader’s constant reference to the “Thucydides trap” is not appreciated. Their labelling of China as the rising “superpower” is not respectful.

Xi Jinping has repeatedly rebutted criticism that China plans to replace the US. Xi proudly eulogizes the glories of Chinese civilisation, but he deliberately refers to China as a “major country”, (da guo), defined “…as one that participates in important international relations, has abundant natural resources and energy, takes responsibility for supporting international peace and security, and whose peoples have achieved great things.” Xi added that “achieving great things” does not require a singular civilisation’s domination of the world. Such an immoral goal displays weakness rather than strength.

Critics have, nevertheless, recently seized on Sino-Russian “partnership”, as a prima facie case for China’s escalating belligerence. This analysis forgets that the Chinese preference for “partnership” originates in the deep and genuine resentment towards the experience of real inequality in the 1950 alliance with the Soviets. This is what forms the context for the contemporary formulation, “not allies, better than allies.” The current Sino-Russian “partnership” is a correction, rejecting “hegemonic” inequalities while hailing a more genuine state-to-state relationship.

Deng Xiaoping expanded China’s “independent foreign policy”, calling for “maintaining contacts and making friends with everyone” and “no alliances and no card-playing”. Xi has, therefore, recommended: “Countries should foster partnerships based on dialogue, non-confrontation and non-alliance.” Drawing on the conventional distinction between “collective security”, and “collective defence”, former Foreign Minister Wang Yi reinforced Xi’s point, “What makes … partnership different from military alliance is that it does not have any hypothetical enemy nor is it targeted at any third party, thus keeping relations between countries unaffected by military factors, and aims to handle state to state relations with a cooperative rather than confrontational approach….”

Speaking at the College of Europe, Xi drew on a chummy drinking metaphor. While drinking tea and drinking beer might represent different ways of life, friends can enjoy a beer, but this need not stop them from also enjoying an occasional quiet chat sipping tea. Thus Xi compared China’s “harmony without uniformity” with the European notion, ‘united in diversity’. “Hegemony” is characterised as a self-defeating realism, fostering imperial over-reach on an exclusive, but unpredictable, basis of extending power in the face of ever mutating diversity and changing circumstances. “Harmony without uniformity” (or “harmony with differences”) advocates a dialectic, celebrating diversity as enriching human civilisation while inviting mutual learning within cooperative globalisation as opposed to world domination in an increasingly complex world.

During the Cold War, US Senator Fulbright famously said, ‘It is of great importance …to learn something more about … the Chinese nation, about its past and its present, about the aims of its leaders and the aspirations of its people…We need to ask these questions because China and America may be heading toward war … and it is essential that we do all that can be done to prevent that calamity….” Opportunities for engagement have been lost along with the incomplete, if not distorted understanding of China’s “past and present”. This is in part a failure to listen in respectful reciprocity. Gough Whitlam, the original architect of Australian recognition of China, once said, “We expect China to believe the best about our statements of intention while we choose to believe the worst about theirs.”

The gross exaggeration of the “China Threat” is a mistake! The “Morrison Doctrine” tinkered with “partnership”, but focused heavily on an anti-China “arc of alliances” as “the only way to ensure our rules-based order will prevail.” As the outlier, China is not to share in the definition of the rules. The AUKUS and Quadrilateral “Dialogue” are exclusive associations that focus on a named, or sometimes an unnamed, enemy. China regretted Morrison’s “arc” as the loss of Australia’s former “independence”. The question remains whether Canberra’s slow-moving China policy reset is adequately coming to terms with the “China Threat” in light of China’s “past and present”. Can diplomacy convincingly advance in an alarmist context of miscalculated “deterrence”? “Guardrails” on the road to nowhere are not enough. A bad reading of the “China Threat” risks the significant misallocation of irretrievable national resources in what former Prime Minister Kevin Rudd dubbed “absolutely unnecessary war.” Moreover “de-coupling”, and more recently “de-risking” succour failed “containment” against a fraying, rules-based liberal trading order.

Power is a perennial variable of geopolitics, but it should be called to account once analysis becomes unidimensional. Strategy nutted in ignorance invites high risk. Australia’s China policy re-set needs to rise above tautological reference to deterrence to review the “China Threat” in light of a more informed reading of “past and present”. A full strategic review requires a multidimensional calibration of “threat”, establishing clearly when and where the resort to “alliance”, as distinguished from “partnership”, should receive priority. Improved relations with Pacific-island countries need not rely on the “China Threat”. Australia can independently maintain its relationship with the US while pursuing a dextrous strategy of mutually beneficial engagement with China on the basis of “partnership”, accommodating differences while supporting a “community of shared future for mankind.” The injurious hyperbole of the “China Threat” ought to be set aside as states grapple with the real “defining geopolitical issue of our time”, namely, the spreading climate crisis and environmental collapse.

Share and Enjoy !

Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter
Subscribe to John Menadue's Newsletter


Thank you for subscribing!