There have been two big geopolitical storylines thus far in this century: the US has suffered a relative decline from its dominant position at the end of the Cold War; and China has acquired impressive power in both relative and absolute terms. How China develops economically and evolves politically, and how it behaves domestically, regionally and globally, are among the most critical questions confronting the world going forward.
The most authoritative recent statement of China’s strategic vision was President Xi Jinping’s marathon address to the 19th Communist Party Congress on 18 October 2017. Consolidating his position as the paramount leader and anointed as one of modern China’s two historic leaders alongside Mao Zedong, Xi heralded the dawn of a new era of Chinese composite national strength, growing poise and self-confidence, and global power and influence. The three core elements of China’s vision of the new world order are parity in China–US relations, growing Chinese influence in writing the underlying rules of the global order and a more assertive Chinese diplomacy in that new international system. The word therefore should prepare for a surge in Chinese international policy activism.
1. Thucydides Trap
In contrast to Beijing’s clear-eyed vision of its global destiny just over the horizon and a clear-headed strategy for getting there, says the Mandarin-speaking former Australian Prime Minister (PM) Kevin Rudd, ‘the west is increasingly self-absorbed, self-satisfied and internationally complacent’. World order is at an inflection point and during the power transition phase, there is a risk of falling victim to the Thucydides Trap. Graham Allison looked at 16 power transitions in the last 500 years to conclude that 12 had ended in war. As they elbow each other to assert primacy in the crowded Asia–Pacific, could an overconfident China and an apprehensive United States trigger a general war?
China has built and fortified islands in the South China Sea, committed to building ports in Sri Lanka and Pakistan that give it presence around the Indian Ocean and the Arabian Sea, built a modest naval base in Djibouti, participated in anti-piracy operations in the Gulf of Aden, used its military to evacuate nationals trapped in Libya in the chaos of Muammar Gaddafi’s fall, and increased its troop contributions to UN peace operations in Africa to become the biggest P5 contributor to peacekeeping personnel.
That said, this does not presage the rise of a US-style global military empire: there is still too much of a gap between China’s rudimentary power projection capability and its far-flung network of economic interests. Consequently the main form of protection of China’s massive overseas investments in resources and infrastructure is through maintenance of regional stability and the primacy of a rules based global order. Not only has China been a principal beneficiary of the existing order; in addition it perhaps has the biggest stake in the continuing stability of that order. At the annual Davos meeting in January 2017, President Xi stepped up to the plate to defend the global trade system from attacks by the protectionist US president-elect. In his address to the quinquennial party congress, Xi affirmed that ‘No country can retreat to their own island, we live in a shared world and face a shared destiny’.
To be sure, China is attempting to correct the military balance in Asia to the historical norm. But even here, it is important to look out at the world through Chinese eyes. China is pursuing an anti-access/area denial strategy in the seas around it, says Harry Kazianis, because such military capabilities, assets and postures will help to protect it from a repeat of the ‘historical nightmare’ of being subjugated by various Western and Asian colonial powers. It is encircled by a ring of US allies and partners and US military deployments that include Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, Philippines, Singapore, Vietnam, India and Afghanistan. The US Pacific Command rules the Pacific from bases in Guam and Hawaii and conducts intelligence gathering and surveillance operations off China’s coast.
The build-up and assertion of China’s maritime military assets and flag demonstrations around Indonesia and Australia are attempts at pushback by China against the perceived strategy of containment in its own region, not examples of modern day gunboat diplomacy. Or, to put it another way, on what basis should we accept a rising and increasingly self-confident China to accommodate to an intrusive US military presence? But if Washington is seen to accommodate China’s growing footprint instead, what lessons will US allies in the region draw on American power, resolve and credibility as a security guarantor?
Ramesh Thakur FAIIA is Emeritus Professor at the Australian National University and co-convenor of the Asia-Pacific Leadership Network for Nuclear Non-Proliferation and Disarmament. He is a Fellow of the AIIA.