Understanding ‘Beijing expansionism’

Nov 26, 2020

Canberra’s shift to anti-China rhetoric and expanded military spending is said to be due to China’s shift to expansionist and aggressive policies.  And just in case there is some truth in the ‘Beijing expansionism’ claim let’s look at the claimed evidence.

1.  Ignoring rival claims by other nations in the area, Beijing has occupied and militarised sand banks in the South China sea, the Spratley islands group especially. Its claims of a traditional Nine Dot line encompassing most of the South China sea are phony, and.yet another proof of expansionism.

But Taiwan also claims islands in the South China seas.  Is that expansionist too?

And it does not stop at sandbanks; its claims include the 53 hectare Taiping island in the Spratleys claimed also by the Philippines, with an airport and some 200 mainly military personnel.

It justifies its claim to the islands with none other than a slightly expanded version of the same Nine Dot line that Beijing uses!

Nor is it just dot lines.

Both the Beijing and Taipei claims in the South China sea can also seek formal backing from the US brokered 1952 peace treaty between Japan and ‘China.’

It made a defeated Japan renounce all claim to the formerly Japanese claimed and occupied  islands in the South China sea.

The only problem Beijing and Taipei have today is deciding who is the ‘China’ entitled to take possession.

The rest of Southeast Asia was left to lament how it was too weak or under foreign domination to stake its own claim.  Today it is making up for lost time, and asking Beijing and Taipei to cooperate.

If Beijing is expansionist in the South China sea then so is Taiwan – and the US was the abettor.

Japan is even more expansionist with its claim to develop the remote Okinotorishima island  – two rocks the size of a bed far out in the Pacific – to justify a claim to a multi-million hectare economic exclusion zone.


2.  Beijing claims Japan’s Senkaku islands in the East China sea.

Here the anti-Beijing talk verges on he ridiculous.

First, it is Taiwan, not Beijing, which claims the islands. Beijing simply backs up the Taiwan claim.

The islands lie at the end of a chain of volcanic islands extending north from Taiwan, itself a volcanic island. They are far from Japan, and separated  by a deep under-ocean trench.

Taiwan’s former president, the scholarly Ma Ying Jeou, has written a detailed thesis providing  historical evidence for China-Taiwan’s claim.

The very name of the islands – Diaoyu-tai, or Fishing Platform, is Chinese  and with a long history. There is a Diaoyu-tai palace in the middle of Beijing.  .

Senkaku, the Japanese name, is not even Japanese.  It is the Japanese translation of the name, Pinnacle Islands, given by 18th century British explorers .

When the US occupied Ohinawa in 1945 it assumed the right also to take possession of the Senkakus.

But with the reversion of Okinawa to Japan in 1973, Taiwan and  the strong Taiwan lobby in the US said the traditionally Chinese islands should not revert to Japan.

Today the US simply says the islands come witihin the security obligations it has made to Japan.  So far it has declined to say it passed sovereignty to Japan.

Japan itself tacitly admits its claim to ownership is less than perfect by agreeing to Taiwan’s claims to fishing rights in the area.


3. Beijing claims the territory of many other surrounding nations.

Again it is, or was, Taiwan that has done most of the claiming.

Beijing has generously settled all the claims it inherited from the former Nationalist Chinese government in Taiwan, with the exception of India

Here too it made a major concession, by accepting the McMahon line, a product of British aggression into Tibet, as the line of actual control with India.

Even so India remains aggressive. Its 1962  frontier war with China was triggered by Indian troops deliberately crossing the line of control in the eastern Himalayans.(I know because I was China desk officer in Canberra at the time with all related documents).

China reacted and pursued defeated Indian troops into India.

It then withdrew to the line of control leaving territory with Tibetan culture peoples to the south under Indian control, despite severe Taiwan criticism.

It has done no more than retain the right to claim some of that territory – Arunachal Pradesh – in the future.

Recent Himalayan clashes are almost certainly due to India returning to its 1962 ‘forward policy’ against Chinese troops in the area. US efforts of encourage India in that direction do not help.

4.  Xinjiang.

As in China, two other areas in the world – Russia’s Chechnya and India’s Kashmir – have also seen serious Islamist attacks against local police and civilians.

Both responded with severe military suppression killing thousands, often indiscriminately.  China responded by setting up compulsory indoctrinating schools for adults.

Take your pick.

5 Hongkong.

No argument, unless you think governments should tolerate severe damage to urban facilities in the territories they own and have temporarily entrusted to others.


I share some of the concern over Beijing’s recent return to the more authoritarian policies of the past. But some of  the anti-Beijing criticisms we see now from the US, and Australia, go too far.

A February 2019 edition of the New York Times front-paged the Chinese  characters for guize. Anyone who knew Chinese could tell you they simply mean rules or regulations.

The Times told us they represented China’s goal of world domination.

Even trivial things can cause misunderstanding. Much is made of Beijing’s criticism of Australia for urging an enquiry into China’s responsibility for the covid virus.

In fact China has no objection.  It was objecting to way the demand was made –  as an immediate repeat of a similar but aggressive Trump demand.

Most of the criticisms of Beijing are from people who do not speak Chinese or know China.  To those who do know China I say cool it. We have seen much more fire and bluster from China in the past.

China is probably the only nation in the world with a saying ‘the good person does not become a soldier.’  That is why it was so easy in the past for the more militaristic peoples in the West and Japan to invade and steal territory from China.

If it is determined not to let that happen again.

Australia with its backing for the Quad concept – the four-legged military grouping of Japan, the US, India and Australia – seems more eager than most to want to provoke Beijing.

Few seem to want to mention it today but the original idea of the Quad was launched in the late sixties by ANU hawks. It was to act as a barrier to China’s then alleged expansionism into Asia via the Vietnam War. The anti-Saigon Vietnamese were supposed to be Chinese puppets.

Today the Quad is supposed to block China’s expansionism in general.

But the Indian leg looks wobbly.  New Delhi has refused  to join RECP, the 15 nation economic grouping designed to bring much of Asia into an ambitious economic bloc.

Without India,  the grouping will almost certainly come to be dominated by China. Tokyo’s distress at the prospect is palpable.

But maybe a RECP-style Asian economic bloc is the answer. Even if it is China dominated that will simply be a recognition of the economic inevitable.  And as such maybe it will help put an end to anti-China ambitions of the arms sellers and hawk commentators.

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