Why China is not planning to conquer other nations

Sep 30, 2023
One Belt, One Road, Chinese strategic investment

Besides settling and securing its borders, China has no claims on other nations. Countries with grandiose territorial ambitions make no secret of them. This second article in a three-part series explores why China is not planning to conquer and occupy any other nation.

In the first article of this series, exploring how US narratives on the ‘China threat’ have become entrenched in Western security communities, I outlined how a ‘China threat’ narrative had been constructed by Republicans and Democrats in the United States in an attempt to create a “rally round the flag” effect, designed to internally unite a deeply divided America; and began to outline why China is not a threat, including because China has no imperial legacy, and because China’s foreign policy is not -like some other states – ultra-nationalist.

Here are four more reasons why China is not planning to conquer and occupy any other nation.

China has no territorial ambitions

Besides settling and securing its borders, China has no claims on other nations. Countries with grandiose territorial ambitions make no secret of them. Hitler’s Germany wanted more “living space” (Lebensraum) in Eastern Europe and Russia to resettle its burgeoning population. By contrast China’s population is shrinking due to parents embracing a one child policy, in part because housing is too expensive.

Imperial Japan’s mission was to “colonise” the Asia-Pacific region to access natural resources, especially oil, rubber, and iron. Japan did this by invading China, Korea, and other neighbouring countries. China knows it can acquire natural resources through trade not colonisation. Indeed, if its aim was conquest its easiest target would be democratic Mongolia which is over double the land mass of Ukraine, is resource rich, has a small population and tiny army. China like many other countries (including Australia) has invested in Mongolian mining of coal, fluorite (fluorspar), copper, gold, silver, and other metallic ores.

In public speeches and private meetings China’s leadership keeps reiterating it wants “mutual respect, peaceful coexistence and win-win cooperation”. Nowhere does it threaten to invade a nation.

The exception might appear to be Taiwan, but no major nation recognises it as a sovereign state because they endorse the One China nation policy. It would be tragic if Taiwan, a thriving democracy, was invaded against the will of its people. For reasons discussed later it is doubtful that will happen if its status quo is maintained. What is key to understanding China’s foreign policy is that it considers Taiwan to be unresolved business from its civil war, not a quest to take over a foreign nation.

China is not exporting ideology

China no longer exports communism. The Marxist Leninist (Pro-China) Communist Parties that existed in many countries during the Mao era have long closed. As the world’s factory and largest trading nation, China wants respect and influence so that its vital export markets, essential raw material sources and valuable overseas investments are not imperilled.

It also wants a navy big enough to protect its international shipping from disruption by US and allied navies. China’s new vision of “Shared Prosperity” (redistributing wealth) is designed for domestic consumption, not international audiences. By contrast America’s quest to spread freedom and liberty has seen it blunder into foreign wars, most of which it lost because local peoples had their own cultural and national aspirations and resented foreign troops on their soil.

China’s biggest international thrust has been its Roads and Belt Initiative (BRI) launched in 2013 which involves more than 3,100 projects across almost 150 countries worth over US$1 trillion. It seeks to connect Asia with Africa and Europe via land and maritime networks to improve regional integration, increase trade, and foster economic growth. Unlike the USA, China’s focus is on global economic partners not military allies.

China’s appeal to the Global South is threefold; it has not invaded any of them or subverted their governments, its BRI offers both grants and cheap loans for vital economic infrastructure such as roads, airports, seaports, and railways, and it is open to free trade agreements with poorer countries which the European Union and the USA are reluctant to do because of their industry protection policies.

China’s obsession is secession

The Chinese government’s biggest security concern is internal secession movements. Dissidents in Tibet, Xinjiang and Inner Mongolia are not pining for democracy, but independence. China’s response like that of India (Kashmir and Punjab), Sri-Lanka (Tamils), Indonesia (West Papua), Philippines (Mindanao) and Myanmar (Mon state) is military suppression, detention and “re-education” of separatists and their sympathisers.

China wants its ethnic and religious minorities to assimilate with the Han majority rather than promote their distinct cultural identity. That’s offensive to Australia (given its indigenous history) but China considers it more inclusive than that of neighbouring countries which have at various times sought to exclude, expel, or extinguish their minorities (e.g., India, Sri Lanka, Myanmar, and Indonesia).

In Hong Kong the draconian National Security Law was imposed after militants in the democratic movement (including former members of the banned Hong Kong National Party) resorted to violence, stormed the local legislature, and upped their demands from local autonomy to independence from the mainland. Paranoia about splintering internally is a reason China does not want to get distracted by a military conflict with the American alliance.

China’s focus is economic

The 2019 COVID-19 Pandemic abruptly ended the strong growth of the Chinese economy and exposed structural problems, the most serious of which was China’s dependence on debt driven property and infrastructure development. China is overbuilt given its shrinking population. It needs to deleverage property developers and the local government financing vehicles that funded them. Many Chinese who bought their apartments off the plan have lost their life savings as buildings remain unfinished.

China’s economy must shift from being investment to consumption driven for living standards to rise further. This involves improving public services (such as healthcare and aged pensions) so Chinese households won’t have to save so much for meeting unforeseen contingencies. It also means reforming taxes so that most income earners contribute towards a social welfare net. At present 80% escape taxation because of allowable deductions. And its local government (which delivers most public services) needs to wean itself of land sales to developers as a critical source of revenue.

Chinese industry must move from being labour and capital intensive to being hi-tech and cognitive based for China to escape the middle-income trap bedevilling most developing economies. And America’s ban on China using advanced semiconductor chips made anywhere in the world requires it to develop its own chip making capacity to excel in AI applications. America’s determination to decouple China from the “democratic world” requires China’s economy to become more “circular” so that it is less reliant on imports and exports with the West.

To avoid American containment, China is developing overland transport connections with Central Asia, the Middle East and Africa that are harder to disrupted than sea lanes. Its drive to replace coal imports with solar, wind and nuclear is both for self-sufficiency and emissions reduction. Reducing air pollution is essential for ending its high respiratory diseases. Finally eliminating widespread corruption is critical to stamping out crony capitalism and self-serving mandarins.

Achieving these outcomes is necessary for reviving economic growth, attaining self-reliance and resilience while also achieving environmental sustainability and “common prosperity”. The latter refers to President Xi’s quest to reduce the huge disparity in incomes and wealth between employers and employees and city and rural dwellers. Most pressing is the need to generate extra jobs for young adults, one in five of whom are unemployed.

Success or failure in meeting these diverse challenges will decide whether the Chinese Communist Party maintains its social contract with citizens, given that its legitimacy rests on delivery, not democracy.

Doing so means avoiding war with the West, which would require diverting resources from improving people’s livelihoods and wellbeing to military personnel, equipment, and munitions.

For these reasons, and more, China is not a threat.

In the final in this three part series, I expand on the reasons why China is not planning to conquer and occupy any other nation by arguing that China’s military is defensive. Its emphasis on land and naval forces suggests its focus is on defence of its borders and seaborne trade, not offence.

View the full series from Percy Allan here:

The future will be decided by economic influence, not military dominance

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