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At this week’s meeting of the World Economic Forum in Davos, China’s President Xi Jinping warned the world of the risk of a new cold war.
True to form, he dangles all sorts of incentives if only we would all conform to his Marxist-Leninist view of how the world system should be made to work in Beijing’s expansionist favour.
As Rowan Callick observed in The Australian on Wednesday, Xi uses standard party propaganda with his pet phrase “a shared future for mankind”. This communist wonderland would mean that we all kowtow to an increasingly assertive China as the natural hegemon of the Indo-Pacific.
Xi’s declaration that “the strong should not bully the weak” comes as the following naked military bullying by China has been occurring:
● Taiwan’s airspace has been threatened repeatedly by China’s combat fighters and nuclear-capable bombers during the past few days. Incursions last Saturday involved eight strategic nuclear-capable bombers, four fighter jets and one maritime patrol aircraft. This was followed by a further flight of 12 fighters, two maritime patrol aircraft and a reconnaissance plane on Sunday.
These flights are significantly larger than the normal probing flights by China across the Taiwan Strait that usually consist of one or two aircraft. The implied threat is the attack on Taiwan may be sooner rather than later and will challenge America’s commitment to that island.
● On January 20, there was another clash of Chinese and Indian forces on the disputed border of India’s eastern Himalayan state of Sikkim with a Chinese patrol group trying to cross over to India’s side. This resulted in “a minor face-off” between Indian and Chinese soldiers but no firearms apparently were used.
China’s Foreign Ministry released a statement warning India to refrain from escalating tensions along the border. India fears that unchallenged Chinese road-building in the Himalayas would provide the People’s Liberation Army with access to a critical narrow corridor in Sikkim, which links several of India’s northern states to the rest of the country.
● An official announcement was made by the National People’s Congress of China on January 22 of a new law allowing China’s coastguard to use “all necessary measures, including the use of weapons” against foreign vessels infringing on China’s claimed “jurisdictional waters”, which presumably means most of the South China Sea.
This law allows the coastguard to demolish “buildings, structures and various devices” erected by foreign entities in Chinese-claimed waters. This suggests that future encounters with China’s coastguard will become more dangerous for foreign vessels. This week, Chinese coastguard ships blocked Filipino fishing vessels from gaining access to The Philippines’ Thitu Island.
Is all this Chinese military-related activity only coincidental or does it suggest that Beijing is seeking to warn the new Biden administration that Taiwan belongs to China and that the Chinese leadership is increasingly serious about using military force against Taiwan sooner rather than later? The US State Department has called on China to stop intimidating its neighbours and stated its “rock-solid” commitment to Taiwan’s defence. But it remains to be seen how far the Biden administration will go in warning off Beijing militarily.
As the editorial board of The Wall Street Journal has observed: “The contrast between Mr Xi’s Monday sweet talk and the weekend Taiwan incursions is designed to throw the world off balance. The test for the Biden team is whether it will be tripped up by the feints toward international norms and comity that punctuate Mr Xi’s pattern of regional aggression.”
There is every reason to believe that Xi believes “the correlation of world forces” has moved decisively in Beijing’s favour. Xi’s delivery at Davos was designed to lull the West into a belief that all he was calling for was “a new type of international relations” to bridge differences through dialogue and resolve disputes through negotiation, and to pursue friendly and co-operative relations with all countries based on mutual respect, equality and mutual benefit. This is typical Chinese Communist Party propaganda: believe in our mutual peaceful future but ignore our military actions and threats. As former Singaporean foreign affairs ministry secretary Bilahari Kausikan makes clear: Xi’s speech was “overflowing with irony … but, you know, they don’t care what they say”.
At the height of the Cold War, the Soviet Union proclaimed that the correlation of world forces had moved decisively in its favour. In the 1970s there was a general view in the West that the Soviets were demonstrating superior military and economic performance. All this encouraged Moscow to invade Afghanistan in 1979, deploy Cuban “freedom fighters” to Namibia and to build military bases overseas.
But Moscow also did what Beijing is not doing: it was deeply involved with the US in negotiating serious nuclear arms control agreements. It should be of deep concern that Beijing has no such discussions whatsoever with the US. Beijing has no experience of the use of military force in living memory — except when in 1978 it failed “to teach Vietnam a lesson” over Hanoi’s occupation of communist Cambodia. In my view, it is imperative that the US and China come to some serious bilateral arms control agreements, as well as understandings on the avoidance of military incidents in the air and on the high seas.
For Australia, as Peter Jennings has observed, Joe Biden’s first international crisis will likely be over the future of Taiwan, and whatever Biden decides to do about it “he will expect Japan and Australia to be there”. Canberra needs to be considering seriously what sort of response we would make to such a US request. A refusal on our part to defend the vibrant democracy of 24 million Taiwanese may well lead to the serious undermining of the ANZUS Treaty. Nearer to home, we also need to be considering what the rules of engagement are for our warships operating in the South China Sea and being confronted by belligerent, well-armed China coastguard vessels.
Now is the time for hard-nosed realism. We should not be lulled into a false sense of complacency by Xi’s threat of a cold war or his highfalutin endorsement of global-governance values and the plea to abandon ideological prejudice.
This article was originally published by The Australian here.
Paul Dibb is professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs, ANU. He is a former deputy secretary of defence and director of the defence intelligence organisation.
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Image sourced on Flickr here.