It is easy to be fearful about China: that it is grabbing territory in the South China Sea; that it is building a vast navy and new nuclear missile platforms; that it is capable of cyber attacks that can bring down infrastructure in the West; that it will soon overtake the US both economically and militarily and dominate the world.
Worse, it is on the verge of invading democratic Taiwan. As a result of all this fear, governments in the West – especially Australia, Britain and the US – have engaged in a massive arms build-up with the aim of projecting naval power across the world now and in the future.
The people in those countries have been duped. The sabre-ratting in Australia by Defence Minister Peter Dutton is especially misguided, other than as an excuse for more military spending.
War with China – or any other nuclear power – should be unthinkable. Yes, the people’s democratic will in Taiwan is important. But surely it is not as important to us as not provoking an intercontinental nuclear missile attack on Australian cities.
Moreover, if the Chinese Communist Party’s breaches of democratic and human rights were so important, why haven’t we done anything about Tibet, Hong Kong and the Uyghurs, other than a bit of hand-wringing? Perhaps we put trade before rights.
There are several reasons why the fear of China is exaggerated. First, China, under the dictatorship of the Communist Party, has no friends and virtually no reliable allies. The western democracies, on the other hand, can usually mount collective action, usually in the form of sanctions, against any nation seen not to be acting within the rules: Russia; Iran and pre-apartheid South Africa are examples.
Perhaps sanctions should be tougher because they are a more usable weapon than guns and missiles.
China’s friendlessness has been well-illustrated by its trade bans and tariffs against Australia: against barley, wine, coal, and meat. Not one other country imposed similar bans in support of the Chinese position. To the contrary, other countries were happy to buy the products from Australia that would otherwise have gone to China.
When China said Australia must comply with a list of demands and Australia ignored them. Not one other country supported the Chinese Communist Party’s position.
It was not an example of geopolitical power growing with greater economic strength. To the contrary, it revealed weakness and ineptitude.
When you join the economic, trade and military power of the nations in ASEAN, NATO, NAFTA, the EU and even the Quad, you can see why China might feel a little hemmed in. It has increased trade and co-operation with Russia, but you could hardly say that China and Russia are friends.
The second reason that fears about China are exaggerated is that China’s present military exertions are more a phase than a trajectory. They are directly connected to the rise to power of Xi Jinping. He will not last forever. When he goes, so will the military trajectory.
Thirdly, the Chinese Communist Party’s growing restrictions on personal and economic freedom are also directly connected to Xi’s rise to power. When he goes they, too, will ease.
Fourthly, the combination of the growing militarism and the internal clampdown on personal and economic freedoms has consequences. People do not like it and it diverts a lot of money and resources.
China also has a lot of internal problems. It has to finance a vast army of internet censors and an internal security apparatus to make sure any dissent does not get out of hand. It has a massive pollution problem that makes conditions almost unbearable in most large cities for people who rightly blame the government for their plight.
Of course, imagined external foes are a good diversion against internal strife, but ultimately, they do not work.
Finally, the primary aim of the Chinese Community Party (like political parties everywhere) is to obtain and stay in power – the difference being the means of staying in power: force or persuasion. An invasion of Taiwan by mainland forces and the suppression of its 24 million people should be looked at in that context.
The unknowns are so great that it is easier to imagine the Chinese Communist Party not taking the risk and rather be content with the fact that all but 15 non-consequential nations recognise that Taiwan is not an independent nation but part of China. Why fight a war to achieve what is already done?
In the meantime, Australia should build up its diplomatic armoury; remain vocal on breaches of human rights and trade rules; join with other democratic nations to undermine the vast government censorship in China; and join other countries in dealing with the one national-security risk we should fear above all others: climate change. It should also patiently wait for the demise of Xi.
And more importantly recognise the folly of Dutton’s virtual commitment to following the US into a war far away which is really none of our business. Australia has done enough of that in the past – to our grave cost.
Indeed, Dutton’s sabre-rattling should make voters clamour for a change in the rules on the commitment of the Defence Forces to conflicts outside Australia. It should be in the hands of Parliament, not the Executive Government.
Do we really want Dutton and Prime Minister Scott Morrison to have the power to commit Australian troops to a foray to defend democracy in Taiwan, which might sound highly principled, but would in fact put Australian cities in the line of fire of a nuclear warhead.
Let’s not exaggerate the danger of the so-called rise of China. After all, the Chinese Communist Party might just as easily go the way of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union which 30 years ago this month dropped unexpectedly into the garbage can of history.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 18 December 2021.
Crispin Hull BA, LLB (Hons) | Property Convenor | ANU School of Legal Practice Lawyer of the Supreme Court of the ACT, on the Register of Practitioners kept by the High Court of Australia