China’s hackles were raised by the US Navy’s USS Ronald Reagan sailing off the coast of Queensland as part of US-Australian military exercises involving 34,000 military personnel — including from New Zealand, Canada, the UK and Japan — and Beijing sent out a spy/surveillance ship to see what might be going on.
Australia did not like the Chinese spy ship surveying its coastline, but it could not do much about it.
Canberra explained it away by saying that since the Chinese ship was in international waters, it was within its rights.
Ever since China has asserted virtual control over the South China Sea — although it is contested now and then by the US Navy doing freedom of navigation patrols — China has let it be known that the Pacific is its zone of influence.
The Chinese government has extrapolated that outside powers, like the US, are somehow encroaching on their zone and hence should stay out.
With its Pacific coastline, the US, of course, is as much a Pacific power as China, but Beijing is strongly averse to this line of reasoning.
In any case, China seems to believe that if they are able to persuade or coerce regional countries to stay away from their US alignment or alliance, Washington over time might not find itself welcomed in the region.
Added to this is the perceived diminuation of US power, with an overstretched global role that might be increasingly difficult to sustain.
However, the US is still a global power and is not inclined to leave the Pacific region to China, not only because of geopolitical reasons, but also because the South China Sea is, for instance, a major maritime route for international trade.
However, China’s projection of power in the region — which it more or less regards as its backyard — is creating unease, if not alarm, in some countries.
Take the case of Australia: It is eager to maintain and expand its trade relationship with China, which is its biggest trading partner, but, at the same time, it wants to maintain its long-standing strategic alliance with the US.
Canberra would like to believe that Beijing should not be uncomfortable with this, as China is aware that the alliance between Australia and the US is long-standing and not something that Australia cobbled together in response to a potential Chinese threat.
That might have been the case before China started to treat the region as its virtual sphere of influence, with the implication that the US was an outside power and had no business competing or contending with China.
Indeed, China has historically regarded itself to be the Middle Kingdom, with regional countries as its political and cultural extensions.
However, since the 19th century — as communist China sees it — the Middle Kingdom was humiliated and dominated by the rising Western powers, with its defeat in the Opium War being the most telling.
With the Middle Kingdom refurbished and reimagined in today’s context, a resurgent and powerful China would like to avenge that, as well as Japan’s invasion of its territory before and during World War II.
Beijing’s Belt and Road Initiative, for instance, is a reimagining of China’s old Middle Kingdom, with China as the center of the world and the rest as its arteries.
Re-establishing an imagined old kingdom in today’s context of sovereign nation states will not be an easy task, but communist China is giving its best shot, encouraged by a number of factors:
First and foremost is its growing economic power, with regional countries increasingly dependent on it for trade and investments.
Second, with its growing economy (even when the rate of growth lately is slowing), China is able to divert an increasing portion of its resources to building a strong military force, enabling it to project its power and make it credible.
A combination of the two — economic and military prowess — likely impresses on regional countries that China’s rise and the consequent projection of its power mean business.
This is evident, for instance, in the South China Sea, where regional claimants to groups of islands are unwilling to take on China.
As an old saying goes: If you want to live in a river with a resident crocodile, you cannot afford to make an enemy of it.
Above all, there is an increasing perception of the US’ declining power, although it is still the most powerful country in the world.
It follows that, with the US seen to be unwilling or unable to come to the rescue of regional countries, they might not have much of a choice but to accept China’s hegemony.
Or else, they must create their own credible deterrence militarily and politically through some kind of regional balancing act.
In Australia, for instance, a debate has started over whether it should have nuclear deterrence against a potentially aggressive China. I might explore this in a subsequent article.
Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.
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