China’s rise gives cause for alarm

By Sushil Seth  / 

Thu, Mar 08, 2018 - Page 8

China’s rise is upsetting the post-World War II international system, and is seen by some as a serious threat to global and regional stability.

What German Minister for Foreign Affairs Sigmar Gabriel had to say at last month’s Munich Security Conference sums up such views and sentiments.

“The initiative for a new Silk Road [China’s Belt and Road Initiative] is not … a sentimental reminder of Marco Polo. Rather, it stands for the attempt to establish a comprehensive system for shaping the world in Chinese interest,” he said. “It is no longer just about the economy: China is developing a comprehensive system alternative to the Western one, which, unlike our model, is not based on freedom, democracy and individual human rights.”

China is “currently the only country in the world with a truly global, geostrategic idea,” he said.

“The liberal order which reformed our world after the devastation of two world wars is certainly not perfect ... but where the architecture of the liberal order crumbles, others will begin to move [Russia included] their pillars into the building. In the long-term, the entire building will change. I’m sure in the end neither Americans nor Europeans will feel comfortable in this building” built to Chinese architecture, he added.

On a regional level, China’s influence and projection of power is even more pronounced.

All this has been helped by a corresponding decline in US power, with Washington engaged in a series of debilitating military conflicts in the Middle East over the past two decades.

Even though former president Barack Obama in 2011 announced a policy to focus US attention on containing China’s power in the Indo-Pacific region, continued military engagement in the Middle East did not allow much time and energy to develop the policy.

During prolonged US engagements in the Middle East, starting with Afghanistan, China was able to expand its regional profile, including its control of South China Sea islands.

The US’ attempts to challenge China’s control in the area by sending naval patrols to exercise the right to freedom of navigation have not dented Beijing’s resolve. It has warned the US against provocative behavior.

Washington’s attempts to rally regional countries to be part of the freedom of navigation patrols has not borne fruit, even with its closest ally, Australia.

Regional countries are increasingly seeking to adjust to, what looks like to them, an evolving China-centered regional order. Beijing’s growing economic and military power, against a backdrop of a perceived US lack of resolve to confront China, is driving them in this direction.

Australia’s case is instructive, as it tries to strike a delicate balance between its largest trading partner, China, and its military ally, the US.

Even though an important factor motivating Australia’s US alliance is its perceived security threat from a powerful China, Canberra continues, in its public utterances, to deny this.

Australian Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull dismissed the idea that China presents a “threat,” even as he started his visit to the US last month. Indeed, he warned against a “Cold War” view of China, while seeking to emphasize its role in preventing a nuclear crisis with North Korea.

He described North Korea as the “first” priority in dealing with strategic threats to Australia.

However, the debate here is all about China’s threat to the region and Australia, as well as its pervasive role in creating a powerful group of “fifth columnists” serving China’s interests.

The latter requires a separate discussion some other time, but the threat to the region is very much being talked about, in the context of China’s claimed sovereignty over much of the South China Sea and elsewhere in the region, such as the Maldives, which is now in the midst of a political crisis.

It is reported that a Chinese naval task force has been in the Indian Ocean, while Beijing’s ally, Maldivian President Abdulla Yameen wrestles with his domestic crisis by putting his political enemies in jail.

“If it is basically, what it seems to be [propping up the Yameen regime in Maldives], which is the use of a naval task force to intervene in the Maldives ... [China is] using military force to influence the outcome of political decisions in another country,” University of Western Australia professor Peter Dean said.

Australia is particularly concerned about perceived Chinese machinations in its own South Pacific backyard.

Australia is a superpower of sorts for some of the small South Pacific countries reliant on Canberra’s aid and China is increasing its presence in these countries by doling out concessional loans for infrastructure projects that are said to go nowhere.

There is concern that these countries, being unable to pay their unproductive loans, will end up being subjected to Beijing’s coercion.

Indeed, this pattern of doling out unsustainable loans to different countries as part of the Belt and Road Initiative, and then acquiring a controlling interest in their resources and ports, is emerging as part of Beijing’s overall strategy, which is designed to create, by the middle of the century, a China-centered world order.

At least that is how China’s rise is being seen, by a number of countries — as a threat to the existing Western-centered world order created after World War II.

Sushil Seth is a commentator based in Australia.