China, America and a strategic dilemma for Pacific nations
The Pacific has been an American lake since WW2, with American trading partners becoming strategic bases in fighting or resisting the spread of communism during the Cold War.
Communist China has undergone a series of economic miracles, first with State-backed industrialisation and, more recently, with a degree of market capitalism guided by the strong hand of the Party and central committee.
In March, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang told the National People’s Congress that China intended to switch away from State industries towards a much more technologically advanced economy. This was, he said:
“Like the struggle from chrysalis to butterfly, this process of transformation and upgrading is filled with promise but also accompanied by great pain.”
In June, former Australian Defence Minister Kim Beasley and the recently retired inaugural [US] Director of National Intelligence, James R Clapper Jr, gave a talk at the Australian National University in Australia’s capital, Canberra.
One question was their opinion on the development of China’s “blue water” naval potential, given that China has purchased a Soviet-era aircraft carrier from the Ukraine and will commission its own home-built carrier by 2020 with two more to follow. That, and the millions of dollars China has invested or is investing port facilities in Tonga, Fiji and port Darwin in northern Australia. (China has not been a naval power since Emperor Zeng He disbanded the fleets in 1433.)
Jim Clapper’s response was that we shouldn’t look at such developments with a sense of “panic”, as a blue-water China had the potential to be an additional stabilising force on the world stage. This must be a relief to America, particularly under a semi-isolationist Trump presidency, in knowing that other nations are shouldering a share of the financial burden of defending peace and trade.
However, it is difficult to juxtapose those sentiments against American encouragements for Australia, for example, to operate freedom of navigation exercises near or over the islets that China has built in the South China Sea. While China now regards these man-made structures as geographic extensions of China, their purpose is not to demarcate the limits of “China’s” South China Sea as it is to lay ambit claim to all the submarine and marine resources in that region. This will be hard for very near neighbours such as the Philippines and Vietnam to swallow.
In addition, the sabre rattling over the islets plays to both sides of the political fence, as China, America and other Pacific nations can all use the appearance of tension to justify maintaining stricter internal security measures in their own countries if needed.
If there was one country which looked at China’s growing blue water/amphibious capability with unease it would be Taiwan, which only “separated” from China when the Kuomintang (“Nationalist”) government of China retreated there after losing the Civil War in 1949. However, China would never risk the benefits of its lucrative trade deals to invade Taiwan, even though it will never relinquish its claim. What is far more likely is that China will “buy back” Taiwan as a result of some unforeseen global financial crisis when America’s back is turned. China has a generational approach to strategy. Western nations set band-aid targets based on the short-termism of democratic elections. China sets targets, not always with timelines, with the sure certainty that dedicated Chinese will move closer to achieving these with passing generations.
China has a generational approach to strategy
China’s diplomatic approach in the Pacific has been nothing short of brilliant. China has sought to portray itself as a “developing nation” like the Pacific nations it talks to. Misunderstood, ostracised and even ignored like those smaller nations. It’s a sympathy vote on the basis that “we get bullied too, so we know how you feel”. This courtship has wooed many smaller Pacific nations away from America’s apron-strings, at least on specific subjects. The Non-Aligned Movement currently includes three Oceania States, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and Fiji.
The Chinese money put into dock facilities may have put small nations such as Tonga and Fiji in financial thrall to China. But given China’s generational aspirations, those markers are unlikely to be called in in the short term. China is playing a long game, crowned with respect, and keen to avoid any label of being a latterday “colonial oppressor”.
When the king of Tonga died in 2012 he was in Hong Kong. New Zealand offered to fly the king’s body home but China already had a special charter flight arranged. The Chinese president sent a special envoy to the funeral and the Chinese delegation took up the most prominent places in the front rows.
North Korea is a sideshow that keeps attention off China while allowing China to play a role in curbing North Korean excesses. North Korea is its own worst enemy, as many of its issues could be resolved by producing more butter and fewer guns. If it did so, it might find South Korea, and China and America, more willing to invest in North Korean economic development. The Soviet Union reached a point where military spending and desire for greater democracy created stressors resulting in economic collapse and reorganisation as some states broke away or fractured on religious and ethnic lines. China, by controlling and leading its prosperity, has few such problems. The challenge with North Korea is that someone will punch a launch code rather than let life improve significantly for all citizens in the north.
America is in the throes of redefining its role as the world’s policeman and the saviour of democracy. The US is growing tired of endless internecine conflict in the Middle East and Afghanistan. Above all, it can’t understand why the nations it has supported don’t value the democracy they have been given. That is, of course, the actual problem. Democracy isn’t worth a damn if you don’t pay the price to win it and defend it.
The concept of being an American was born by being branded an enemy of England and of the consequent need to win the war and also evict the Tories (pro-British “loyalists”) from the united colonies. Having been watered by the blood of patriots and traitors alike, America’s “tree of liberty” has become an increasingly valued concept in America. If French troops and navies had done all the work and handed independence to the colonies on a platter, would they have valued it as highly or sought to weed out the Tory bad apples?
In the next two decades, the strategic balance in the Pacific will be rewritten, as much in English as in Chinese characters. Providing trade remains the lubricant that keeps these ships passing in the night, there is no reason now to anticipate tension – merely difference. A new balance.
And perhaps where a job-concerned American government should be looking is precisely where China is beginning to take a leading role – in space. Because it was the industrial and technological spin-offs from the space race that created or improved many of the new products and jobs that America had in the 60s, 70s and into the 80s. These are opportunities worth seizing not because they are easy, but because they are hard.