By Todd Royal
In the brutal 2014 film Fury, a soldier quips: “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” This violence is what the entire world, and particularly Southeast Asia, should be thinking about with regards to China’s rise. Is the rise going to be peaceful, violent, or somewhere in between? The evidence suggests more violent than peaceful coexistence if the global community allows China’s ambition to go on unfettered.
The maritime disputes that China has with Japan in the East China Sea and in the hydrocarbon-rich and multi-trillion dollar trade route in the South China Sea caused Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the United States (US) Pacific Command to remark during the New Delhi Raisina Dialogue in mid-January: “I believe the reality is that China is a disruptive transitional force in the Indo-Pacific. They are the owners of a trust deficit.”
Made alongside Navy Chiefs from India, Japan, and Australia – who along with the U.S. compose the four-nation realist balancing structure against China known as the “Quad” – Admiral Harris’ statements were significant, and could even be one of the chief reasons President Trump is considering imposing tariffs on Chinese products in response to its alleged theft of intellectual property from US companies.
China’s actions undermine its claim that it wants an equitable and fair resolution to what is essentially a series of land grabs and intimidation by the PLA Navy. And while there is a military dialogue between China, the Quad, and ASEAN in these maritime disputes, this dialogue is severely lacking, thereby ratcheting up tensions and the potential for escalation in the South China Sea. Going by Beijing’s official line, there’s nothing to be worried about. China has declared that “it has no hostile intent, that its military is for defensive missions, and that defense spending is transparent.”
Sources within the PLA, which has the world’s largest standing army, have recently asserted that the military needs double-digit budgetary increases “to deal with increased global uncertainty.” The same sources say that the military-industrial establishment has been flexing its muscles domestically against President Xi out of the belief that Trump’s threats of force against their proxy North Korea, attempts at self-rule by Taiwan, and continued border disputes with India over the Himalayan region of Ladakh and Bhutan’s Doklam Plateau, which borders India and China, all constitute threats to Chinese growth.
India’s troubles with China are particularly troubling since over two billion people are involved. China’s presence on the Doklam Plateau caused Prime Minister Modi to adopt a confrontational stance and dispatch troops back in 2017. These probing moves by the Chinese side have rattled Modi’s government in India and caused him to pass on endorsing Beijing’s ambitious One Belt One Road Initiative (BRI), a “sprawling plan aimed at connecting China with much of Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.”
The ambitious though troubling One Belt One Road initiative takes on a deep geopolitical significance according to a new study by the Center for Global Development, which found elevated debt risks among BRI countries due to China’s predatory lending practices:
“For the 68 countries identified as potential borrowers in the BRI, 23 were found to be already at ‘quite high,’ risk of debt distress and nine countries, particularly Pakistan, Djibouti, Laos, the Maldives, Sri Lanka, Montenegro, Tajikistan, Kyrgyzstan and Mongolia have problems servicing their debt.”
A growing “backlash” across the region against the BRI over China creating “indentured nation-state servants” contributes to distrust of China’s intentions, especially when one takes into account the PLA’s “saber-rattling” of increased military drills. Vietnam is showing its displeasure with Beijing by a deepening its military relationship with the U.S., as evidenced by the historic port call of the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in early March. Even peaceful Australia finds itself pushing back against China after Australian media reports uncovered:
“A hidden world of Chinese inducements, threats and plausible deniability that sits between the poles of economic attraction and military force, where soft power gives way to more precise concerns about covert interference by the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).”
This new “life in China’s Asia” should cause capitals from Washington to Tokyo all the way to the EU grave concern. Sure, the U.S. is still the dominant power in Asia, but China is rapidly closing that gap. A Chinese regional hegemonic march could be derailed by domestic or economic concerns. However, China will soon “supplant the United States as the region’s economic, military, and political hegemon,” according to the book Unrestricted Warfare by PLA Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui. Then the U.S., Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and all of Asia will need to ask difficult questions about security cooperation, free-trade, and whether they accept China’s dominance the way they have Washington’s since the late 1940s.
According to Chinese analysts, now that Xi has cast aside presidential term limits, a new era of strongman rule – where power is grabbed and “ideological ambitions” are on full display – will descend over China. It’s also quite possible that this authoritarianism will be exported regionally and/or globally. Perhaps a new Cold War between the U.S. and China will unfold, where Xi takes on a Mao-like status, promotes Communist Party ideals like never before, and truly gives the world an autocratic form of government that is a viable substitute to US leadership.
Now that Xi and the Party are seemingly above the law, state-owned enterprises and private companies – all of which have “Party cells” embedded in their leadership – are now above legal and regulatory oversight, answering directly to Xi himself. If One Belt One Road is any indication of Chinese leadership under Xi, then the geopolitical consequences of him becoming ruler-for-life are chilling for Asia, the U.S., and indeed global security. President Xi’s biggest priority seems to be legitimizing his authority indefinitely and placing the Party above all else.
But is this ultimately all the West’s fault for decades of hapless economic giveaway to China, and believing China, like Russia and Iran before, would take on Western standards of human rights while evolving into a “benign regional hegemon?” Yes, it is. While the CCP has to restrain the PLA and global hegemonic appetites in the name of economic growth, growth that’s dependent on trade, that doesn’t mean Beijing will embark on peaceful relations with its neighbors.
President Xi maintains that China has “never engaged in colonialism or aggressions thanks to its ‘peace-loving cultural tradition.” Typically the way regional and global hegemons behave is to wield economic power for dominating purposes, build large militaries, confront near and far rivals, and use institutions to broaden their scope of influence. That describes the China that President Xi is currently building.
Dr. Victor Davis Hanson argues that “strategic deterrence has been lost due to the prior US administration allowing unchecked Chinese ascendance and a comatose approach to North Korea.” Fantasies over China integrating into the world community the way Germany, Japan, Italy, and South Korea did all happened because of heavy US and allied military presence and economic pressure. Otherwise, those countries faced being annihilated by the Soviet Union and North Korean regimes respectively.
Massive US Defense Department cuts for over five years and NATO’s unwillingness to approach 2% GDP spending threshold have allowed China’s rise. “Strategic patience,” didn’t work, though forcefully attempted, and the fatal delusions of Western nations haven’t helped. We now must ask the question: What is the greatest threat to world and US security today? China, Russia, North Korea, Islamist extremism, or South American and African failed-states? No one is certain, but the years ahead will require vigilance and policies for responding to an increasingly ideologically-driven government in Beijing.