By Todd Royal
In the brutal 2014 World War II (WII) movie “Fury,” a soldier definitively states, “Ideals are peaceful. History is violent.” That’s what the entire world and particularly Southeast Asia should be asking themselves about China’s ascendant rise. Are they peaceful, violent or somewhere in between? The evidence suggests more violence than peaceful coexistence if the global community doesn’t allow unfettered Chinese ambition.
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 with Taiwan, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines caused Admiral Harry Harris, commander of the United States (US) Pacific Command to say 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.”
With Navy Chiefs from India, Japan, and Australia who compose the four-nation realist balancing structure against China known as the “Quad,” while also supporting the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN), Admiral Harris’ statements were significant, and could be one of the chief reasons President Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese products. Moreover, the Center for Strategic and International Studies’ Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative has “satellite imagery,” detailing Beijing’s, “long-term strategy employing coercion and military force to establish dominance over the South China Sea.”
China’s actions undermine the claim it wants an equitable and fair resolution to these land-grab and intimidation quarrels in their oceanic influence. And while there is military dialogue between China, the Quad and ASEAN in these maritime disputes the political dialogue is lacking, thereby ratcheting up tensions and potential for war-like escalations. But does that need to be the case when China has said, “that it has no hostile intent, that its military (PLA) is for defensive missions, and that defense spending is transparent.”
The PLA, which is the world’s largest military, recently asserted it needs double-digit budgetary increases, “to deal with increased global uncertainty.” The Chinese military-industrial-establishment has also “flexed its muscles domestically,” against President Xi because they believe 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 are threats against Chinese growth.
India’s troubles with China are particularly disturbing since over two billion people are involved when combining the two country’s citizenry. China’s presence on the plateau caused Prime Minister Modi to send troops in a confrontational stance against the PLA in 2017. These probes have rattled Modi’s government in India and caused him to refuse endorsement of 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.”
This ambitious though troubling initiative takes on deep geopolitical significance over the release of a new study by the Center for Global Development that found elevated debt risks over the BRI linked to Chinese 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.”
This “backlash,” across the region against the BRI over China creating indentured nation-state servants adds further distrust to Chinese intentions when taking into account the PLA’s “saber-rattling,” through increased military drills. Vietnam is showing its displeasure with Beijing by a growing military relationship with the US when it allowed the USS Carl Vinson aircraft carrier in early March to dock in Da Nang. Even peaceful Australia finds itself pushing back against China when 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 US 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 “supplant the United States as the region’s economic, military and political hegemon,” soon according to the book, Unrestricted Warfare by PLA Colonels Qiao Liang and Wang Xiangsui; upending seventy years of liberal, peaceful security and coexistence since the end of WWII. Then the US, Australia, Japan, South Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan and all of Asia will need to ask difficult questions about security cooperation, free-trade zones and do they accept Chinese dominance the way they have Washington’s since the late 1940s?
According to Chinese analysts now that Xi has cast aside Presidential term limits by saying, “he could rule for the foreseeable future,” a new era of China returning to “strongman rule,” where power is grabbed, and “ideological ambitions,” are on full display, means authoritarianism will be exported by China. Possibilities of a new Cold War between the US and China while Xi takes on Mao-like status has enabled his ability to govern without restraint, promote Communist party ideals like never before and truly give the world an autocratic form of government as a viable substitute to US leadership. Now that Xi and the party are seemingly above the law, state-owned enterprises and private companies that all have “communist cells,” imbedded in their endeavors are now above legal and regulatory oversight and only answer to the President. If the BRI is any indication of Chinese leadership under Xi then the consequences of him being ruler for life are chilling for Asia, the US and world security. Xi’s biggest priority seems to be legitimizing his authority for life and placing the party above all aspect of China, the Indo-Pacific areas and possibly the world.
But is this all the west’s fault for decades of hapless economic giveaway policies to China, and believing China like Russia and Iran before them will take on western Judeo-Christian 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 dependent on trade, that doesn’t mean Beijing will embark on peaceful relations with their neighbors – recent examples backing up this claim – are Iran’s land grabs in Iraq, Syria and Yemen; and Russian annexations in Crimea, South Ossetia, Abkhazia and Georgia.
However, Xi stated China, “never engaged in colonialism or aggressions thanks to its ‘peace-loving cultural tradition.’” Typically the way regional and aspiring global hegemons behave is they 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 Xi’s China at this time.
Dr. Victor Davis Hanson says, “Strategic deterrence had 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.
Massive US Defense Department cuts for over five years and NATO’s unwillingness to approach 2% of GDP spending threshold have allowed China’s rise. “Strategic patience,” didn’t work, though forcefully attempted, and the fatal delusions of western nations for over a decade now have to ask this all-encompassing question: what is the greatest threat to world and American security today? China, Russia, North Korea, Islamist extremism or South American and African failed-states? No one is certain, but the years ahead will need vigilance and policies for challenging, “an ideologically driven Chinese government.”
*Todd Royal, M.P.P. is the Managing Partner for Energy development, Oil & Gas, and Renewables for Ascendance Strategies, a global threat assessment and political consulting firm that is based in Los Angeles, California