Between China and America, we chose the wrong friend

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China put on an impressive display of military might during the 70th anniversary of the People's Republic of China (Screenshot via YouTube)

While the Australian Government panders to America's every whim, China continues to be a progressively dominant power in the Pacific, writes Bruce Haigh.

THE SEVENTIETH CELEBRATION for the foundation of the People's Republic of China held in Tiananmen Square on 1 October gave an appearance of organised energy. A country on the move. A country that knows where it is going and what it wants. That was the intention.

President Xi Jinping embraced the legacy and memory of Chairman Mao Tse Tung. It is understandable that he would — Xi’s authoritarian vision for China’s future draws on the mindset of Mao and the mythology now allowed to surround him.

At the parade in Tiananmen Square, Xi said:

“No force can ever stop the Chinese people and nation forging ahead.”

This was intoned as tanks, rockets and troops passed in an incredible display of military discipline and new hardware.

In 1935, Mao said:

“We, the Chinese nation, have the spirit to fight the enemy to the last drop of our blood, the determination to recover our lost territory by our own efforts and the ability to stand on our own two feet in the family of nations.”

Like invisible ink, those words were on the page of Xi’s speech. The sentiment was there, the intent was there and many observers picked up on it. Xi’s message was clear — China is powerful, China is wealthy, China is a major actor on the world stage and they demand to be taken seriously.

China is pushing, into new areas of trade, technology and territory. China has extended itself into South East Asia, Africa and the South Pacific. It is funding research and study in South Africa and Australia amongst many other countries. It has inserted itself into the political process of Sri Lanka. It is pouring money into Cambodia and Laos.

Last month, I observed the Chinese presence in both those countries. The rail line being built from Beijing through Laos. The Chinese workers and tourists, the Chinese-owned hotels and condominiums. China does not need to invade; it will capture through the power of investment and corruption. Like Rome, all roads will lead to Beijing if they don’t already, including the ambitious $900 billion New Silk Road, designed to link Europe and Asia to Beijing. It is part of the Belt and Road Action Plan, which incorporates the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, capitalised to $100 billion.

China has turned its revolutionary zeal – almost lost during the Cultural Revolution – into the creation of wealth, including offshore wealth which is being transformed into influence and power. China is single-minded in this quest, much to the annoyance of the U.S. and its allies including Australia. From the '80s, many assumed that this quest for wealth was benign, but that is now being questioned.

It has pushed its armed forces into the South China Sea, claiming and reclaiming islands and atolls in dispute by the Philippines, Vietnam, Brunei and Malaysia. It has displayed determination and aggression in defending these claims. The U.S., Britain, France, Japan and Australia have carried out naval patrols to protect the international right of passage for shipping to little effect. No one wants to go to war over the South China Sea — China has called the bluff.

China is developing relations with countries in the South Pacific. It is spending money. It is providing soft loans. If the loans move into default, China takes over the project or facility. China has more money to spend in the Pacific than Australia and it will do so. China believes in climate change. This gives it a huge advantage with Pacific countries.

Current Chinese leaders no doubt learnt Mao’s 1930 dictum:

‘When we look at a thing, we must examine its essence and treat its appearance merely as an usher at the threshold and once we cross the threshold, we must grasp the essence of the thing, this is the only reliable and scientific method of analysis.’

Australia has thrown away influence in the Pacific with arrogance and notions of racial superiority. China has listened to the complaints and is seeking to take advantage. Alexander Downer threw away a significant diplomatic tool with the axing of Radio Australia.

China has conducted and continues to conduct sophisticated cyber-attacks against foreign governments and institutions, including Australia. Some call it warfare. Mostly, the reasons for these attacks are to gain information. However, some of the information gained is of low quality and the presumption must be that they are designed to intimidate, to get scarce resources spent on counter measures and protection and to demonstrate that they can. A power play.

China’s drive and methodology in seeking to influence has been exposed in Australia over the past two years with revelations of large unauthorised payments to the major political parties and, no doubt, to individuals by state supported players. A Chinese Government surveillance and control program of Chinese nationals studying on Australian campuses has also come to light, together with attempts to intimidate Australian Chinese students into spying for Chinese agencies.

The exposure of these activities has led to a xenophobic and racist backlash from Right-wing politicians and media. The activities have been condemned by Australian intelligence agencies who appear to share the concerns of Right-wing commentators. There is no evidence to suggest that the Chinese intend to curtail these activities — more likely they will become more circumspect and sophisticated.

China has always looked askance at America. They never understood the U.S. imperative to fight in Vietnam nor to invade Iraq. While America has expended trillions of dollars on waging unnecessary wars over the past 50 years, China has concentrated for the last 40 years in building industry, infrastructure and making money.

China does not agree with America’s claims to world leadership. They see America as erratic, unreliable and a resource to be exploited for ideas and innovation to bolster their expanding economy. American arrogance and xenophobia have prevented them from seeking meaningful co-operative arrangements. They see China as a hostile military rival and by doing so may bring it to pass. At the moment, there is little evidence to support that view. China is a determined and aggressive rival for whom America has no answer other than sanctions.

President Donald Trump has caused them to look even more askance at America along with much of the rest of the world, with the notable exception of Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison and British Prime Minister Boris Johnson.

The Chinese play the long game; sanctions must be endured until Trump is gone. Meanwhile, America shoots itself in the foot as China engages in import replacement which is a by-product of sanctions — ask the Iranians.

As its power wanes, America lashes out, bewildered at how it could have squandered such a large inheritance. It is hurt that the rest of the world, with the exception of Morrison, no longer tugs a forelock.

America is more of a threat to Australia’s long-term interests than China. America has a military base in Darwin where a division of troops is based and rotated. We host the aggressively configured Pine Gap facility designed to spy and conduct hostile activities in American interests. Our intelligence agencies are close and, in some areas, integrated. We rarely, if ever, undertake a major foreign policy initiate without first seeking their approval and we often follow their foreign policy initiatives even though they are not in our interest. Vietnam, Iraq, Afghanistan and, most recently, confronting Iran in the Gulf.

Australian and American business interests are close and America is a major investor in the Australian economy. American methods of business are promoted through our universities.

We are a captive of American “culture” through the absence of an Australian film industry – we don’t and can’t tell our own stories – and through the Murdoch dominance of our media industry.

China continues to appal through the detention of one million Uighurs in the Xinjiang region for the purposes of “re-education” and for their attempt to undermine the legal system of Hong Kong, which is the subject of ongoing demonstrations. Hong Kong highlights the fallibility of Beijing — it was a bad decision. Xi is being forced to wear the consequences. Nonetheless, he feels the need to be tough to impress his rivals. He has to be tough but not too tough. Xi is resented for his declaration of lifetime Presidency and they await his downfall.

So, it is between these two less-than-perfect major powers that we must make our way forward. We need to understand who and what we are dealing with. We must develop the capacity to balance our relations with these competitors. Vilifying China and bowing to America will not achieve that.

Bruce Haigh is a retired Australian diplomat and political commentatorYou can follow Bruce on Twitter @bruce_haigh.

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