Features Australia

Pax Sinica interruptus

Has China awakened a sleeping giant?

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

29 August 2020

9:00 AM

The advent of Barack Obama in the White House appeared to signify a post-America moment. Pax Americana, which had accompanied the Cold War, was likely at an end. American exceptionalism, as President Obama was always quick to claim, had become an anachronism. China’s Xi Jinping could not have agreed more. It was time for Pax Sinica.

The paradox, of course, is that no one individual has done more to resurrect the necessity of a Pax Americana than President Xi. A form of paranoid belligerence has driven communist China, despite its earlier promises, to militarise the South China Sea. Obama’s softly-softly approach on the subject, which involved stopping all so-called freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs), only emboldened Xi’s ‘China Dream’ for the twenty-first century.

Today, as a consequence of the People’s Republic of China’s imperialist-Leninism, we are witnessing the emergence of what could be described as a ‘NATO of the south’. It is as if President Trump’s insistence on resuming FONOPs in the South China Sea, not to mention his America First pugnaciousness, has given Japan the will to stand up to China’s bullying and defend its own geopolitical interests. The ‘normalisation’ of Japan’s defence forces proceeds apace.

China’s inability to share the South China Sea is not unlike its treatment of India and Bhutan on the Tibetan Plateau. On the night of 15 June, the People’s Liberation Army killed twenty Indian border guards high up in the Himalayas, some Indians bludgeoned to death, others pushed off a narrow ridge into the deep ravine below. Prime Minister Narendra Modi, as with Manmohan Singh before him, had prioritised close relations with the PRC. Now New Delhi is likely to invite Australia, over Beijing’s longstanding objections, to join the US, Japan and India in this year’s Malabar maritime wargames.

Disingenuously, perhaps, India has in the past been suspicious of Australia’s pro-China leanings. Suddenly it is our ally in a new Cold War.

China’s heavy-handed intervention in the South Pacific, not to mention its hysterical response to Canberra’s request for an independent inquiry into Covid-19, has challenged the credibility of high-profile China apologists such as Paul Keating and Kevin Rudd. They, in response, will ask the old Cold War question ‘Who lost China?’

The answer back then, as the answer remains, is Chiang Kai-shek. The entire world, not least Tibetans, Uyghurs and now Hongkongers, has been paying the price for the Generalissimo’s defeat at the hands of communist totalitarianism ever since. It is ironic, therefore, that we might look to Chiang’s one-time bolthole, Taiwan, as a model for safeguarding our national sovereignty. Clive Hamilton’s Silent Invasion becomes more prescient by the day.

The original Cold War forged the most unlikely of alliances. The same appears to be holding true for Cold War 2. Consider, for instance, the establishment of formal relations between the United Arab Emirates and Israel announced on 13 August. The Abraham Accord might appear to be unrelated to the PRC, and yet driving the two disparate countries together is not only a mutual fear of Iran but Xi Jinping’s recent Sino-Iran Deal.

China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) purports to support the international liberal order but that is so only when it suits. Beijing’s engagement with Tehran is intended not only to guarantee vast supplies of discounted petroleum for the socialist motherland in return for investing in Tehran’s neglected economic infrastructure. As with the South China Sea and the Tibetan Plateau, communist China also wants geopolitical leverage: in this case over the Straits of Hormuz, the critical waterway shared by the UAE.

President Xi’s BRI has, in other words, intruded into a foreign civil war by allying the PRC with the primary state sponsor of terrorism in the region. Critics of Trump’s decision to pull out of Obama’s Iran Nuclear Deal argue this has opened the way for the PRC to play a more pro-active role in the Middle East. There is truth in this, especially since the $150 billion Tehran received in lieu of signing the 2015 Iran Deal has been squandered. However, Xi Jinping blundering into a Middle East showdown does not make the projection of American power any less relevant. On the contrary, the necessity of Israel and the Arab Sunni world participating in a cohesive counter-alliance – in the form of a reconstituted Pax Americana – becomes an imperative.

President Xi, in his unrelenting pursuit of global hegemony, has now identified China as a near-Arctic state. Will the pattern of his adventurism prompting a counteraction be repeated in the Arctic region? Significantly, a number of Nato members adjoin the Arctic expanse. Notables in America’s trans-Atlantic alliance are already focusing on China’s threat to the security of this remote region. We can almost count on Xi Jinping’s ‘near-Arctic state’ breathing new life into Nato, formerly regarded as a relic of an earlier Cold War.

The trajectory of Russia, a superpower in Cold War 1 but a superpower no longer, remains something of an unknown. Vladimir Putin, not unlike Xi Jinping, is rated by many as a strategic mastermind, although the evidence does not necessarily point in that direction. The Russia Space Agency recently announced a ‘Russia-China Lunar Pact’ to establish a joint Moon base. There is also talk of Chinese-Russian co-operation in the Arctic. Putin seems to be re-positioning Moscow as Beijing’s junior partner in a reversal of their Cold War 1 roles. How will that sit with Russian nationalist sentiment which Putin has hitherto manipulated to his advantage? How will it sit with Washington?

We are often reminded that Napoleon described China as a ‘sleeping giant’ and that it would be best to let it sleep ‘for when he awakes, he will shake the world’. Today, certainly, Beijing seems to be playing a giant’s role in almost every region in the world including South America and Africa, the latter even being termed ‘China’s other continent’. Perhaps, to turn the notion of ‘China’s century’ on its head, it is Xi Jinping who has awoken the ‘sleeping giant’ in the form of Trump’s America.

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