In 2014, President Xi Jinping reached back into Chinese Communist Party folklore to reintroduce Mao Zedong’s concept of magic weapons that could be used to achieve the great rejuvenation of the country and achieve his “China Dream”. Xi was referring to the co-optation tactics of the CCP’s United Front network to win friends, influence governments and eliminate dissent inside China and in other countries.
In recent years the CCP has developed another magic weapon that complements its accumulation of material power. This is the success Beijing is having in shaping grand narratives in Australia and our region about China.
The genius is that these narratives condition us to accept Chinese policies meekly even if they are against our national interests.
The magic weapon is a narrative buttressed by five basic messages: Chinese dominance is the historical norm and is inevitable; the objectives of the CCP are permanent and unchanging; a CCP-led China is fundamentally undeterrable; the party is prepared to pay any price to achieve its core objectives; and the US is an increasingly weak and unreliable ally.
If we accept these propositions, the motivation for regional states to resist or counter even the most coercive policies is greatly diminished even if we profoundly disagree with China’s behaviour.
Striking an uneven bargain becomes seemingly preferable to foolishly balancing against the future inevitable dominant power.
Indeed, the message from Beijing underlying the cascading threats against Australia is that we would do better to make the best of this imminent Sino-centric future — as New Zealand apparently is doing — than fight against it. To the extent that any cold hand of friendship is offered, Australia and others ought to pocket the guaranteed largesse that comes from submissively accepting Beijing’s conditions or risk ending up with nothing.
The benefit of the narrative for Beijing is that once we accept the five basic messages as a given, then the only reasonable action is for others to compromise and alter their objectives if they seek to maximise gains, avoid instability and ultimately prevent war. The onus is then placed on the US and its allies such as Australia and Japan to soften their policies or accept blame for all that is troubling about China.
These narratives have played out beautifully for Beijing in the South China Sea, where the US is often cast as the provocateur when it is conducting freedom of navigation operations, even those that serve to reaffirm the principles and rights of international law and challenge Beijing’s militarisation of illegal land features.
Or consider criticisms that the Morrison government was foolish in taking the lead in calling for an investigation into the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic or, more recently, tearing up Victoria’s Belt and Road Initiative agreement under powers afforded by the foreign relations act on the basis that the memorandum of understanding ought to be allowed to lapse without controversy or fanfare.
On the merits of both actions by Canberra, one could put forward compelling arguments. Calling for an independent investigation into the deadliest and costliest non-kinetic disaster in 100 years to ensure it does not happen again is hardly overreach.
Neither is cancelling an agreement with Victoria that deliberately was used by the CCP to undermine the federal government’s legitimate authority over our external policy and that was used by Beijing to promote the BRI to other countries and provincial governments.
As far as Beijing is concerned, silence equals acquiescence. But many, having fallen for the magical power of Beijing’s narrative, have normalised and internalised the CCP’s ill intent and compulsion. It is this mindset that underpins criticisms that the Morrison government is mismanaging the relationship with China.
What about war over the future of Taiwan, something newly appointed Defence Minister Peter Dutton raised as a possibility last weekend? Whether Australia is involved if that terrible hypothetical comes to pass will depend on the circumstances and reasons for why conflict occurs. But it is incorrect and self-defeating to begin by assuming that Beijing cannot be deterred.
True, seizing Taiwan is a genuine core objective for the CCP. It would be prepared to pay a heavy price for meeting that objective.
But that is far removed from Xi or the regime being prepared to pay any price. Just as the CCP has based its strategy on identifying and acquiring the means to inflict prohibitive military, economic and political costs on the US and its allies, the latter countries are at the early stages of what it means to do the same to Beijing.
Our collective failure to think about and achieve that will loosen restraints on Beijing and increase the incentive for Beijing to use force. For this reason, the better prospect for peace is to pursue policies and acquire the means to persuade Beijing to recalculate and alter its current trajectory.
China and the CCP have weaknesses, vulnerabilities and dependencies that have been carefully and cleverly concealed to perpetuate the preferred narrative. We and others are engaged in a tense and fraught period of renegotiating the terms of our relationship with China. Getting it right means dealing sensibly with reality as it is, not as the CCP would have the rest of the world believe.
John Lee is an adjunct professor and non-resident senior fellow at the US Studies Centre at the University of Sydney and the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC. From 2016 to 2018 he was senior adviser to the Australian foreign minister.