Commentary on Political Economy

Sunday, 9 January 2022

PAUL MONK on China

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Scott Morrison attend a video signing ceremony of the bilateral reciprocal access agreement. Picture: AFP

Japan's Prime Minister Fumio Kishida and Scott Morrison attend a video signing ceremony of the bilateral reciprocal access agreement. Picture: AFP

11:00PM JANUARY 7, 202250






Our newly formed Reciprocal Access Agreement with Japan is one more step in the emergence of Indo-Pacific and global resistance to the transparent imperialism of Xi Jinping’s China.

“For the better part of the last 30 years,” Princeton University politics and international affairs professor Aaron Friedberg writes in the preface to his forthcoming book, Getting China Wrong, “the democracies have gotten China wrong. They can no longer afford that luxury.”

This country has been at the forefront of the awakening by the democracies. For several years we have been pushing back against Xi’s overweening ambitions. That pushback, in concert with other democratic states, has just begun. The moment is epochal.

So deeply entrenched were expectations that China’s rapid growth in prosperity and integration with global markets would bring about liberalisation there that it has taken a long time for the democracies to change their policy settings to accord with the disturbing realities. The cautious formation of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, the recent creation of the AUKUS security pact and now the Reciprocal Access Agreement are all moves prompted by those realities. They won’t be the last such moves.

“History,” US Naval War College history and grand strategy professor Sarah Paine wrote in her brilliant 2012 study, The Wars for Asia 1911-1949, “is the study of choices, not of immutable fate.”

Around the Indo-Pacific and across the wider world now, many of the substantial states are making carefully calibrated choices to counter the assertion of power by Beijing. Our strengthened alignment with Japan is a crucial part of this set of developments. It is a case study in realist statecraft: the states around China’s periphery moving to counter its unambiguously imperial aspirations.

The most urgent question, as Friedberg insists, is whether we are moving fast enough or at least cohesively enough to give Beijing pause.

There remain many fatalists who insist that China’s rise is inevitable and we would be best advised to stand aside from any Sino-American contest for supremacy. One might have hoped that by now Xi’s behaviour would have convinced them the democracies must hang together in resisting China’s ambitions or hang separately.

This is a time for choices and ours cannot be to bow to the sway of the regime in Beijing.

It is a little more than 80 years since the Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor (December 7, 1941) and just under 80 years since the battles of the Coral Sea and Midway (early May and early June 1942, respectively) brought a halt to Japanese advances in the Pacific. From that point, American military-industrial supremacy overwhelmed Japan. From 1945, the Pacific – and indeed the wider Indo-Pacific – became American lakes. It is that hegemony that is now under challenge from China.

It is of the greatest significance, therefore, that Japan is closely aligned with US hegemony and not with China’s challenge to it. Had China been adjusting to international norms and liberalising its politics, the situation might have been different.

Likewise in our own case. Despite our deep economic complementarities with China, a shift from US to Chinese hegemony, given how China is ruled, would be disadvantageous to our enduring interests and deeply disruptive of the international regime under which Australia has long flourished. That is why we are moving to resist it.

There are other Asian states uneasy about China’s ambitions, but Australia and Japan are pivotal parts of the American maritime security regime that China is challenging. Each country has welcomed the rise of China as destination for exports and a source of cheaper manufactured goods. Neither, however, has anything to gain from China displacing the American primacy that has kept the peace for so long. Above all, neither can work readily with the extreme form of neo-authoritarianism dominant in China. That’s the nub of the problem.

And much hinges on naval power. China is a continental power bidding to become, for the first time in 600 years, a serious naval power. The US, Japan and Australia, though two of them are continental states in their own right, are primarily naval powers.

As Francis Bacon wrote four centuries ago, “He that commands the sea is at great liberty and may take as much and as little of the war as he will. Whereas those that be strongest by land are many times in great straits.”

China seeks not merely maritime security but also naval primacy. This threatens to unsettle profoundly the security and liberties of the rest of us. Xi has made plain that is precisely his intention. The notorious 14 grievances presented to the Morrison government in late 2020, along with the punitive trade sanctions imposed on us for purely geopolitical reasons, have made clear what we are up against.

The rise to power of Xi is as troubling in the present circumstances as the rise of fascist regimes in the Axis states in the 1930s, including Japan. China’s ambitions will not readily be abandoned while Xi is in power and cannot be checked by means of quiet bilateral negotiations between Beijing and any one of the rest of us.

Moreover, there is a clear danger that he will seek to force one or more issues by kinetic (violent) means in the near future. We are scrambling to pull together the means to meet such contingencies.

Taiwan is the single biggest concern. It was taken from the Qing Empire in 1895 by Japan and ruled by it for 50 years, before being handed to the Republic of China (without the consent of its own people) in 1945. Its subsequent successful economic development was closely linked to the post-war resurrection of Japan within the American world order. Had China been liberalising, it is conceivable that Taiwan might have been attracted to some form of federation with it. There is no attraction to the China being shaped by Xi, and his coercive subjugation of Taiwan, however it was effected, would be a deeply regressive development for all concerned.

That’s why we – Canberra, Tokyo, Washington – are all concerned.

Paul Monk was at one time head of the China desk in the Defence Intelligence Organisation. He is the author of Thunder From the Silent Zone: Rethinking China (2005) and Dictators and Dangerous Ideas (2018), among many other books.

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