Jan Harrison | China Fellow
In 1949, the same year that the People’s Republic of China was founded, the North Atlantic Treaty was signed by the founding members of NATO. The pact was, from its inception, designed to ensure a safe and prosperous Europe, free from the expansionary Soviets and their communist model. Yet more than 70 years later, NATO is tasked with engaging another communist regime on the opposite end of the Eurasian landmass in China—a global power with a record of modern expansionism that shows no sign of slowing down.
NATO leaders met earlier this week to discuss the pertinent security issues facing Europe and the North Atlantic, including a second wave of coronavirus as well as military resilience and deterrence within the region. This high-profile meeting comes just days after NATO Chief, Jens Stoltenberg, urged that the strategic alliance needs to form stronger ties with other open nations, such as Australia, in order to stand up to China’s increasing military presence and long-range nuclear capabilities. Whilst Mr. Stoltenberg was sure to keep a cool head and not label China as the enemy, it is increasingly difficult for China to evade criticism, particularly when they are a reprising actor in the most recent geopolitical tensions and military flashpoints.
The truth is that, as China’s presence in the global picture enlarges, the less room it has for error. Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, the political spotlight shines the brightest on China, and so far, it is unfortunately creating further instability and trepidation among world powers.
This recent spotlight has magnified the assertive nature of China’s foreign policy, everything from the militarisation of the South China Sea and implementation of security laws that bypass the Hong Kong judicial system, to the removal of Chinese Twitter accounts spreading disinformation and central party propaganda.
It appears China is sticking to its guns when it comes to leveraging political power and has thrown caution to the wind when it comes to maintaining diplomatic relations with other powers. The recent free-fall of Australia-China relations has bombarded Australian news outlets even as the coronavirus crisis continues to unfold across the globe. After a war of words between Beijing and Canberra that entangled Australian beef and barley exporters and the everyday Australian, China has unfortunately left a sour taste this side of the Pacific. If this spat wasn’t enough, China and India have more recently become embroiled in a borderland dispute that has left 20 Indian soldiers dead, with Chinese casualties yet to be officially released.
What is even more curious about China’s political agenda, and more importantly its strategic security decisions, is that it pursues these goals without the backing of strong, reliable and equal-footed security allies. It has only been until recently, through the ASEAN-China strategic partnership, that we have seen a multilateral security alliance that held Beijing in a central and commanding role.
Even then, the Southeast Asian nations have significant ties with the United States and other democratic powers in the Pacific such as Japan and Korea. At best, these member-states are leveraging their ambiguous political allegiances in the hope of benefitting economically through engagement with China and have little in the way of tangible military force.
China lacks a reliable, economically robust and militarily advanced ally. Its history with Russia, combined with Putin’s own self-serving interests and domestic issues, make for a very unlikely military coalition. Moreover, other regional powers, such as Pakistan or the ever-unstable Iran, are under the watchful eye of the international community and have little political maneuverability themselves.
A product of their own actions, China has put the international community on a higher alert than ever before. This has prompted traditionally close partners such as India and Australia, who have both been subject to China’s aggressive and unsteady foreign policy, to cement their bilateral understanding through a new comprehensive strategic partnership. Additionally, as has been the constant tone of his term in office, President Trump has called out Germany—a key member of NATO—to meet its promise of contributing two per cent of gross domestic product (GDP) to its defense program.
Although China claims that its growing presence among global powers is peaceful, its constant appearance and involvement in high-level diplomatic spats, border skirmishes, civilian riots, detainment of political personnel and disregard for the rule of law, scream of hypocrisy. This behaviour is starkly different to the cooperative and peaceful design of Chinese governance that was developed under the Deng Xiaoping era, which begs the question if China really is the pragmatic power it envisions itself as.
Whilst it always takes two to tango, China has antagonised various nations to the point where strategic associations such as the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, NATO and other bilateral security alliances are seeing a resurgence. This is undoubtedly not in the interest of the Chinese, and without an experienced and capable security ally to counter, it leaves them with no one to count on but themselves if tensions were to escalate even further.
Jan Harrison is the China Fellow for Young Australians in International Affairs.