Papua New Guinea Prime Minister James Marape is visiting Australia this week, his first overseas trip since he was elevated to that office in June this year. And it’s the first time Scott Morrison has hosted an international leader in Australia since he was re-elected as prime minister in May.
This week’s visit has been positioned as the first of what will be an annual meeting between the leaders. It indicates a stepped up relationship, one that adds to Morrison’s growing focus on building personal relationships throughout the region: in Vanuatu, Fiji and Solomon Islands.
There are many things the two leaders have to discuss, from a naval base development to asylum seekers on Manus Island. But on arrival, Marape was clear that he did not plan to discuss his country’s relationship with China.
Marape restated PNG’s overall position on foreign policy: that of being “friends to all and enemies to none”. But that didn’t prevent the Australian media asking Marape questions about China during a joint press conference on Monday.
One journalist asked if Marape was concerned about potential governance problems associated with increased Chinese investment in his country. His response could not have been more straightforward:
Every businessman and woman is welcome in our country, and the Chinese investors will not receive any special treatment and preference, just like Australian investors will not receive any special favour or treatment.
Many in the Australian media and policy community would like to know much more about the relationship between PNG and China, as they wonder how it will affect Australia’s influence with their nearest neighbour.
As we have seen elsewhere in the region, the relationship between PNG and China has become more developed in recent years.
Under the previous PNG prime minister, Peter O’Neill, PNG became the second Pacific Islands nation to sign on to the Belt and Road Initiative in June 2018.
O’Neill participated in the Belt and Road Initiate Forum earlier this year, and indicated that he foresaw PNG becoming even more involved in projects for the global infrastructure and trade strategy.
O’Neill resigned in May, and it’s yet to be seen whether Marape will participate in projects for Belt and Road Initiative.
In any case, one thing Marape has made very clear during this visit to Australia is that he’s looking for opportunities to diversify the PNG economy beyond the resources sector. He is particularly focused on growing the agricultural sector, which will require additional investment in infrastructure to supply domestic and export markets adequately.
It’s not always easy to determine the extent of Chinese aid, investment and loans to countries like PNG. But Sarah O’Dowd, an Australian National University researcher, has calculated that at the end of 2018, PNG owed approximate A$588 million in external debt to China. This represented 23.7% of the total external debt.
Australia provides the largest amount of aid and investment into PNG in the world. But the perception in Canberra remains that Australia’s influence in its nearest neighbour is being diluted, and that this needs to be addressed for strategic purposes.
Given the nature and importance of the relationship between Australia and PNG, it’s not surprising this bilateral meeting has been prioritised ahead of next month’s Pacific Islands Forum meeting in Tuvalu. Their meeting allows for Morrison and Marape spend some time getting to know each other before they meet with a larger group of Pacific leaders.
Of the various announcements made on Monday, not much was new. There was a dollar commitment (A$250 million) to last year’s joint announcement by PNG, Australia, New Zealand, the USA and Japan to bring electricity to 70% of Papua New Guinean people by 2030.
There was a passing reference to the joint redevelopment of the Lombrum naval base on Manus island by PNG, Australia and the USA, also announced last year at the APEC meeting held in Port Moresby.
It’s significant that the PNG delegation includes Charlie Benjamin, who is governor of the Manus province. He has already expressed strong reservations about this proposed redevelopment of the naval base. And he is not alone, with other commentators noting that such a development doesn’t necessarily sit well with PNG’s non-aligned status.
The development also provoked criticism from Beijing, which had apparently been seeking an agreement from the PNG government to develop the site.
Benjamin has a powerful voice, and he made good use of it during his own impromptu press conference on Monday.
He used the opportunity to hammer home what has been the biggest thrust of the PNG message to Australia during the visit so far: the ongoing presence of asylum seekers and refugees on Manus and elsewhere in PNG.
Benjamin has made it clear that the time has come for Australia to “step up” and resettle the refugees in his province to another country.
While Marape may feel he has secured some sort of commitment from Morrison to establish a timetable for bringing this bit of the “Pacific Solution” to an end, the lack of detail about what that timetable is may prove a tricky sell back home.
Two Australian universities, University of Technology Sydney and Curtin University, are conducting internal reviews of their funding and research approval procedures after Four Corners’ revealed their links to researchers whose work has materially assisted China’s human rights abuses against the Uyghur minority in Xinjiang province.
UTS, in particular, is in the spotlight because of a major research collaboration with CETC, the Chinese state-owned military research conglomerate. In a response to Four Corners, UTS expressed dismay at the allegations of human rights violations in Xinjiang, which were raised in a Human Rights Watch report earlier this year.
Yet, UTS has been aware of concerns about its collaboration with CETC for two years. When I met with two of the university’s deputy vice chancellors in 2017 to ask them about their work with CETC, they dismissed the concerns.
According to a report for the Jamestown Foundation, CETC openly declares that its purpose is “leveraging civilian electronics for the gain of the PLA (People’s Liberation Army).” Similar concerns had been raised about CETC’s military links and its work with the CSIRO.
Alex Joske, now an analyst with the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, and I had also uncovered a pattern of widespread research collaborations between academics at Australian universities and Chinese scientists and corporations connected to China’s armed forces and security services.
Along with UTS, ANU and UNSW are the most heavily invested. Some of the collaborations have been partly funded by the Australian Research Council. Some of our research was published in June and October 2017.
Some universities challenged over their associations have reacted defensively. Responding to a story questioning the wisdom of UNSW’s huge commitment to a China-funded “Torch Technology Park”, DVC Brian Boyle dismissed the evidence and suggested the criticisms were motivated by xenophobia.
When UTS teamed up with CETC in 2016 to collaborate on research projects worth A$10 million in its CETC Research Institute on Smart Cities, CETC was already working with the Chinese state to improve the world’s most comprehensive and oppressive system of surveillance and control of its citizens.
CETC is upfront about its Smart Cities work, saying it includes “public security early warning preventative and supervisory abilities” and “cyberspace control abilities.” A report by the official Xinhua news agency in 2016 noted that CETC’s work on smart cities “integrates and connects civilian-military dual-use technologies.”
When asked about their collaborations with Chinese experts in military and security technology, universities have typically responded that all of their research proposals comply with the Defence Trade Controls Act, which restricts the export of technologies, including IP, deemed sensitive.
They were able to tick the right boxes on the relevant forms because it was possible to describe the planned research as “civilian.” But even well-informed amateurs know that the traditional distinction between civilian and military research no longer applies because major civilian technologies, like big data, satellite navigation and facial recognition technology, are used in modern weapons systems and citizen surveillance.
At the urging of President Xi Jinping, China’s government has been rapidly implementing a policy of “civilian-military fusion.”
UNSW scientists have collaborated with experts from the National University of Defence Technology (NUDT), a top military research centre, on China’s Beidou satellite system, which has many civilian as well as military uses, including tracking the movements of people and guiding missiles.
Joske found that some two dozen NUDT-linked researchers have passed through UNSW as visiting scholars or PhD students in the last decade. A further 14 have passed through ANU. Some have backgrounds working on classified Chinese defence projects.
Having visited and studied at Australian institutions, these researchers, who hold rank in the People’s Liberation Army, return to China with deep international networks, advanced training, and access to research that is yet to be classified. In many cases, a clear connection can be drawn between the work that PLA personnel have done in Australia and specific projects they undertake for the Chinese military.
The same can be said for companies like CETC that take research output from Australian researchers and apply it to the security and surveillance technology used across China.
“Orwellian” seems inadequate for the types of surveillance and security technologies being implemented in China. Facial recognition scanners have even been set up in toilets to allocate the proper amount of toilet paper. The state tells you whether you can wipe your backside.
Some universities pass the buck by saying that the department of immigration is responsible for any security concerns when assessing visa applications for researchers. (Now the authorities are doing more checks, but the universities are grumbling because visas for Chinese scientists are taking too long.)
The universities’ refusal to accept any responsibility tells us there is a cultural problem. Most university executives believe that international scientific collaboration is a pure public good because it contributes to the betterment of humankind — and, of course, the bottom line.
So asking them more carefully to assess and rule out some kinds of research goes against the grain.
All of this suggests that the system is broken. The fact remains that Chinese military scientists and researchers at companies like CETC have been returning to China with improved knowledge of how to build better weapons and more Orwellian surveillance systems.
American universities are now alive to the problem by looking much more closely at the China links of scientists working in the US. So, in April 2018, it was reassuring to see the Australian minister of defence, Marise Payne, commission an inquiry into the effectiveness of the defence trade controls regime.
However, when it came time, the report failed to recognise Australia’s new security environment, especially the risks posed by China’s aggressive program of acquiring technology from abroad. It accepted the university view that the system is working fine and, apart from a few recommended adjustments to the existing Defence Trade Controls Act, kicked the can down the road.
In short, defence and security organisations, who can see how the world has changed, lost out to those who benefit from an open international research environment, one that has been heavily exploited by Beijing for its own benefit.
In the US, federal science funding authorities have been sending the message that continued funding will be contingent on universities applying more due diligence to the national security impacts of their overseas research collaborations. We can expect to see something similar in Australia.
By 2017, 58% of Chinese people were living in cities. This is much less than the 79% for Western Europe and 86% for Australia, but China is undergoing very rapid urbanisation, as the chart below shows. It is expected 70% of China’s population will be living in cities between 2035 and 2045.
In response to these trends, the Chinese government released a national urbanisation plan (2014-2020), with a focus on the quality of Chinese urbanisation and public spaces. So the policymakers’ concern is not solely with the economic development of China’s cities but also a healthier built environment and increased well-being for its citizens.
In addition to growing population pressures, Chinese cities face battles with pollution and climate change. Furthermore, China is now the third-most-visited country, behind France and the United States. No doubt the country’s growing tourism industry is
an important driver for developing better cities.
The rise of private public partnership projects and growing private interests in China’s built environment also call for a fresh look at urban design. Connecting urban planning and architecture, public spaces and private buildings, metropolitan scale and street scale, urban design can help to balance private interests and public needs while developing urban areas.
If those challenges are quite recent for China, they have been experienced, tested and theorised in Western countries for the past two centuries. Thus there might be an interest in learning from Western urban design principles, both to draw inspiration from the good practices and to avoid repeating the mistakes.
Some major Chinese cities such as Guangzhou and Shanghai have recently created their own urban design guidelines. However, many Chinese cities don’t have any.
In Australia the situation is quite different. Urban design theory and practices are well grounded. More than 20 guidelines have been published since the 2000s at all levels of government.
The diversity of Australian guidelines means that urban design research is very active and responsive to the evolution of technologies, lifestyles and expectations. Also, the outcomes are often considered successful – Australian cities usually do well in rankings of urban quality of life. For example, Melbourne, Adelaide and Sydney are consistently ranked in the top ten of the Global Liveability Index.
Good examples of urban design are also acknowledged in Australia – for example, through the annual Australian Urban Design Awards. The recognition of best practices and fostering of healthy competition create a rich urban design culture.
Dalian is a good example of an emerging city in China. Its location between the sea and the mountains and its rich colonial heritage make it a major tourist destination. Nevertheless, the experience of Dalian’s urban spaces could be improved in many ways.
Firstly, one of the main goals of urban design is to provide adequate public facilities such as pedestrian pathways, sitting areas and public toilets. In Dalian, an increase in such facilities could encourage the city’s residents to make more use of the public space. Similarly, shaded areas and water fountains could make public spaces more liveable, no matter the hour of the day or the weather.
Secondly, installing such facilities is not enough on its own to make the city engaging and attractive. Dalian’s urban spaces are quite monochromatic and a more vibrant cityscape could improve the overall ambience of the city. One way to achieve this would be through the use of different colours, textures and materials to define spatial difference between private and public space, and create new pedestrian experiences.
Lastly, the main purpose of designing the look and feel of a city is to engage people with their surroundings. The urban space not only has to cater for all types of people and their needs, but also to provide safe socialising opportunities.
In Dalian, providing more playgrounds, for example, could enhance these interactions. All the benefits of good urban design come together in a safe urban space where all types of people can meet, exchange and feel comfortable.
While Australia’s urban design principles are considerably more advanced, its cities face similar challenges to those in China.
For example, Australia is still grappling with the relationship between people and their urban space. Most Australian cities are car-dominated, going against contemporary understanding of a healthy, sustainable and liveable city.
Car use is dramatically affecting the urban fabric of Chinese and Australian cities. In particular, it has impacts on the experience of pedestrians. The wide streets are difficult to cross, footpaths are often sacrificed for the benefit of the car, and cyclists’ safety is compromised. Good urban design would definitely strive towards a more people-based city model.
Another common challenge is climate change. Both Australian and Chinese cities must deal with rising temperatures. The positive impact urban design can have to moderate urban temperatures is now widely recognised. Major Australian cities have now developed guidelines on measures to counter heat, while China is actively working on the issue.
But in one area, the battle to reduce carbon footprints, Chinese cities lead the way. The Chinese government has also developed a substantial green policy. So, while Chinese cities could certainly learn from Australia, the converse seems equally true.
Lucile Jacquot, Research fellow, Griffith University; Karine Dupré, Associate Professor in Architecture, Griffith University, and Yang Liu, PhD Candidate. School of Engineering and Built Environment, Architecture & Design, Griffith University
As China grows more powerful and influential, our New Superpower series looks at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened. Read the rest of the series here.
One of the earliest guests I had on The Little Red Podcast, the podcast I co-host with former China correspondent Louisa Lim, said something that stuck with me about the view of China in the rest of the world. John Fitzgerald, a well-known historian of China’s diaspora, confidently declared that the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) “couldn’t care less” about what non-Chinese Australians thought of it and its actions.
Looking through the results of the recent Lowy Institute Poll on Australians’ attitudes toward China, this is probably a good thing for the party.
The Australian public’s confidence in China’s ability to act as a responsible power has fallen off a cliff. In just one year, it dropped from more than half of Australians to just 32%. That’s a dire number.
That wasn’t the only surprise in the poll. Four-fifths of respondents agreed with the proposition “China’s infrastructure investment projects across Asia are part of China’s plans for regional domination”, and 73% believed Australia should try to prevent China from expanding its influence in the Pacific.
The poll was released in late June, at a time when China’s image was taking a hit internationally. Millions of people took to the streets in Hong Kong to protest a now-defeated extradition bill that could have seen Hong Kong residents sent to China on suspicion of crimes.
Then came news in Australia that the wife of an Australian writer who has been detained since January was herself interrogated by Chinese officials and blocked from leaving the country.
Even for a country that purportedly doesn’t care what the rest of the world thinks, trust is hard to come by these days.
It’s not entirely clear why so many Australians now distrust the Chinese state to the point where they believe our government should actively counter it (although perhaps not go to war with it).
There’s little evidence to suggest that one issue alone has caused this sharp decline in trust. For instance, the Communist Party’s most egregious recent violation of human rights, the detention of up to 1.5 million Uyghurs simply for being, well, Uyghurs has touched relatively few Australians.
Nor has the Australian government felt the need to act – it has said little on the matter.
Rather, the decline in trust seems to be the result of an accumulation of negative news on China — some well-informed, some half-baked (such as the 60 Minutes expose on a Chinese “military base” in Vanuatu). And for some, it’s based on personal experiences.
Last month, for instance, Australian National University revealed a massive data breach in the school’s computer system, including tax file numbers, bank accounts and passport details. The sophistication of the attack, which came after multiple attempts, meant there was only possible one suspect, according to senior intelligence officials: China.
Stealing people’s bank details might be profitable for the hacking team, but it doesn’t win hearts and minds for the Chinese state. Actions like this do more to damage China’s image than the words of noted China critics Clive Hamilton and Clive Palmer.
This sort of intimidation has been on the rise under Xi’s leadership in recent years. Academics who are critical of China now expect to be targeted by the CCP.
A podcast like mine, banned in China, doesn’t help. In the wake of an episode about China’s real-time censorship of its own historical record, I was hit by a denial-of-service attack that our university’s IT service struggled to fix. I gave up doing research inside China a while ago, after it became clear that my former colleagues and friends in rural China were increasingly at risk.
Even colleagues who have signed petitions calling on the Australian government take an evidence-based approach to China policy have been warned off continuing their in-country research by their Chinese research partners, ending collaborations which often stretched back decades.
To the outside world, this obsession with control looks like weakness rather than strength. A sanitised image of life inside China will do nothing to build trust in China as a responsible power.
So how does China go about winning back a 20-point drop in trust?
To answer this question, I have to borrow a famous line from the film, The Princess Bride:
You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.
When it comes to the concept of soft power, the Chinese state misses the basic point that it doesn’t work particularly well. Money can’t buy you love, or in Joseph Nye’s terms, if your ideology and your culture have no appeal, cash won’t fix that.
Yet, the Communist Party is now a firm believer in soft power, built around its confidence that China’s ancient culture can return it to its legitimate status as the preeminent civilisation in the world. This confidence may be misplaced, as anyone who sat through the ponderous, state-backed, blockbuster film The Great Wall can testify.
To date, the target of China’s soft power push appears to be a largely Chinese audience. The purpose of its designated soft power tools, from Confucius Institutes to the English-language news service CGTN, is to impress on both the domestic constituency and Chinese communities abroad that China now looks and acts like a rejuvenated great power.
This officially approved cultural soft power package might not sell to non-Chinese audiences in Australia or, well, anywhere. But China has recently been trying another tactic – economic soft power. This is specifically aimed at the developing world: China positions itself as a nation that overcame colonial oppression to emerge from grinding poverty and become an economic powerhouse.
Under former President Hu Jintao, the party tiptoed away from the notion that China would pursue a “peaceful rise”, because they worried the word “rise” sounded threatening, even preceded by “peaceful.”
Now, under Xi’s watch, there is a new catchphrase to describe China’s rise. Anchors on CGTN happily ask European and African interlocutors about the merits of “the China model” for economic development, in which the state acts as chess master, guiding the economy and society at every turn.
Some nations are buying into this. Last weekend, a taskforce of Solomon Islands MPs and bureaucrats presented their recommendation to parliament over whether to switch diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to China. While many Solomon Islanders, including Prime Minister Manasseh Sogavare, are reluctant to switch, the country’s close economic ties with China make such a move feel inevitable.
A Chinese development model that promises an escape from poverty has appeal across the Pacific – and beyond.
Whether Beijing is able to turn around this trust problem depends, in part, on how much China begins to trust itself in the rest of the world.
Forthcoming research my ANU colleagues and I are conducting with Hong Kong-based researchers examines attempts by Chinese state actors to influence the 2019 Australian federal election.
Preliminary results indicate that the Communist Party didn’t give a hoot which party won. The goal of Chinese propaganda during the election, rather, was to create a sense of distrust among Australian-Chinese communities by depicting Australia as a racist, unwelcoming place.
We should be mindful of attempts by elements of the Communist Party to influence our political processes. Yet it’s crucial to remember the CCP targets many groups in Australia, including private businesses run by former Chinese citizens, religious groups and student organisations, not because they are all loyal party stooges, but because the party does not trust them.
The challenge for China, if it wants to be trusted by the rest of the world, is how to move beyond Mao Zedong’s famous dictum:
Who are our enemies? Who are our friends? This is a question of the utmost importance for the revolution.
This thinking should have no place in a globalised world, but in CCP circles, it’s back in vogue.
The challenge for Australia’s leaders is to recognise China’s current political reality, but not be drawn into the same binary, simplistic thinking. There’s enough of that going around.
As China grows more powerful and influential, we’re publishing a series, The New Superpower, looking at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened.
Chinese leader Xi Jinping took power as head of the Chinese Communist Party – the most important position in China – in late 2012. Today, nearly seven years on, he is one of the most recognisable figures on the world stage.
Yet, while he already commands the destiny of some 1.4 billion Chinese people, and seeks to shape, in his words, “a common future for mankind”, he remains an enigmatic leader.
In a short period of time, Xi has concentrated power to himself and established a remarkably influential role, nearly unprecedented among Chinese leaders since 1949.
Yet, while he is certainly powerful, he is also vulnerable. He faces massive challenges on the grandest of scales: a simmering trade war with the US, slowing economic growth, increasing concern among China’s neighbours about his more assertive use of the country’s economic and military might.
Given these enormous internal and external challenges, the biggest question for Xi is how he will maintain his absolute grip on power and legitimacy in the eyes of the Chinese people.
He has promised them a better life in a stronger and more prosperous China. And he has gone a long way to deliver on those promises. But many challenges loom ahead.
This year, the People’s Republic of China turns 70. And Xi, its paramount leader, turned 66 last month. No other Chinese leader’s life so closely parallels the life of the PRC – and that explains a lot about Xi’s mindset and his ambitions for China.
As the son of a vice premier and revolutionary hero, Xi was born into great privilege in June 1953. He was considered a “princeling”, the term for the children of the country’s most powerful elites. In his youth, he attended the August 1st School for the children of high-ranking cadres in Beijing and spent time inside the walls of Zhongnanhai, the seat of Communist Party power. He was destined for leadership.
All of this came crashing down in 1962 when Mao Zedong purged Xi’s father from the party, accusing him of harbouring dangerous “rightist” views.
When the Cultural Revolution descended on China in the late 1960s, the younger Xi was sent to the countryside. He spent seven formative years – from age 15 to 22 – in rural Shaanxi province, working with the local peasantry.
By 1979, when Deng Xiaoping launched China on its historic reform drive, Xi embarked on his own fast track to the top. Over the next 30 years, he ascended through party and government ranks, serving in increasingly senior postings, mostly in the rapidly growing eastern provinces of China.
In early 2007, he became the party chief of Shanghai, but was only in that post for seven months before he was elevated to the Politburo Standing Committee, making him one of the nine most powerful men in China. Five years later, he was installed as general secretary of the Chinese Communist Party and, the following year, became China’s president.
In those 60 years, Xi experienced China’s own coming of age, from its early struggles with nation-building, to the depths of Maoist excess, to its spectacular rise to great power status.
This life experience has made him what he is today: a confident risk-taker who remains insistent on the communist party’s indispensable role in the country’s success and tenaciously focused on achieving China’s expansive national ambitions.
Once in power, Xi moved to solidify his position. He saw weakness at the heart of the party, owing to lax ideological discipline and pervasive corruption. And so he launched attacks on both.
Much of his early popularity among the Chinese public came from his high-profile anti-corruption drive targeting the country’s elites. This campaign not only sent fear across ranks of the party and the People’s Liberation Army (PLA), it also helped Xi remove rivals and roadblocks to his grand plans for national revival.
Xi’s supporters also made powerful use of the party’s propaganda machinery to create an aura of wisdom and benevolence around Xi – one not seen since the days of the “Great Helmsman”, Chairman Mao.
And Xi set out visionary goals centred around the “Chinese Dream” and the “great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation”, which tapped into a deep reservoir of national pride and further solidified his popularity.
By 2015, he was able to launch a massive reorganisation of the PLA to transform it from a bloated, corrupt, untested and inward-looking military to one far more capable of projecting China’s power abroad and far more loyal to Xi and the party.
At the same time, he has also overseen the most sweeping crackdown on dissent since the Tiananmen protests in 1989, introducing all manner of surveillance, censorship, and other intrusions into people’s lives to ensure order and obedience to the party’s authority.
He also centralised decision-making authority ever closer to himself, eclipsing the authority of Premier Li Keqiang. Xi is now in charge of nearly all the key bodies overseeing economic reform, foreign affairs, internal security, innovation and technology, and more.
And, just to be sure everyone understands who is boss, Xi orchestrated the inclusion of “Xi Jinping Thought” into the party’s constitution to guide the country into a “new era” of national rejuvenation. He also saw to the removal of term limits on his presidency, in effect allowing him to stay in power for life.
Xi has been equally bold as a leader on the international stage, setting out an extremely ambitious foreign policy agenda.
His record includes launching the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank, asserting Chinese claims in the South China Sea via massive land reclamation projects and an expanding military footprint, and, boldest of all, the Belt and Road Initiative, a geopolitical play connecting China through trade, investment and infrastructure across Eurasia and beyond.
It would seem Xi has had a remarkable run. But, strangely, his actions make it appear otherwise. A quick checklist of Xi’s moves in the past seven years suggests an increasingly nervous leader:
He surely has much to worry about. His reforms and crackdowns have created many enemies and much disgruntlement, especially among elites. Income disparity has grown as wealth has become concentrated in fewer hands. The pace of China’s economic growth is slowing. Localised unrest is common.
Analysts say much bolder economic reform is needed to avoid the stagnation of the “middle income trap.” China is also facing a perilous demographic future as the population ages and people have fewer children. And Xi’s ambitions at home and abroad are increasingly being met with push-back – not least from the United States – leading some in China to question whether he has over-reached.
But the biggest challenge is how to continue maintaining economic growth and social stability without losing the party’s absolute political control. It’s the same challenge every Chinese leader since Deng has faced.
Embarking on political and economic reforms would help ensure a more prosperous, stable and just future for the country. But doing so would surely undercut the one-party rule of the communist party.
On the other hand, foregoing these changes in favour of tighter control risks future stagnation and possibly instability.
Xi has chosen to double-down on the latter course. He clearly sees the party’s extensive system of ideology, propaganda, surveillance and control as absolutely necessary to achieving the Chinese Dream – the country’s re-emergence as a powerful, wealthy and respected great power.
From this perspective, we will likely see a continued tightening of the party’s grip on power for as long as Xi is in charge, which could well last into the late-2020s or beyond.
Whether or not the outside world ultimately respects Xi’s autocratic approach to power and leadership, he is convinced it is best for China and, by extension, benefits the world.
As China grows more powerful and influential, we’re publishing a series, The New Superpower, looking at what this means for the world – how China maintains its power, how it wields its power and how its power might be threatened.
Visiting Wellington in April 1996, I fell into conversation with a very wise and experienced New Zealand government official. We talked about the still-unfolding Taiwan Straits crisis, during which Washington had deployed a formidable array of naval power, including two aircraft carrier battle groups, to the waters around Taiwan. The aim was to compel China to abandon a series of missile firings near Taiwan intended to intimidate voters in forthcoming presidential elections.
In this, the Americans had clearly been successful, but my Kiwi friend was worried.
Success has consequences, and the consequences here are plain: the Chinese will now do whatever it takes to make sure the Americans can never do that to them again.
That remark sparked one of the trains of thought which led to the arguments in my new book, How to Defend Australia.
His remark has been proved right. China has always had a formidable army, but only since 1996 has it begun to develop as a maritime power, as well. In that time, it has made massive and, it seems, very effective investments in the air and naval forces required to fight at sea.
Today, it is quite plainly the world’s second maritime power, behind only the United States. And it now threatens America’s maritime preponderance in the western Pacific, on which US strategic primacy in the region ultimately and absolutely depends.
This is a remarkable achievement in such a short time, with immense implications for the security of countries throughout the region, so it is important to be clear about how it has happened and what it means, including for our own defence.
This is especially important because China’s achievement has been largely misunderstood by traditional naval powers like America, Britain and Australia, whose approach to maritime strategy is markedly different from China’s.
When it comes to maritime strategy, traditional naval powers emphasise “sea control” and power projection. This means their maritime forces are designed primarily to defend major platforms like aircraft carriers and amphibious assault ships, with which they aim to project power against distant adversaries.
China’s primary strategic aim has been the opposite. It has developed its naval forces to prevent adversaries – particularly the United States – from projecting power against China the way the Americans did in 1996. This is what naval strategists call “sea denial”, which boils down simply to the capacity to find and sink the other side’s ships.
In doing this, the Chinese have had three big advantages:
First, they have been able to exploit inherent advantages of “sea denial” over “sea control”. Since the late 19th century, a whole range of systems, weapons and technologies – including radio, radar, aircraft, submarines, sea mines, torpedoes, guided missiles and space-based surveillance – have made it progressively easier to find and sink an adversary’s ships, and correspondingly harder to defend them.
Second, the Chinese were able to access an array of Soviet military technologies and develop them further as their own technological base expanded and deepened.
And third, they have had a lot of money to spend, without breaking the bank, thanks to their fast-growing economy.
As a result, Beijing is now well-placed to prevent America doing again what it did in 1996. A US naval carrier approaching Taiwan today would be at serious risk of attack from China’s formidable ships, aircraft and submarines, as well as from its notorious, carrier-killer, land-based ballistic missiles.
So much so, in fact, that Washington would now be very unlikely to risk such an operation.
This comes as a surprise to those who still believe that America’s military is unchallengeable.
Of course, it is still very powerful, with an unmatched capacity to deploy and sustain armed forces far from its own shores. But that doesn’t mean it can automatically defeat any adversary it faces, especially when that adversary enjoys the advantages of fighting on its home ground, as Russia would, for example, in a war over Ukraine or the Baltic states, or China would in east Asia.
And wiser heads in the US military establishment understand this all too well. The Pentagon’s recent Indo-Pacific strategy report concedes that China is “likely to enjoy a local military advantage at the onset of conflict” in east Asia.
In fact, that understates the problem. America has no credible military strategy to overcome China’s “early local advantages” to achieve the kind of swift, low-cost victory in a potential war at sea that everyone has taken for granted for so long.
The only serious attempt to develop such a strategy – the US military’s “Air Sea Battle Concept” – was abandoned soon after it was promulgated six years ago. The reality today is that America relies on the implicit threat of nuclear escalation, embodied in its refusal to rule out using nuclear weapons first, to compel China to concede victory when US conventional forces cannot.
And how credible is that threat when China can retaliate against any nuclear attack with a nuclear counter-strike?
This swift shift in Asia’s maritime strategic balance has profound implications for the region’s strategic future. It does not just undermine America’s ability to defend Taiwan from Chinese military pressure, it undermines the credibility of US security guarantees to all its allies in the western Pacific, including Australia.
And that, in turn, undermines the foundation of America’s strategic leadership in east Asia, and paves the way for China to take its place – just as China intends.
It is this major change in the regional military balance, along with China’s relative economic weight, which makes the rapid eclipse of the old US-led order in our region now so likely.
As this happens, however, China faces a new strategic challenge. Its cost-effective maritime denial strategy has been enough to undermine US regional primacy, but it will not be enough to take America’s place and establish dominance of its own in east Asia.
For that, it will need to be able to project its own military power across the vast expanse of the Asia-Pacific region. And that requires China to build its own carriers and amphibious forces – as it is now doing – and expand its capabilities to defend them from future potential adversaries.
This poses a whole new problem for China because now the boot is on the other foot. China has been able to leverage the inherent advantages of “sea denial” over “sea control” to counter US power projection in the region, but future adversaries can do the same to thwart China’s own power projection.
And that has very important implications for Australia’s future defence strategies.
The bad news is that we can no longer depend on America to ensure that a major power like China does not threaten us militarily in the decades ahead, or to defend us if one does. We must therefore explore – more seriously than we have ever done before – whether we can defend ourselves from a major Asian power.
It is a daunting task, but the good news, as I argue in my book, is that we can exploit the advantages of maritime denial over maritime control against China if it tries to project its power against us, or our close neighbours by sea.
By rigorously optimising our forces for a maritime denial strategy, we might be able to sustain an effective defence against a major power. That would come at a high price – much higher than we are paying for defence now – but it is a price we could afford if we decided the risks we face in Asia in the future were high enough to justify it.
Are they? That’s the big defence debate we need to have now.
Ahead of this weekend’s G20 meeting in Osaka, Australia’s Prime Minister Scott Morrison gave a speech that was pretty accurate in framing the problem facing his nation as trade tensions between the United States and China rise.
As Morrison put it:
The world’s most important bilateral relationship – the US-China relationship – is strained. Trade tensions have escalated. The collateral damage is spreading. The global trading system is under real pressure.
One might be tempted to characterise his speech, to use the Australian vernacular, as having a bob each way.
At one point, he seemed to be channelling former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders when he said:
It is now evident that the US believes that the rules-based trading system, in its current form, is not capable of dealing with China’s economic structure and policy practices. Many of these concerns are legitimate. Forced technology transfer is unfair. Intellectual property theft cannot be justified. Industrial subsidies are promoting overproduction.
At another point, he noted China’s importance for Australia:
We share a comprehensive strategic partnership and free-trade agreement with the People’s Republic of China, with a broad and deep relationship underpinned by people-to-people ties; evidenced by the fact we are home to 1.2 million ethnic Chinese and are host to 1.4 million Chinese visitors and 205,000 Chinese students each year.
What Morrison’s speech shows is that Australia is in a bind.
Both China and the US are indispensable economic partners for Australia.
The quarter of our exports going to China make it a crucial trading partner. Without China our best universities would be bankrupt.
But as I documented in a 2017 report for the United States Studies Centre, two-way investment between Australia and the US dwarfs that between Australia and China.
US investment constitutes more than a quarter of all foreign investment in Australia, and has done for decades. Its cumulative worth – now A$860 billion – is nearly double that of Britain and about ten times more than Chinese investment.
So Australia can’t afford to pick sides economically, or strategically.
Morrison pointed out that China’s rise has not been a “zero sum” game. Its economic gains have not all come at the expense of other nations, particularly the US.
What he seems to favour – and it makes sense – is to emphasise the importance of international institutions like the World Trade Organisation.
The challenge, of course, is that US President Donald Trump doesn’t like being constrained by international institutions any more than China. His presidency thus far has been characterised by moves away from mulitilateralism, to bilateral negotiations, where the US can better leverage its power to its own advantage.
Trump fancies himself a “deal guy”, not an “institutions and rules” person.
This isn’t just a challenge for Australia but for the whole G20.
As the noted economist Nouriel Roubini has pointed out, there are multiple scenarios where relations between the US and China end up in a very bad place, and not too many where they turn out well.
But so long as both countries remain engaged with international bodies like the G20, there is the possibility such forums can act as a kind of pressure-release valve on simmering tensions. Mutual friends like Australia have a chance to help keep the peace. Morrison’s admonition about China’s rise not being “zero sum”, for example, is no doubt a message for the American president.
In this sense Australia’s economic vulnerability might also be our strength.
We cannot afford for the US and China to end up in a “hot” economic war, and the current situation isn’t great either. As long as Australia has to essentially pick sides issue by issue, we will end up annoying both China and the US. Witness the Chinese reaction to Australia’s Huawei 5G ban.
So we have a vital interest in seeing them get along better, working with other nations within the G20 to nudge things toward a more acceptable outcome.
As Morrison himself said after his speech: “What choice do we have?”