With the US in turmoil, the world distracted by the pandemic mixed with China’s unbridled ambition, the next 10 months will be the most dangerous since World War II, a top Australian strategic analyst warns.
“The global economy may be in hibernation, but geopolitics is thriving and sprinting towards a potential crisis,” Australian Strategic Studies Institute executive director Peter Jennings said in April.
“The core of the security problem is the Chinese Communist Party’s drive to emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic strategically stronger in the Asia-Pacific than the US and its allies.”
Now he says his warning is rapidly panning out.
“Since then, Chinese military and rhetorical pressure has significantly increased against Taiwan, and we have seen the US intervene with strong language from Pompeo in effect warning Beijing off any adventurism,” Jennings told news.com.au this week.
China’s Communist Party Chairman-for-life Xi Jinping is done playing the world game.
Beijing’s coercive behaviour has increasingly devolved into hostage diplomacy.
International consensus has been set aside for unilateral action.
Trade has been weaponised as corporal punishment whenever anyone contradicts Beijing’s party line.
Espionage has been ramped up. Cyber attacks are commonplace. Influence operations are under full swing. Information wars are being fought out on social media.
The Australian government has recognised this breakdown of the post-World War II attempt at international rules-based order. Announcing the new 2020 Defence Strategic Update last month, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned the future would be “poorer, more dangerous and more disorderly”.
The threat assessment said Australia could no longer set defence policy based on an anticipated 10-year lead-up to conflict.
Jennings, however, says that timescale may now be as little as 10 months. “So it’s all building in my view to a major crisis between the US presidential election and the centenary anniversary of the founding of the CCP in June.”
Most dangerous moment
The rules-based dispute resolution system adopted by the world and administered mainly by the United Nations has been steadily eroded. And the United States has been increasingly adopting an isolationist attitude, resulting in questions over its willingness to act as a regional balance of power.
Beijing’s response has been to unleash its expansionist border ambitions on the East and South China Seas, and the Himalayas. Its response to international criticism has primarily become one of: “What are you going to do about it?”.
According to Jennings, it’s all about Chairman Xi cementing his authoritarian power through grand symbolic goals.
But these aren’t going as planned.
“Xi has shaped his premiership around preparing for two critical centenaries. The 100th anniversary of the founding of the CCP is on 21 July next year. At this time, Xi’s aspiration is for China to be ‘moderately well off’. By October 2049, the centenary of the party’s takeover of power, China is to be a ‘strong democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country’.”
Taiwan tipping point
“Beijing’s sabre-rattling over Taiwan is hardly new, but … we’ve seen a significant stepping up of Chinese military activity and an intense propaganda effort to isolate Taiwan and assert political primacy in the region,” Jennings says.
Beijing’s extraordinary number of overlapping military exercises around Taiwan in recent weeks has again raised the spectre of a potential military blockade of the democratic island state.
But Covid-19 and the collapsing world economy has put an end to the “moderately well off” dream.
And the lie of a “strong democratic, civilised, harmonious and modern socialist country” has been blatantly burst with the suppression of Hong Kong and Xinjiang.
This, Jennings says, would be the “ultimate test” of US credibility – and an existential threat to Japan and Taiwan.
But Xi’s nationalist rhetoric and moves to centralise all power in his hands may have backed him into a corner. He cannot afford another backdown. He must find a way to save face.
“A pre-emptive effort to coerce Taiwan would be immensely risky for Xi, but leaders under pressure do risky things, and Beijing has a long history of pushing the limits of regional tolerance – as with island-building in the South China Sea – to see what it can get away with.
“The challenge for Washington, Canberra and other allies and partners is to ensure that Xi calculates that this is a risk not worth taking.”
What should Australia do?
“Prime Minister Scott Morrison needs to talk with Trump, his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe, Indonesian President Joko Widodo, a recovered UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson and any other national leader who is willing to join a co-ordinated push-back against Chinese military opportunism,” Jennings said in April.
This call for a unified front against Xi’s ambitions has continued to gain momentum.
The US is now actively pursuing efforts to bring India, Japan, Australia and others together in a united front of resistance.
Deputy Secretary of State Stephen Biegun said last week this would protect against “a potential challenge from China” and “to create a critical mass around the shared values and interests of those parties in a manner that attracts more countries in the Indo-Pacific and even from around the world … ultimately to align in a more structured manner”.
Canberra has criticised Beijing’s disinformation campaigns. It has suspended its extradition treaties with Hong Kong after the transition agreement was torn up. It has issued a complaint with the UN over China’s actions in the South China Sea. It has asked for an inquiry into the opening phases of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Beijing has lashed out angrily, imposing trade sanctions, launching anti-dumping probes and arresting Australian citizens on undefined national security charges.
China’s foreign ministry has told Canberra not to “provoke trouble on issues involving China’s core interests”, even though those interests infringe upon the sovereignty of others. It warns economic pressure will continue to be applied until it gets what it wants.
“How might this play out across the rest of this year and into next year?” Jennings asks. “I anticipate a dangerous situation arising over Taiwan as President Xi Jinping seeks to seize a strategic advantage while the US remains dangerously incapacitated.”