China has reacted with predictable anger to this week’s official announcement of the so-called Aukus pact.
The details, unveiled on Monday in San Diego, bind together Australia, the UK and the US in a far-reaching defence and security alliance aimed at confronting Chinese military expansion in the Indo-Pacific region.
“Going down a dangerous road”, “disregarding the concerns of the international community” and even “risking a new arms race and nuclear proliferation” are just some of the accusations being levelled by Beijing at this trio of western allies.
Not since the US Congressional leader Nancy Pelosi made her controversial visit to Taiwan last summer has China expressed such intense disapproval of Western actions.
China, the world’s most populous nation, with the world’s largest army and navy, says it is starting to feel “penned in” by the US and its allies in the western Pacific. In response, President Xi Jinping announced recently that China would accelerate the expansion of its defence spending and named national security as the primary concern of the coming years.
Little wonder then that UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak spoke this week about a dangerous decade ahead and the need to gear up to meet the growing security challenges.
So how did we get to this point and is the world drawing closer to a catastrophic conflict in the Pacific between China and the US and its allies?
The West got it wrong on China. For years there was a naïve assumption in foreign ministries that China’s economic liberalisation would inevitably lead to an opening up of society and greater political freedom. As western multinational companies set up joint ventures and hundreds of millions of Chinese citizens began to enjoy a higher standard of living then surely, the reasoning went, the Chinese Communist Party (CCP) would loosen its grip on the population, allow some modest democratic reforms and become a fully-fledged member of the so-called “rules-based international order”.
But it hasn’t worked out that way.
Yes, China has become an economic giant, a vital, integral part of the global supply chain and the most important trading partner for countries all over the world. But instead of coupling this with a shift towards democracy and liberalisation, Beijing has embarked on a course that has alarmed both Western governments and many of its neighbours like Japan, South Korea and the Philippines.
Such as? The list is long but here are the main bones of contention between China and the West:
- Taiwan: China has repeatedly vowed to take over this self-governing island, by force if necessary. US President Joe Biden has said the US would come to its defence, although official US policy doesn’t commit to military action
- The South China Sea: In recent years China has used its huge navy to colonise parts of the South China Sea, claiming it as its own territory, contrary to international law
- Technology: China is increasingly accused of secretly harvesting vast amounts of personal data as well as stealing intellectual property to gain commercial advantage
- Hong Kong: Beijing has successfully crushed democracy in the former British colony, handing down lengthy jail sentences to activists
- The Uyghur Muslims: Satellite data and eye-witness accounts point to the forced internment of up to one million Uyghur Muslims in camps across Xinjiang province
Militarily, China today is a force to be reckoned with. In recent years its People’s Liberation Army has made enormous strides in technology and innovation as well as numbers. China’s Dong Feng hypersonic missiles, for example, can travel at speeds in excess of Mach 5 (five times the speed of sound), armed with either a high explosive or nuclear warhead. This is giving the US Navy’s 7th Fleet, based at Yokosuka, Japan, pause for thought as to just how close it is prepared to risk sailing to China’s massed missile batteries onshore.
On nuclear ballistic missiles too, China has embarked on a programme of rapid expansion, aiming to treble its number of warheads as it builds new silos out in remote western regions.
None of this though, means that China wants to go to war. It doesn’t. When it comes to Taiwan, it would much prefer to exert enough pressure on it that it capitulates and submits to Beijing’s rule without a shot being fired. On Hong Kong, the Uyghurs and intellectual property it knows that over time the criticism will die down because trade with China is simply too important for the rest of the world.
So although tensions are high right now, and there could well be flashpoints still to come, both sides – China and the West – know that a war in the Pacific would be catastrophic for everyone and despite the angry rhetoric, it is in absolutely no-one’s interests.