SYDNEY: The results of China’s bullying and unwillingness to accept international law — except when it suits the PRC’s interests — came into sharp focus last week as NATO and four of the most powerful Indo-Pacific countries joined hands at the alliance’s Madrid summit. And yet, a growing Pacific focus did not come out of nowhere for the European alliance.
While it was the first time the alliance included President Xi Jinping’s country in its Strategic Concept, China has been mentioned as a major strategic factor for the European alliance for several years now. At the Brussels summit last year, in fact, China was described as posing “systemic challenges to the rules-based international order and to areas relevant to Alliance security.” For close NATO observers, the transition from Brussels to Madrid was seamless and predictable. NATO often flags major issues one or two years before clearly delineating them in language acceptable to all its members.
“I don’t think this [Strategic Concept] is a ground-breaking revelation,” notes Meia Nouwens, China defense expert at the International Institute for Strategic Studies. “The interesting part will come next: how will the Alliance share information and build resilience? What mechanisms will be in place between the EU and NATO and what will each be responsible for, and which new countries in the Indo-Pacific could become partners?”
But China has long worried, very publicly, about an Asian NATO, so the coordination of four important Asian countries with the alliance set Chinese officials off.
“China pursues an independent foreign policy of peace. It does not interfere in other countries’ internal affairs or export ideology, still less engage in long-arm jurisdiction, economic coercion or unilateral sanctions,” Zhao Lijian, a Chinese foreign ministry spokesman, said late last week. “How could China be labeled a ‘systemic challenge’? We solemnly urge NATO to immediately stop spreading false and provocative statements against China … Stop seeking to disrupt Asia and the whole world after it has disrupted Europe.”
But at the summit there was a great deal of nuance and some divergence in how the Chinese threat — for that’s how NATO views it now — was presented and analyzed.
The one area everyone could agree on — China’s threat to the liberal international rules-based order — was mentioned by many. And Ukraine colored much of the discussion, since China has stood by Russia, and the two countries hail each other as partners on a regular basis.
“German Minister of [Foreign Affairs Annalena] Baerbock put a strong emphasis on international law, as most other leaders who spoke did, but also discussed the precedent that Russia’s actions in Ukraine may set for others,” Nouwens said in an email. “There was a general concern about the challenge that this poses for the Rules Based International Order, and a sense of urgency about upholding it. Baerbock and others drew parallels with China. She said that every country has a bigger neighbour, and that the response to human rights abusers needs to be equally tough across the world – with specific reference to China.”
As Putin Fights In Ukraine, Xi Embraces ‘Lawfare’ Over Waterways
The participation by Australia, Japan, New Zealand and South Korea at the NATO summit was coached in terms of democracies uniting. “Australia,” Prime Minister Anthony Albanese tweeted as he left for Europe, “has been invited to the NATO summit because democratic nations must stand together against Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine.”
But another potential incursion is never far from mind. Putin claims that Ukraine really belongs to Russia and is being liberated, which has obvious parallels with Taiwan, which China says is Chinese territory and will be reunited with the mainland.
As part of its drumbeat about Taiwan, China recently claimed that the Taiwan Strait is no longer an international waterway, on the basis that Taiwan is China, so its waters are China’s waters. Chinese law state’s unequivocally that “Taiwan and the various affiliated islands including Diaoyu Island, Penghu Islands, Dongsha Islands, Xisha Islands, Nansha (Spratly) Islands and other islands that belong to the People’s Republic of China.”
Another example came June 25, when China hyped up accusations around the US sending a P-8A anti-submarine aircraft to fly over the Taiwan Strait. The air and ground forces of the Eastern Theater Command of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army (PLA) tracked and monitored the US aircraft’s passage and remained alert in the whole course, Senior Colonel Shi Yi, spokesperson for the PLA Eastern Theater Command, said in a written statement. “Such a provocative move by the US side jeopardizes regional situation and harms the peace and stability across the Taiwan Strait, the Chinese side is adamantly opposed to that. The troops of the PLA Eastern Theater Command keep high vigilance at all times to resolutely safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity.”
It all fits a pattern of China denying international law exists or is irrelevant when it does not suit Chinese interests, something Nouwens called “lawfare.” The latest claim about the strait, she said in an email, “fits into a larger pattern of behaviour for China of saying there’s no such thing as a Taiwan Strait Median Line, giving the Coast Guard greater remit to act defensively with arms in China’s maritime territory (however it defines that), and of course its actions in the South China Sea. But erasing the established precedent that the Taiwan Strait is an internationally recognized waterway — and not a Chinese toll booth — is likely to be difficult.
“The question is,” Nouwens writes, “will this statement change third countries’ behaviour or not. I think not.”
In a striking mark of the shift in New Zealand’s iconoclastic foreign policy over the last few years, its prime minister, Jacinda Ardern, attended the Madrid summit and put the growing international instability in context.
“In our neighborhood, we see the mounting pressure on the international rules-based order. We see attempts to disrupt and destabilize — even New Zealand is targeted by Russian mis- and disinformation,” Ardern said. She added that “China has in recent times also become more assertive and more willing to challenge international rules and norms”.
Having the Pacific democracies at the NATO summit continues a push to unite like-minded nations against autocrats at a global level. A notable move came June 26 when the G-7 group of Western economic powerhouses, in an effort to brush back China’s endlessly propagandized Belt and Road Initiative, pledged to raise $600 billion for developing countries in the next five years as part of the new Partnership for Global Infrastructure and Investment.
Australians Increasingly Worried About Chinese Military Threat
China’s actions have driven a huge shift in how Australians view Beijing. A majority of Australians now see China as a military threat to their country, with trust in China and confidence in its Xi at record lows, according to a new poll by the Lowy Institute here.
Perhaps the biggest shift in Australian views was on the subject of whether China was more important as an economic partner or a threat to Australia:
- Three-quarters of respondents to the Lowy poll said they think it is “very” or “somewhat” likely that China will become a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years, a rise of 30 points since 2018.
- In 2018, 82% of Australians saw China as an economic partner. Back then, only 12% of Aussies thought of China as a threat. Now, 63% see China as a threat and only 33% see China as more of an economic partner.
- Trust in China has plunged, seeing a 40-point decrease since 2018. Only 12% of respondents said they trust China.
And the majority of Australians (65%) see China’s foreign policy as a “critical threat” over the next decade — up 29 points from 2017.
Like how Putin may have inadvertently expanded NATO when he was attempting to accomplish the opposite in Ukraine, could China’s fear of being encircled by a “Pacific NATO” becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy?