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We must halt China’s creeping conquest


THREE years ago, the then Country Liberal-controlled Northern Territory Government concluded an agreement with a Chinese company to lease the Port of Darwin for 99 years – and Australia’s federal government approved it.  

One wonders if they are now quite happy about the deal? Chinese companies are frequently pilot fish for their government and this one seems no different – part of President Xi Jinping’s signature ‘Belt and Road Initiative’.  

Darwin is therefore of strategic significance. So too was the involvement of Huawei in Britain’s 5G programme. The current Tory government did two sensible things before it collectively lost its mind: Conclude the exit from the EU, and dump Huawei.  

The involvement of Chinese companies has to be seen as just one of many strategic tools, designed to limit or eradicate capabilities of opponents, or potential opponents, ahead of a major confrontation.  

The Chinese understand strategy far better than most in the West, because strategy is a long-term business, requiring decisions that may not be reached for many years.  

With our rotating governments, short-term appointments for officials, and increasingly, the denial of our responsibilities resulting from historic relationships, we ignore anything that cannot be realised within the term of a single government.  

The Chinese are not troubled by such concerns: Elections are an irrelevance; the Communist Party is in power for ever and President Xi is there for life. Nor do the concerns of partners concern them: They consult no allies, call no councils, heed no red cards. While we look at our watches, they look at the calendar. 

This should be a matter of concern, for everywhere there are examples of Chinese malevolence. Of course, in 2019 they made the world ill. Was this an engineered virus that escaped from a laboratory? Probably. Was it a biological weapon under development that got out before it was fully ready? We will probably never know.  

And did the Chinese privately admit this to Western governments? Maybe – it would certainly explain the huge overreaction to a virus that is dangerous, but to a very small number of people.  

Beyond this there are reports of the persecution and probable forced sterilisations of Uyghar Muslims in the western provinces and the adoption of new laws in Hong Kong that ignore the 1997 agreement.  

In Ladakh, part of the Kashmir region, Chinese troops attempted to move the Line of Actual Control, the demarcation border between China and India in the Himalayas, resulting in violent clashes.  

The growing Chinese navy has harassed a Malaysian oil drilling rig and carried out exercises around the Taiwanese-held Pratas / Dongsha islands, while Bejing continues to develop military bases across the South China Sea using artificial island construction to extend its ‘territorial waters’.  

In the Western world, Chinese students and Chinese money are everywhere, infiltrating universities and think-tanks, exerting influence under the orders of the Chinese Communist Party. In Africa, the scale of government debt to China and with it the control over resources, is increasingly raising concern. 

The Darwin initiative took place against the backdrop of widespread Chinese espionage and cyber attacks. In June last year, Prime Minister Scott Morrison warned Australian institutions and businesses that they were being targeted by cyber warfare – he did not mention China by name, but he did not have to. The Chinese took the point and proved him right by imposing trade restrictions. 

There is little point in the West trying to deal with China as if she were another democratic or even old-style communist state.  

There is no benefit in using United Nations arbitration in disputes, since China is a Security Council member with a veto on anything and everything. Xi Jingping is the successor of the old emperors and looks back to a time when the greatest economy in the world was that of China.  

For him, the restoration of that situation is merely the resumption of normality. But a normality that was interrupted by Western intervention: From the Opium Wars of the 19th century to the Tai-Ping Rebellion, from the Boxer Rising to Japanese intervention under cover of their alliance with Britain in 1914; from the annexations of Hong Kong and Macao to the Korean War. It is now time to correct and repay these historic humiliations, to restore face. 

Xi has already taken China in a different direction from that of his predecessor Hu Jintao. The brutal suppression of the democracy movement in Tiananmen Square in 1989 was at least followed by attempts to improve economic growth, living standards and domestic stability.  

There was also stability in foreign policy, but this has changed completely since November 2012 when Xi became General Secretary of the CCP.  

He has since concentrated on establishing his own supremacy, cracking down on dissent, setting the conditions for the reunification of China with Hong Kong through national security legislation, and Taiwan using his expanding intelligence services, army, navy and air force as the instruments of force projection. 

If the restoration of China as the world’s greatest economy – and therefore also the leading power – is the aim, what is the near to medium term objective?  

It is probably the unification of Taiwan with mainland China. A desire to achieve this under cover of Western confusion and obsession with Covid-19 might make Xi move too quickly, and therefore miscalculate.  

What can be done? The Australians, in spite of the Trojan horse of the Darwin Port project, seem to have a good idea. Defence spending has risen significantly – a 40 per cent increase over the next ten years embracing new aircraft procurement, unmanned aerial platforms, submarines, frigates, electronic warfare capabilities and cyber warfare tools. 

So, the question is, what will the major democracies do about it? Australia is perhaps closest to the threat and its response is to increase significantly defence spending. Scott Morrison has pledged £150billion to the defence budget over ten years, reaching close to two per cent of gross domestic product of. 

It replaces a previous decade-long strategy of retrenchment. Australia intends to upgrade its air-to-air refuelling resilience, anti-submarine warfare, ISR (Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance) and EW (Electronic Warfare) capabilities and cyber warfare tools.  

It also intends to purchase up to 200 long-range anti-ship missiles from the US Navy and invest in developing a hypersonic weapons system capable of travelling thousands of miles.  

New Zealand has also accepted the need to increase spending on defence after a long period of strategic irrelevance. Plans include £350million for the army, aavy and air force for a range of capability improvements. 

Will others, particularly the US under Biden, take the same view? The British government has talked of deploying one of the Royal Navy’s new aircraft carriers to the region, but this is simply a token.  

I have already discussed in an earlier article the need for a common understanding of the Chinese strategic objectives and the level and nature of the deterrence needed to counter their ambitions.   

This is the strategy. The issue will remain the rights of Hong Kong and Taiwan to self-determination and the West collectively must leave the Chinese in no doubt that aggression will have serious consequences across the spectrum of diplomatic, information, and economic activity.  

As I have already said elsewhere – but have no hesitation in repeating – military consequences will be determined by who can employ them. Principally, this is the US and certainly not the hollowed-out British armed forces.  

Although the Chinese will probably, as always, take the long view, Xi’s patience may not be inexhaustible. Let us hope, therefore, that President Biden has the stomach for confrontation. He certainly has the means for it. 

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Jonathon Riley
Jonathon Riley
Lt Gen Riley is a former commander of British Forces in Sierra Leone and Iraq and Deputy Commander of all Nato forces in Afghanistan.

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