Have you seen what China’s just done? At the beginning of last month it suddenly plonked a huge oil rig down in contested waters of the South China Sea.
Vietnam claims it owns this particular patch of water and protests immediately erupted in Hanoi. Chinese immigrant workers were killed, and now a Vietnamese boat has been sunk near the rig – and nothing’s changed. The Chinese are still there.
US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel warned China to stop “destabilising” the situation – but nothing’s changed. And our Defence Minister David Johnston has informed Parliament that this instability is “serious, very serious indeed”. It’s unlikely you’ll be surprised to discover that nothing, absolutely nothing, has changed. Beijing’s ignoring all the huffing and puffing and doing exactly what it wants.
Don’t underestimate the significance of what’s happening. China is stating, emphatically, it has arrived and will act as it chooses. Forget Vietnam’s threat of taking the dispute to an international court. Legal niceties mean nothing to Beijing. It won’t back down now; it can’t. The dragon is on the loose and it won’t be caged. China’s daring the world: either accept the drilling as a fait accompli, or try to stop it and provoke a war.
Centuries ago the Manchu dynasty used the term “Middle Kingdom” to describe China. This referred to the ruler’s assumption that their capital represented the centre of the world; everyone else was peripheral. Well guess what? Those days are back. For the past quarter of a century, ever since the moment when the authoritarian rulers brought in tank troops from the west of the country to crush the student rebellion in Beijing, Western analysts have been predicting the collapse of the regime. And every year it has failed to come. The people have been kept happy by continuing development coupled with strict control. It’s a transaction most have been happy to accept.
Twenty-five years ago today, I was in China reporting on the unrest. On the Saturday after Tiananmen, I watched a protest that was allowed to take place in Shanghai. Some students then marched, from the authorised event, to protest in front of the People’s Armed Police headquarters. They knew they’d be imprisoned, dragged away to the cells, but they marched anyway. Today the open recreation ground where the protest began is a massive shopping mall with a huge car park underground, four-level shopping centre, and office block. The protest is forgotten and those imprisoned have now, finally, been released after admitting their “error”.
This week, I’ve been asking educated people what they know of the demonstrations that seemed to come so close to toppling the party. The most representative answer came from a salesman in Sydney’s Apple store. He’d just been born at that time and was living with his family, inland from Hong Kong. I asked if June 4, the anniversary of the night the tanks entered Tiananmen, meant anything to him. At first he just looked at me with no idea what I was talking about. After looking puzzled for a second he said, “Oh, yeah, didn’t some sort of counter-revolution take place?” He didn’t really know – or care – what had happened: it wasn’t part of his story. Already looking to the future he was instead full of talk about how he was hoping to start his own import/export business. For him a better life (quite understandably) just meant more "stuff" ... he didn’t really care about the government, as long as it functioned. He just wanted to navigate his own way through life. He ended up listening to me talk about the incredible, futile, bravery of students being arrested in a lonely street in Shanghai as the rain began to fall, but you could tell he was just being polite. He smiled. He was keeping the customer happy so I’d buy a power chord. Transaction completed, we both moved on.
The Chinese government isn’t about to fall and it is determined to rewrite the rulebook; both internally and internationally. The dispute in the South China Sea signals the bankruptcy of the old, US-dominated international order. US President Barack Obama attempted to define America’s role as a superpower with a speech at West Point. China is acting. Plunge through the rhetoric to the reality and the meaning is clear – Washington is already retreating from the position it adopted after World War II as the global arbiter of acceptable international conduct. Stopping Chinese expansion isn’t on his agenda.
This was the week, 70 years after D-Day, that the US ceased occupying it’s global leadership role. And us? We’re still pretending. The next big defence announcement will be a decision to build six new submarines by 2030. China’s planning to build between 60 and 70 Type 041 hunter-killers within the decade. Our defence white paper risks being outdated by the time it’s printed. Force is not the answer. Only concerted European action has been effective in stopping Russia. Until Asia stops relying on the US and gets its act together, as the European Union has, China will continue picking off its neighbours. Oil rig by oil rig.
Nicholas Stuart is a Canberra writer.