The usual suspects in Australia (economists and businesspeople) are already fulsome in their praise for China’s so-called One Belt, One Road or Belt and Road Initiative economic mega-project.
Last weekend, President Xi Jinping mounted an extensive propaganda campaign before 30 heads of state at a global summit to sell this $1 trillion economic proposition, with its emphasis on infrastructure connectivity by building ports, railways and pipelines across Asia, the Middle East and Europe.
The One Belt idea is to connect by land China’s remote western provinces with Central Asia and then through the Middle East to markets in Europe.
The One Road element proposes to link China’s maritime trade routes from the East and South China seas and the straits of Southeast Asia through to the Indian Ocean and East Africa.
Economic commentators see nothing wrong in this and are asserting that it is a key misunderstanding to describe the initiative as being prescriptive in nature and dictated by Beijing. Some go so far as to assert that “even the most negative will be encouraged to concede that China cannot be so easily cast as a belligerent, assertive and self-interested actor”. Oh really?
Such naive assertions fail to explore the geopolitical imperatives suffusing this idea hatched in Beijing, as well as the associated incredible assertion by Xi in his keynote address last Sunday that we all share common values with China.
The geopolitics of this are simple: Beijing is seeking to use its huge economic wealth to secure the supply of energy and key raw materials from Central Asia, the Middle East and Siberia, and improve its access to the European market for its exports by land.
From a geostrategic perspective, however, this also involves China building naval bases in a “string of pearls” in places such as Pakistan, Sri Lanka and Djibouti — even though in the past Beijing has always asserted that, unlike Western countries, it would never build military bases overseas.
According to David Vines, a professor of economics at Oxford University, many in Europe fear China will use the One Belt, One Road in ways that have strategic implications for Europe. They are suspicious that China will seek to create political and economic dependencies among the poorer eastern EU states, using its massive infrastructure investments to exert political leverage.
In our region, India is suspicious of the huge sums of money Beijing is pouring into Pakistan to build a strategic highway from the western Chinese province of Xinjiang through Pakistan-held Kashmir to its naval base on the Indian Ocean at Gwadar.
This, then, is not just an altruistic Chinese idea of economic co-operation and sustainable development of benefit to all, as Xi would have it.
There can be no doubt China is looking to expand decisively its sphere of influence as the US is being diverted by Donald Trump’s isolationist and protectionist tendencies.
The initiative is part and parcel of Xi’s ambition to fill this vacuum and create a new international order with a hierarchy based on China’s wealth.
Then there is the rather stark attempt by Xi to burnish his image as a global statesman by pronouncing that we all share common values. So, last weekend we witnessed the leader of the Communist Party of China espousing a litany of common values we all allegedly share, including: a mutual trust in a harmonious and peaceful world, embarking on a new journey together, a common vision of openness and inclusiveness, and building a big family with harmonious coexistence. (He even cited the Five Principles of Peaceful Coexistence straight out of the Cold War propaganda lexicon.)
These glib and soporific utterances were followed by these pledges: the President promised that China will not follow “the old way of geopolitical games but create a new model of win-win”; Beijing would not rely “on gunboat diplomacy” and would respect other countries’ territorial integrity (presumably in the South China Sea?); and — most incredible of all — “we have no intention to interfere in other countries’ internal affairs, export our own social system and model of development, or impose our will on others”.
So there we have it, a completely reformed China.
But, of course, there is a serious catch. Xi wants to see “partnerships of dialogue with no confrontation and of friendship rather than alliance”. That should prove to be of great reassurance to Australia and Japan, let alone NATO Europe. All we need to do is get rid of ANZUS and we can rely on China’s peaceful and harmonious intentions.
As to Xi’s promise that China has no intention of interfering in other countries’ internal affairs, the outgoing secretary of the Department of Defence, Dennis Richardson, in his speech to the National Press Club last Friday, accused China of being “very active in intelligence activities directed against us”, including keeping a watchful eye inside Australian Chinese communities and effectively controlling some Chinese-language media in Australia.
So, how should Australia react to all this? I am not arguing here that we should reject out of hand participation in One Belt, but I am suggesting that we need to be sceptical about China’s motives and to proceed with great caution until we gain a better understanding of its geostrategic implications.
It is not correct to assert — as some influential politicians in Canberra do — that the Chinese are businessmen “just like us”.
And that applies especially to any consideration of encouraging China to participate in the northern Australia infrastructure initiative, which is a region of great strategic significance to us and our defence policy.
By Paul Dibb
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategy at the Australian National University’s Strategic & Defence Studies Centre.