About the author:
Christian John Hayward, Independent Freelance China Analyst; TI Youth Observer
First announced in 2011, the West’s “Pivot to Asia” is increasingly seen by analysts less as a pipe dream and more of a current event. The West is doubling and tripling its alliances to serve as a counterweight to China in the Asia Pacific, while the new AUKUS (Australia-UK-U.S.) and the Quad (the U.S., Japan, India, Australia) have, on numerous occasions, identified China as a “competitor” and “threat” in the region.1
However, these alliance reshuffles of the global order do not compare to NATO, which has historically acted as the “world policeman,” including the invasion of Yugoslavia and disastrous escapades in the Middle East. Furthermore, the U.S.-led strategic alliance structure, which is now focusing on the Pacific to counter China, has been joined by alliance partner domestic security services.2 For example, the FBI and MI5 are making joint statements about the so-called “China threat.”3 All this begs the question of what will happen to the regional dynamics of the Asia Pacific.
The Atlantic is not the Pacific
Why is the North Atlantic Treaty Organization looking to China when its main area of operation is on the other side of the planet? By mentioning China in its new strategy, it allows NATO to effectively re-arm Japan. Long wanted since the Korean War, a re-armed Japan destabilizes the region in an attempt to counter the mainland of China’s potential seizure of the Island of Taiwan by force.4 As such, the PLAN (People’s Liberation Army Navy) would need to counter both Taiwanese defenses and the Japanese Navy, one of the most powerful in Asia despite its Article 9 clause.5 Moreover, support by Japan of a legal break to the One China Policy by the U.S.-led web of alliances would constitute a dangerous escalation of tensions in East Asia and the entire Asia-Pacific region.
Japan’s role in any conflict in China would be extremely unpopular. Since the death of Shinzo Abe, his legacy concerning modern East Asian relations has also been discussed, with many saying that his “right turn,” Abenomics, and his opposition to China, helped stir the problem of current East Asian international relations.6 That being said, Japan’s role, as a subordinate to the United States, has allowed it to remain a historically reactionary force to China’s rise. Abe or not, Japan remains, to some degree, scorned by nations such as Korea and the ASEAN states. By further destabilizing the region, Japan and the U.S.-led alliance structure are attempting to undermine China’s historic regional links, further strengthened by the extension of the Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), and risking knock-on effects of any regional conflict to millions of lives across Southeast Asia.
Taiwan is completely different from Ukraine
While the conflict in Ukraine rages on, many voices in the West are declaring that a military operation in Taiwan is imminent. Despite a spotlight being shone on the region in recent years, a military operation remains unlikely. Furthermore, the Anglo-American weaponry sent to the Ukrainian front line demonstrates that large countries and their tactics do not necessarily guarantee military success. For example, mechanized assaults have been combated with portable rocket launchers.
How does this all relate to Taiwan? First, China is extremely unlikely to repeat Russia’s Ukraine quagmire. Second, any Asia-Pacific conflict would be globally unpopular and the new tactics of war, as seen in Ukraine, are being assimilated by both sides of the Taiwan Strait. Third, although saber-rattling is now the most intense it has been since the 90s, it is simply not feasible for the government of China to initiate a military take-over in the current geopolitical environment. China’s economy requires a kickstart after the effect of the dynamic zero-Covid policy and it is unlikely to expend blood and treasure on a war that will receive global condemnation.
The British perspective
The United Kingdom has also been instrumental in shaping Western misconceptions of China and NATO, despite being a critically important partner for post-1949 China. The UK has recently pledged to increase defense spending in line with its agreed NATO target of 2% of GDP each year. Moreover, it is attempting to reach 2.3% of GDP in the wake of the Ukraine crisis.7 In NATO’s most recent statements, the harking back to Cold War era rhetoric challenged Moscow, and the so-called “China threat” is gaining traction in UK media, such as the constant attacks by BBC on China Daily and any source linked to Chinese influence.
Scapegoating will most likely continue or worsen due to the forced resignation of Boris Johnson. The current Tory party tussle to replace Johnson contains hawks such as Foreign Secretary Liz Truss. One should expect further angry rhetoric from a Tory-controlled UK government, at least until the next general election.
Overblown and overhyped
NATO’s own “Pivot to Asia” is now well underway and demands analysis as to whether it is an appropriate response. Although China boasts one of the world’s largest armed forces, NATO’s new focus on the Asia-Pacific and linkages with regional US alliance partners from the Quad and AUKUS appear as overkill.
This is not a new tactic. Chinese media noted the similarity between the gathering of the G7 meeting, where the NATO states discuss their China strategy, and images of the National Alliance during the Boxer Rebellion8 over 100 years ago. NATO does not need to accept any more nations into its official organization and will simply work in tandem most likely with AUKUS and Quad allies. Other than from the North (Russia), this encircles China.
In reality, this is not an entirely new strategy. American bases had encircled the South China Sea long before the mainland had the technology to construct artificial islands. Furthermore, while the FBI and MI5 are beginning to focus on China, domestic terrorist plots and mass shootings are rampant. National security services exist to defend against threats, such as invasive cyber-attacks, but surely working with China will achieve better results. Clearly, a fresh reset is required to break the current deadlock in international relations. There is a genuine need for a proactive effort by Washington and Westminster to not engage China as a threat, nor necessarily as a friend, but rather as a benign competitor. Such a reset would result in mitigating risks from dangerous militaristic actions. However, the waning poll results of Biden democrats and Boris Johnson’s resignation may make China an even easier target to distract voters.
Bridges and exit ramps
De-escalation should be taken very seriously before irrational decisions are made over the West’s designated China flash points. As such, businesses should not be deterred from working with China for global action on climate change, and some progress to wind down tensions has been achieved. One of the first diplomatic missions of the new Australian Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, was to prioritize the re-establishment of trade ties with China. This illustrates that even the most hawkish of nations, during the pandemic period, still prefers more socially focused domestic economic policies and diplomatic solutions in the post-lockdown environment.
Meeting halfway, looking to the past to fix the future
The source of the current problems is found in the post-WWII era. Western nations have felt overwhelmed by China in the region, especially in terms of defense spending where all nations are increasing their conventional and atomic arsenals.9 Both Beijing and the Western-allied powers need to coordinate extremely carefully and in unison to avert a full-blown arms race. For example, it is common knowledge that an attack against one NATO member can lead to the entirety of NATO returning a retaliation strike. What happens with the Quad and AUKUS overlap? Are these nations going to be under the NATO control umbrella?
Furthermore, China, with all its size, power and strength would not want to fight three entire alliances, plus American critics could argue that although the West may see China as a threat, no threat requires that much of an armed response. It has been reported many times10 that a war between China and the United States would be disastrous for both sides.11 If anything, the NATO presence will deny a war that would never happen anyway.
In conclusion, a NATO presence in the Asia Pacific places a new thorn in China’s side and exponentially increases the potential for military conflict. However, elevated geopolitical tensions require a serious commitment to diplomatic initiatives by all participants. Expanding a regional arms race into a global military build-up does not guarantee peace and plays into the selfish interests of global arms manufacturers. To ensure peace in a globalized world, greater effort for dialogue must be a priority. As such, education about the pitfalls of great power competition should be expanded. However, in the post-lockdown world, popularism and further pandemic outbreaks may critically slow the process of diplomatic dialogue.
NATO’s ambition to expand its global policeman role by focusing on countering is a serious overstretch in both capacity and governance. Western politicians may find China a useful scapegoat to blame in the public arena and excuse their actions at home, but ultimately to improve the current international relations situation, a long-term solution is needed. Moving a naval flotilla, air fleet or missile launchers to the South China Sea will not deter China, nor will the words of the West’s transitory politicians.
Diplomatic resets, like Australia’s reset of economic cooperation with ASEAN and China, and frank and substantive diplomatic talks, which meet halfway, are far more effective than reactive tit-for-tat sanctions, or a disruptive tech-trade war, in rebuilding the world economy and enhancing global cooperation and governance in the emergent post-Covid processes of planarization.
1. “NATO 2022 STRATEGIC CONCEPT” (Heads of State and Government at the NATO Summit in Madrid, June 29, 2022), https://www.nato.int/nato_static_fl2014/assets/pdf/2022/6/pdf/290622-strategic-concept.pdf.
2. Ken McCallum and Chris Wray, “Joint Address by MI5 and FBI Heads,” SECURITY SERVICE MI5, July 6, 2022, https://www.mi5.gov.uk/news/speech-by-mi5-and-fbi.
4. Sheila Smith, “How Japan Is Upgrading Its Military,” Council on the International Relations, February 24, 2021, https://www.cfr.org/in-brief/how-japan-upgrading-its-military.
5. “The Constitution of Japan,” CHAPTER II Article 9 § (1946), https://japan.kantei.go.jp/constitution_and_government_of_japan/constitution_e.html.
6. Nathan Park, “Abe Ruined the Most Important Democratic Relationship in Asia,” Foreign Policy, September 4, 2020, https://foreignpolicy.com/2020/09/04/shinzo-abe-japan-south-korea-war-nationalism/.
7. “PM to Tell NATO: Allies Must Dig Deep to Prepare for a More Dangerous Decade Ahead” (Prime Minister’s Office, 10 Downing Street, The Rt Hon Boris Johnson MP, June 29, 2022), https://www.gov.uk/government/news/pm-to-tell-nato-allies-must-dig-deep-to-prepare-for-a-more-dangerous-decade-ahead.
8. Nordholt J.W. Schulte and Arkel D. van, Acta Historiae Neerlandica IV Historical Studies in the Netherlands. (E.J Brill Leiden, 1970).,160-161, 163-164.
9. The Stockholm International Peace Institute, “World Military Expenditure Passes $2 Trillion for First Time,” Sipri, April 25, 2022, https://www.sipri.org/media/press-release/2022/world-military-expenditure-passes-2-trillion-first-time.
10. “Taiwan Minister: China War a Disaster regardless of Outcome,” AP News, March 10, 2022, https://apnews.com/article/russia-ukraine-europe-china-beijing-legislature-8b2cc1032dcb6c88384519eb58b5841c.
11. David C Gompert et al., War with China: Thinking through the Unthinkable (Santa Monica, Calif.: Rand Corporation, 2016), https://www.rand.org/pubs/research_reports/RR1140.html.
Please note: The above contents only represent the views of the author, and do not necessarily represent the views or positions of Taihe Institute.
This article is from the July issue of TI Observer (TIO), which is a monthly publication devoted to bringing China and the rest of the world closer together by facilitating mutual understanding and promoting exchanges of views. If you are interested in knowing more about the July issue, please click here:
ON TIMES WE FOCUS.
Should you have any questions, please contact us at email@example.com