Australia is at the crosshairs of a big shift, as the tussle with China over the Pacific
We hear a lot about the “post-American world” but we are now also getting a glimpse of “Pax Sinica”. The unrest in the Solomon Islands shows us what happens when the balance of power shifts and security and order can no longer be guaranteed.
Images of burning buildings and people looting is a wake-up call. Chinese businesses are being targeted as anger rises against Beijing’s increasing influence in the country.
The Solomon Islands has switched its diplomatic recognition from Taiwan to mainland China. The Pacific Islands, more generally, is in the front line of Xi Jinping’s vision of the China Dream: China as the unrivalled regional power.
Now Australia has been dragged in, sending in police and troops to help restore order.
It reminds us how volatile our region is and how what happens in the broader Indo-Pacific will define global security in the 21st century.
What happens when old certainties are upended?
More than 20 years ago, international affairs expert Charles Kupchan warned we needed to prepare for the end of Pax Americana. He said history provided sobering lessons of what happens when old certainties are upended.
Back then, China was still a long way from rivalling the US, and Kupchan was less focused on the Beijing threat than America’s willingness and capacity to helm a global order. He said nations will have to adapt; the key challenge would be “weaning Europe and East Asia off their excessive dependence on the current hegemon”.
What’s happened since? The September 11 terrorist attacks triggered endless wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, the global financial crisis tipped much of the world and America into deep recession, and the US has become increasingly and bitterly divided.
Today — after retreat from Afghanistan, the disruption and often violent upheaval that marked the Trump presidency — America appears a tired and limited power. Joe Biden is trying to reassure allies that America is back, but the US cannot project its power in ways it once could.
We can make you rich. We don’t care to make you free
And all the while China has continued to rise. It is already the world’s biggest engine of economic growth and will soon surpass America as the world’s largest economy.
Xi Jinping is seizing the moment to crack down hard at home, crushing dissent while expanding China’s interest abroad. He has shown that he will intimidate nations and use trade as both a lure and a weapon.
What does a Pax Sinica look like? Well, certainly no commitment to universal standards of human rights. China does not seek alliances so much as transactions. Hence projects like the massive Belt and Road Initiative and infrastructure and investment push spanning 70 countries that by 2040 is projected to boost global GDP by seven trillion dollars a year.
China promises the world what it promises its own people: we can make you rich, we don’t care to make you free.
The Beijing consensus would be less about interfering with other countries’ internal issues than influencing outcomes that suit China. Put simply: nations can do what they like — suppress freedom, undermine democracy — so long as Beijing gets its way.
Has China already won?
Already there are those accommodating this new world order. Singaporean former diplomat and writer Kishore Mahbubani has asked whether China has already won. He argues it “is perfectly natural” for China to seek greater recognition and respect. Perhaps so.
Mahbubani says the US needs to learn to share power with China. But surely we have to ask at what cost? Where does the West draw the line?
Taiwan is a flashpoint. There is increasing talk of war in Beijing, Canberra and Washington. Australian shadow foreign minister, Penny Wong, has accused Defence Minister, Peter Dutton, of dangerously talking up conflict.
But surely when Xi Jinping says he reserves the right to seize Taiwan by force and escalates military exercises over the island, then the prospect of war can’t be ignored.
This week Australian China watcher and defence analyst, Hugh White, said we are in “an acute strategic crisis”. He said we have to ask what the cost of war would be. If the world wants to maintain a global order, White argued, then war is not the answer.
As he warned: “Once war starts that order would probably be utterly destroyed.” But his answer is not to confront China. White said while our values matter and we might prefer to live under a US-led order we have to ask if “we are willing to go to war with China over it?”
That’s where we are: a battle for the global order, the prospect of war and whether democracy is even worth fighting for.
This is why the Solomon Islands matters
Australia is at the crosshairs of this big shift. It is frozen out by Beijing which is also making a big power play in Australia’s own backyard the Pacific Islands.
That’s why the Solomon Islands matters.
This is a big battleground. Combined, the South Pacific spans 13 million people and more than a dozen nations. It is one of the fastest growing regions in the world and faces existential crises like the impact of climate change.
Since the end of World War II, the region has taken American power for granted. The US has underwritten stability in the region. No longer.
China has surpassed Australia in terms of two-way trade with Pacific Island nations. In the Solomon Islands two-way trade with China now makes up almost half of the island nation’s total trade.
China has increased its aid to the region. It is building infrastructure and there has been a strong speculation about China’s ambitions to develop military bases.
The Brookings Institution has assessed China’s growing influence and says “it is certainly contributing to entrenching systems of corruption and patronage”. It warns that “the opportunity, if it ever existed, to keep China out of the region has long passed.”
It says this requires “consistent resolve” from the West. Australia is crucial. It is still the biggest donor and has the greatest diplomatic reach. Brookings says it is a question of resources versus resolve. China has the resources – the riches to tempt and influence nations. Does the West have the resolve?
That’s what Australia’s presence in the Solomon Islands is about: responding to the request of a friend and showing its resolve to not surrender the region.
Stan Grant presents China Tonight on Monday at 9.35pm on ABC TV, Tuesday at 8pm on ABC News Channel and on iview.