The Good. The Bad. The Asinine.

China – Paper Tiger or Hidden Dragon?

In the lead up to the Crimean war, historian and novelist George MacDonald Fraser noted that a sudden and inexplicable obsession with Russia, as feverish as it was hysterical, gripped the British public. Given that Russian and British mercantile and security interests had been colliding in Central Asia for decades, and that Russia had just made one of its more successful periodic lurches in the direction of The Black Sea, threatening a sudden shift in the global balance of power, the casus belli underlying the French and British intervention on behalf of the Ottomans was eminently rational in that an analysis of the situation reveals clear and clearly understandable reasoning. What MacDonald Fraser is pointing out is that the conflict was undertaken for reasons of high statecraft and geopolitics, but that the public, enthusiastically backing their government, simply did not understand it in those terms. Many analysts are pointing to strong parallels between nineteenth century Russia’s collision with Britain, and China’s resurgence today, and I agree. But what I see as the strongest parallel is that gulf of incomprehension which sits between the actions and decisions of government, and the sentiments of the people.

THE LANDSCAPE OF THE DISCOURSE

Trump Doomsday Scenario

Image Courtesy DeviantArt via SiberanBearOk

The fact is that there are a great many people who have a direct interest in overstating both the soft and hard power of China. This interest is not always and often not purely mercenary. The security services are a case in point. In the marketplace of access to public funding, hyperbole and fashion have as much to do with resource allocation as actual threat, and China watchers see it as their duty to beat the war drums in order to secure the funding and personnel they know are necessary to cope with China’s changing status. They have many helpers in this process. Without going into too much detail, there is a close and long standing relationship between sections of the security community and the popular mass media, and the calculated sharing of analysis and other intelligence for broadcast is an old and familiar method of influencing the political mood to help secure allocations. This kind of marketing, however well-intentioned, does have a tendency to produce less than ideal second and third order effects. The first and most obvious is polarisation of the discussion. Academics and other analysts, upon seeing this overstatement, will immediately respond by understating or dismissing the threat. This is all well within the bounds of the rules of argument, and within the upper circles of the discourse, does not tend to have the effect of creating blind spots or false beliefs. But the way that discussions like these are simplified for mass broadcast leads to the inevitable formation of polarised opinion – one set of outlets and their adherents will scream a narrative of Chinese apocalypse, while the other will swear blind that China is a peaceful nation of public benefactors and perfect institutions. Obviously, neither of these narratives can be entirely true.

I think that on some level, people are well aware of this dissonance. When viewed as either an invincible superpower or benign plucky underdog, China’s status and actions simply don’t make sense, which is why those who wish to cast it in either of those lights need to shout and obfuscate in order to do so. The attenuation of meaning and complexity of an idea travelling from specialist to non-specialist circles is to be expected, but when it comes to issues like this, I personally believe that the discourse itself is the most dangerous part of the whole picture. To that end, I feel it becomes important for everyone who is capable of so doing to push as much balanced, untainted information out into the public domain as possible. A quick search of Google analytics tells me that the most prominent topics for Australians in the China discussion are Chinese foreign investment and Chinese influence/interference.

FOREIGN INVESTMENT

There is not a little hint of the ‘yellow peril’ mentality when it comes to discussions of Chinese foreign investment. Foreign investment needs to be encouraged and should generally be seen as a positive, and the extent of Chinese investment in Australia is relatively small, and largely driven, it would seem, by individuals buying homes and other properties. Given this, however, the proportion, small as it might be, is in fact exceptional. People whose job it is to know these things wish to understand why so many Chinese are buying so much property, and this question is often asked publicly, giving rise to the public’s vague notion that ‘The Chinese’ are buying our country out from under us, when the truth is that China’s slice of the foreign investment pie is somewhere around five percent. But that’s not to say that we can simply ignore Chinese investment. Where there is real concern is in the lack of transparency in China’s state systems. Careful work needs to be done to ensure that Chinese state and corporate interests are not able to hide their investment using Trojan Horse style tactics. So far, there’s not a lot of evidence for this happening, but for those whose job it is to watch these things, this is a possibility which deserves serious attention. The issue here isn’t so much private homes or farms – Chinese ownership of these assets doesn’t really matter one way or another, from a security point of view. The Commonwealth has a duty to protect the property rights of citizens and foreign investors, certainly, but the rights of that second group can easily and very rapidly be suspended. What’s worthy of close attention is the acquisition of intellectual property as a consequence of investment in other kinds of property. As a favoured member of the US military tech circle of love, we have firewalls up around sensitive and critical industries when it comes to foreign investment, and quite a lot of the noise we’re hearing about this is focussed on reminding those in power that these walls need to be assiduously maintained in the interest not only of national security, but the status and trust in which we are held by our closest ally.

INFLUENCE PEDDLING

Much of the current concern around Chinese influence seems to centre around a book with a highly sensationalist title and blurb, but which consists, in fact, of a reasonably comprehensive shopping list of ‘facts’ sewn together with a mixture of valid analysis and typical misunderstandings of Chinese culture and practice. Academia, as always, has been less than helpful, demonstrating their usual weird inability to express anything to the public in a manner likely to correspond with their intended message. The current debate surrounding Chinese ‘suppression of free speech’, and influence in academia is, in essence, a family dispute which is being aired in public. Some academics, many of whom are in fact Chinese, are deeply concerned about the readiness with which universities and schools are snatching up funds in exchange for the establishment of CCP friendly or even affiliated friendship groups, think tanks, or other influence vectors. They also point out, with justifiable concern, that Chinese and Chinese Australian students are vulnerable to these vectors as, to the same degree which they offer support and companionship, they generally demand loyalty and advocacy. This kind of organisation has parallels with every national power’s presence in and relationship with other countries, but in the case of China, the concern is that theirs are blatant, and more than likely effective, recruitment centres for Chinese foreign intelligence assets. While this needs to be watched and controlled, it is certainly not worth panicking about. In a counter-intuitive sort of way, we sort of want our allies and trading partners, as well as our enemies, to have agents here. To a certain extent, the more they know about us, the less likely they are to act in an insane manner, and any reasonably competent security service will know enough about their presence to occasionally use them as a useful diplomatic back channel. I’m not saying we should throw open the gates and let the nosy and indiscriminately ravenous CCP intelligence arms into our house, but a reasonable and reasonably well monitored foreign presence is basically just a sign of normal relations. But I wander from the point. The point is that the current spat we are seeing played out in the media is basically a pamphlet war between academic factions which, in typical academic style, is wrangling over funding sources couched in high concept multisyllables around morality, democratic principles, and national interest, with typical academic blindness when it comes to how their messaging will be received by a public not in the habit of knowing or understanding anything in complex ways. This is not to say that China’s influence is confined to obscure Chinese student associations – the recent furore over Labor funding sources proves this isn’t the case. But I think there is a tendency to see Chinese influence as monolithic and centralised. In some cases it certainly is, but in most instances the hand of the CCP is enmeshed in subtle and complex ways, and there are also a great many ethnically Chinese influence peddlers who are not in any way aligned to the current Chinese government or its interests. As with most great power presence, the dogfighting factions of the home state are more or less reflected in the makeup of the interest groups present on foreign soil.

SUMMING UP

So is China a credible threat worthy of our attention? Yes, of course they are, but we need to remember context. Responsible strategists need to weigh the threat potential of every major player, and it’s vital that we remember that these calculations do not necessarily imply the existence of a live and current threat. What we’re most often talking about is threat in the abstract – a complicated function of potential, current capability, and intent. Does China represent the kind of threat presented by the USSR at the height of The Cold War? On all three of those metrics the answer is ‘no’. Where China is most a threat to the world is in its rapid development, expansion of influence, and frankly toxic attitude to the rule of law both domestically and internationally. The ‘rise of China’ has strategists and historians worried because the lesson of history is that rapid shifts in the balance of power cause war. But strategists and historians are generally incapable of thinking in units of time smaller than a decade, and are generally far more concerned with what can be done than with what will actually happen. This arises from a duty to inform government of potential contingency as part of the process of ensuring readiness for the maximum number of possible futures. What this does not translate to is any valid reason for thinking of China as a current urgent existential threat. As dangerous and morally repugnant as the CCP’s regime is, their interface with the international community is complex, and driven at least as much by a desire for inclusion as by the aspiration, universal amongst large nations, to dominate their region and be a major player on the world stage. This means that we need to tread a fine line. It’s very important that a player as volatile and rapidly accelerating as China be watched and managed very carefully indeed, but a frame of thinking which casts China as an immediate and implacable threat is as dangerous as it is foolish.