When working as a political journalist in New Zealand, I interviewed Winston Peters, who is now the deputy prime minister. Peters is an enormously smart but politically volatile man who was a conservative in his early life, then broke off to start a new party called New Zealand First (sound familiar?), and is now in a coalition with the Labour government.
His politics was a mixed bag way ahead of his time in 2011, when he was promoting a mix of social conservatism and economic redistribution. But the most controversial of his policies was a virulent stream of anti-China rhetoric—not against Chinese students at universities per se, also a serious issue in that part of the world, but particularly the Chinese investment and buying spree.
Peters understood a decade before everyone else that we are reaching an inflection point at which China would use its economic weaponry, and Australasia would be the frontline of that new battle. At that time, the consensus was that China was going to be a responsible global citizen. Students were asked to contribute to Confucius Institutes and publications and take part in scholarships and exchange or year-abroad programs, and the idea of a “peaceful rise” was still in place.
Yet last week, China started a trade war with Australia, sanctioned American senators, antagonized the British to where the Conservatives are now the most Sino-skeptic party in Europe, bullied a feckless European Union, had a stand-off with the Indian air force on the Himalayan border, and made plans to send inquisitors to Hong Kong. This last defies the idea of “one country two systems,” the 1997 understanding with the United Kingdom and United States on Hong Kong’s status, ending the “peaceful rise” rhetoric once and for all.
The signs were always there. From Chinese debt diplomacy in Africa, to the Chinese naval base in Djibouti, to China buying ports in Pakistan and Sri Lanka, to the Chinese naval buildup that aims to have six carrier groups in the Pacific by 2030, dwarfing the American Pacific fleet and mirroring the Anglo-German naval race, it has been evident all along which direction Chinese hegemony would go.
Britain is hinting at a possible evacuation and relocation of British-born Hong Kong dual citizens and residents, who are a highly educated workforce and enormously pro-western. Even foreign policy realists, who are generally far more restrained regarding overseas misadventures, are unanimous on this question: China remains the greatest threat, not just due to its military buildup and desire to challenge the status quo, but also due to economic mercantilism not seen since the 18th century.
Curiously, however, this is also evidence of panicked delusion. There are two reasons for this. One, the Chinese decision making process is insular and opaque. They have been planning a slow, quiet domination, but have never been thrust into spotlight or counter-pressure. In this, they are not like the Soviet Union, which actively sought competition and therefore often emulated and imitated Western cultural norms. The Chinese policy has been stealth, and reliant on mercantilism.
Second, Chinese leaders have realized the cat is out of bag, and therefore, to use an international relations term, have started accelerating towards polarity. Put simply, they have realized there’s no going back, and it is better if they at least win some satellites and allies, if not through incentives, through the means of sheer pressure and force.
While that highlights China’s aggressive posture, also highlights a certain amount of panic and misunderstanding of their position in the global hierarchy. As Jack Snyder wrote in his phenomenal work, great power aggression is often a symbol of either ideological insularity and misunderstanding, or sheer imperial overestimation and delusion. In Chinese case, it might be a combination of both.
For decades we have been told by the mandarins of the foreign policy establishment that the Chinese follow some Sun-Tzu-Confucius-Zhou-Enlai-Deng-Xiaoping-Middle-Empire hybrid of seven-dimension chess, that they are as amoral and cynical as we can imagine, and unbeatable in strategy. It appears that impression was simply due to the fact that they never had to rule, nor face an actual crisis.
Because when an actual crisis struck, Chinese leadership panicked and have now antagonised all the major power centres simultaneously. As a result, there are talks in Australia of reviving the Quad, the security system started around 2007, which pits India, Japan, Australia, and the United States in an alliance like an Asian naval North Atlantic Treaty Organization to balance the rise of China. This is an extremely important endeavour, and would redistribute the Indo-Pacific security burden among the powerful and democratic regional powers that are already in some form allied with the United States.
It appears the Chinese are not as strategic as we were told. They are more openly imperial, and simply have no idea how to be diplomatic rhetorically about imperial ordering the way Anglo-Americans do. In reality, what has been obvious in the past few months is how unprepared, undiplomatic, and simply mediocre Chinese diplomatic skills are.
Theirs is not the conduct of a would-be superpower, much less a great power. It is the conduct of a panicked and cocooned middle power, a business-minded country that suddenly got rich but knows not how to rule, with delusions of imperialism and intense lack of understanding about the way the globe functions. If theories of realism are correct, their imperial actions and overreach, coupled with structural forces, will result in other major powers balancing against them, and they will be the architects of their own downfall, as history so often has shown us.