World Must Stand Up to China

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Is this the year that China's leadership lets us all know that it is determined not to abide by routine international norms but will use raw power to take whatever it wants?

That is too strong a conclusion just yet, but it has certainly been a year of rugged behaviour from Beijing, behaviour that we should study closely.

Consider, first, the contrasting cases of Stern Hu and Zan Qixiong.

Hu, you'll recall, is the Australian former No 2 for giant miner Rio Tinto. In July last year he was arrested, initially on charges of espionage. Later he was convicted of bribery and corruption charges. At the start the Chinese government wouldn't communicate with the Australian government over the matter. Later it barely conformed to the minimum requirements of the consular agreement between the two nations.

We will never know if Hu was remotely guilty of anything. We do know that corruption is rife in China and Hu was the only foreign executive singled out by the Chinese authorities this way.

We also know the context. The Chinese were annoyed by the prices they were paying for Australian minerals and deeply furious that their bid for a big equity stake in Rio Tinto had failed.

Within Australia the reliable pro-China gang, centred on the Australian National University, but well represented in business as well, told us in effect to keep quiet and not protest against Hu's punishment. We were to protect the Chinese legal system, as though that were not among the most corrupt and politicised legal systems in the world.

Now consider Zan's case. Zan is a Chinese fishing boat captain. He was plying his trade in the Senkaku Islands in the East China Sea. Japan considers these islands to be part of Japan and exercises normal control over them. China also claims the islands, as it does much of the maritime domain of northeast and Southeast Asia.

Zan's boat was approached by the Japanese navy. Now, all over the world, what does an illegal fisherman do if approached by a national coastguard? Universally, the fisherman runs away.

But in Zan's case, according to the Japanese navy, he rammed the Japanese vessel. That is akin to piracy and is certainly equivalent to criminal damage.

Zan was taken into Japanese custody. He was not charged with being in Japanese waters illegally but with offences arising out of ramming the Japanese ship. Many analysts believe the fisherman's actions were directed by the Chinese government as a deliberate way of testing the Japanese.

The Chinese reaction could not have been more different from the Australian response to Hu. There were no significant voices within China urging that Japanese legal processes be allowed to unfold.

Instead, the Chinese reaction was brutal and effective. Beijing cancelled high-level meetings with Japanese officials, including with the Japanese Prime Minister. Groups of Chinese tourists were prevented from visiting Japan. Four Japanese in China were suddenly arrested in what looked like preposterous charges of photographing Chinese military establishments. A high-level torrent of abuse was directed at Japan from Chinese government and media sources.

It was alleged that China banned temporarily the export of rare earth metals -- vital in much hi-tech gadgetry -- to Japan, though this was later denied.

Eventually the Japanese gave in and let Zan go, at which point the Chinese demanded apologies and compensation. Outraged public opinion finally forced Tokyo to reject this.

The Zan episode needs to be seen in the context of three other episodes this year where the Chinese have flouted well-established international norms.

One was the sinking of South Korean naval ship the Cheonan by North Korea, with dozens killed.

No serious analyst in the world doubts that the North Koreans torpedoed the Cheonan. Yet the Chinese refused, at the UN or anywhere else, to acknowledge Pyongyang's responsibility for the attack. Beijing's continued political investment in the Stalinist regime remains strong.

The second incident arose from the Cheonan sinking. The US and South Korea planned to hold joint naval exercises involving a US aircraft carrier off the coast of South Korea in the Yellow Sea. The Chinese demanded that these be moved, claiming, absurdly, that there would be a danger of US ships colliding with Chinese ships.

The implication is that Beijing can decide where international ships can sail, even if they are in indisputably international waters. The Americans, not wanting to take the focus off North Korea, moved the exercises to the east side of the Korean peninsula, away from China. But the Americans also promised they would be back in the Yellow Sea later this year.

Finally, there is the South China Sea. Beijing claims sovereignty over virtually all of the South China Sea. Various Southeast Asian nations claim the parts close to them. I urge you to look at a map to see just how preposterous Beijing's claim is, how far the South China Sea is from China.

At an ASEAN meeting this year, China's Foreign Minister Yang Jiechi furiously told the ASEANs that they were small nations while China was a big nation, and they should do as theywere told.

All this doesn't prove that China will behave with consistent aggression in the years ahead, but it sure doesn't prove the opposite, either.

Three prudent responses are obvious. One is to engage China in multilateral institutions so it is enveloped in a web of rules and customs. Another is for nations to have a clear idea of their individual bottom lines, beyond which they will not retreat.

And the third is for everyone to attend to their armed forces, so that a stable balance of power and deterrence are maintained.

Then the risk of fateful Chinese miscalculation is diminished. Pre-emptive capitulation, as some are now counselling, would be the worst policy for everyone.

Greg Sheridan is the Foreign Editor of the Australian.
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