China's Expansionism Echoes History

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In recent months five uninhabited islands east of Taiwan and southwest of Japan have become a new global flashpoint. The Chinese now claim these islands - called the Diaoyu in China, the Diaoyutai in Taiwan and the Senkaku in Japan - and have repeatedly threatened Japanese control with military overflights and naval activity, including the provocative locking of weapons control radar on to a Japanese ship.

These East China Sea activities follow increased Chinese actions and threats in the South China Sea. China argues such coercion is appropriate since all such locations belong to China, but history shows these Chinese territorial claims lack substance.

The Chinese claims for the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands supposedly date back to the Ming dynasty (1368-1644). During the Ming dynasty, China considered Taiwan to be "foreign territory" and certainly China made no claims for the much smaller, largely uninhabited Diaoyu Islands.

The exiled Chiang Kai-shek government on Taiwan after World War II also did not claim these islands until Chinese students overseas in the early 1970s began to agitate that the islands belonged to China at the very same time investigations suggested a possibility of oil in the seas surrounding the islands.

Similarly, the Chinese have claimed the whole of the so-called South China Sea as its territory despite many parts of this claim being south of Vietnam -- more than 1000km from China's southernmost Hainan island. The basis for the Chinese claims is the discovery of Chinese ceramics, which were widely traded and carried in Arab and Southeast Asian ships across the area.

Yet, despite such flimsy claims, China has used force in these international waters to pressure Vietnam and The Philippines.

China's self-confidence and territorial threats have escalated in recent years as the economy has improved and China has devoted vast funds to boosting its military.

Quite rightly, the US and its democratic allies, including Australia, have attempted to deal with the Chinese. However, the Chinese appear to view such attempts as weakness, a perception that increases both China's arrogance and its willingness to intensify pressure to "regain" its supposed long-lost territories.

In searching for historical parallels, the current Chinese regime most resembles the Nazis and the Japanese militaristic regime of the 1930s-40s. All three regimes became intensely nationalistic.

China's leaders use nationalism because they believe it gives them legitimacy. Yet, government-sponsored protests against Japan are not always easy to control and can create popular nationalist demands which Beijing cannot meet.

Second, strong dictatorship characterises all three regimes. Even non-violent protest leads to jail. The Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo is only one well-known case among thousands.

Third, racism is at the heart of all three regimes. China today makes appeals to people in Taiwan and internationally as having "the same flesh and blood" and "shared blood vessels". Chinese law states that a Chinese who becomes a citizen of another country no longer has Chinese citizenship, but the Chinese state still considers such people as Chinese with an obligation to the fatherland. Minorities such as Tibetans and Uighurs face constant and systematic discrimination.

Fourth, all three regimes set up vast prison camps for political prisoners and others who were seen as threatening. Some might argue that China does not have "death camps", but the Nazis only created these in 1941, quite late in their regime.

Like the Nazi and the Japanese regimes in the 1930s, the Chinese today have become territorially expansionist. Like the Nazis and the Japanese militarists in World War II, the Chinese today perceive "appeasement" as weakness on the part of their opponents and push their claims with even more inflexibility.

Finally, all three regimes have used Hitler's theory of the "Big Lie" which Goebbels implemented so successfully. The Chinese "Big Lie" has proven partially successful in convincing several former Australian political leaders, among others, that China does have claims to the East China Sea islands.

The lessons of World War II teach us that appeasement of such regimes does not lead to peace.

Further, such regimes do not democratise even when they grow prosperous. China today is run by a coalition of party leaders, the military and rich entrepreneurs who all gain from the current situation and seek to maintain the status quo. Even though militarily defeated, the strength of the Nazi and Japanese regimes required the Allied forces to destroy both regimes systematically.

In other words, such regimes do not fall apart by themselves.

Fortunately, as China threatens more countries, they have begun to coalesce against it.

The world's democracies will need to stand firm and make clear that expansionism has no place. Such actions will promote peace in the long term as well as support those within China who continue to struggle for human rights.

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