Davids versus Goliath

Activity is heightening in the Indo-Pacific as small island nations stand up to Chinese intimidation and further squeezes on Taiwan. Humphrey Hawksley assesses the situation

Pity China and how swiftly the glittering beacon of its world vision has dimmed!

Barely a year ago, the Beijing bankrolled Belt and Road Initiative to modernise the world with new infrastructure was capturing a global imagination. Every country, however weak and corrupt, could dream of its own cityscape skyline and high-speed railway, as long as it played its cards right.

But now, as the packing cover of the Belt and Road has been peeled back, China is being told to watch its manners, stop its loan shark bullying and maybe get out altogether.

If the current trend continues, Beijing’s once inevitable juggernaut expansion may ultimately be balanced not by American warships in the South China Sea, but by reprimands from countries that China assumed would be a pushover and are not.

One of the sharpest rebukes came from the tiny island of Nauru when it hosted the 18-nation Pacific Island Forum in September. President Baron Waqa condemned the Chinese delegation for its arrogance, insolence and bullying. ‘They’re not our friends,’ he said. ‘They just need us for their own purposes. I have to be strong on this because no one is to come and dictate things to us.’

Nauru’s population is only 11,000 against China’s 1.3 billion, and President Waqa’s comments drew a furious response, with the delegation walking out, and underlined growing friction over Beijing’s long-term plans for the Pacific.

Nauru’s confidence to step forward as a regional David against a massive Goliath has drawn a groundswell of support from many around the world who have experienced similar Chinese high-handedness.  In Nauru’s case, a relatively low-level Chinese diplomat was insisting on equal ranking with elected Pacific island leaders.

Nauru is one of a diminishing number of governments which do not diplomatically recognise Beijing but Taiwan, the province that broke away with the Communist Party victory in 1949 and now operates as a quasi-independent state.  For decades Beijing has wanted to get Taiwan back under its rule and has recently stepped up its campaign, squeezing the breakaway province economically, militarily and diplomatically.  It has staged military exercises close to Taiwan’s shores, demanded that airlines and hotel chains designate Taiwan as part of China and persuaded an increasing number of governments to switch their allegiance from Taipei to Beijing. Nauru is now one of only 17 which are resisting.

China has staged military exercises close to Taiwan’s shores
China has staged military exercises close to Taiwan’s shores

Taiwan has a long reputation of lying low and rolling with the punches from its hostile neighbour, but not anymore. Taipei has launched a global campaign pointing out that, despite its diplomatic isolation and threats from Beijing, Taiwan has developed into a successful democracy with first world living standards, mentored and helped by America.

‘This is not just Taiwan’s challenge,’ argues Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen.  ‘It is a challenge for the region and the world as a whole, because today it’s Taiwan, but tomorrow it may be any other country that will have to face the expansion of China’s influence.’

Taiwan has gone as far as challenging the United Nations itself for refusing even to allow entry onto its premises of Taiwanese officials and journalists.

For decades Beijing has wanted to get Taiwan back under its rule

‘By excluding a willing and able partner like Taiwan, the UN not only violates the fundamental human rights of Taiwan’s 23 million people but also greatly harms human welfare,’ says Foreign Minister, Joseph Wu.  ‘To ensure the UN remains relevant to all people, the organisation should stand up to external pressures and open its doors to Taiwan.’

Not long ago, such a statement would have been brushed aside because it called into question the One China Policy that had been in place for 40 years.  Now things are different.

Panama, the Dominican Republic and El Salvador are the latest three governments to abandon Taiwan in favour of Beijing.  The US responded by recalling its ambassadors, a powerful signal that with the Trump Administration, China and other governments need to think carefully about jeopardising Taiwan’s success.

And within Southeast Asia, one of the region’s bluntest voices has given China a public and well-argued slapping down.

Malaysia’s new prime minister, the 93-year-old Mahathir Mohammed, returned to office in May this year and immediately began to unwind debt-ridden Chinese-backed infrastructure projects. They were set up by his predecessor and worth more than $20 billion, including a gas pipeline and a high-speed railway.

‘We do not want a situation where there is a new version of colonialism happening because poor countries are unable to compete with rich countries,’ said Mahathir. He later flew to Beijing in a deliberately conciliatory mood conceding that Malaysia had a lot to learn from China. But the marker was already down not to mess with Malaysia.

Across the Himalayas, China is fast learning that its money and manners are not succeeding in bending India towards compliance. Given that the US has failed to bring India firmly into a strategic democratic alliance, China has little chance at all.

Instead, India is selling weapons to Vietnam, one of China’s most active opponents in its South China Sea claims, and teaming up with Indonesia to develop strategically located ports on either sides of the Malacca Straits, much to the fury of Beijing.

Indonesia itself has renamed its section of the South China Sea as the North Natuna Sea in defiance of China’s territorial claims there, while the Maldives, with a population of just over 400,000, used elections to eject authoritarian pro-Chinese president Abdulla Yameen from office.

As the voices of smaller Asian governments gather force, the US security umbrella has adopted a concept known as the Quad in which the strategic balance to China will be led by America, Australia, India and Japan.  The Quad has presentational problems because India will not lock into a binding treaty alliance and Japan and Australia are reliant on the US for their security. It risks, therefore, being seen as a creation of the US as opposed to one of Asia.

Malaysia has given China a public and well-argued slapping down

Another Western-sponsored alliance is the post-colonial Five Power Defence Arrangements comprising Australia, Britain, Malaysia, New Zealand and Singapore. Dormant for decades, it is now being increasingly referred to in defence circles, and there is no coincidence that in September Britain’s Royal Navy carried out a Freedom of Navigation Operation against Chinese military bases in the South China Sea.

It would be preferable if Asian governments themselves had formed their own front to balance China without US intervention.  But they haven’t and that does not diminish the strategic reality which Beijing faces.

An amalgamation of Asia-Pacific alliances and agreements include Australia, India, Japan, Malaysia, New Zealand, the Philippines, Singapore, South Korea and Thailand in one camp, with the US, Britain and France as powers outside the region ready to intervene. As yet, China has no workable alliances at all.

Beijing will also be noting the tightening up among Westerndemocracies of Chinese investment there, while Japan, India, Taiwan and others are initiating projects in Asia to match the excitement that once surrounded the Belt and Road Initiative. On top of all this, Beijing is dealing with Donald Trump’s trade war.

China is on a learning curve and has shown remarkable resilience over the decades in adapting to change. After its lessons of 2018, it is likely to hunker down, re-think and then move on, knowing that if it is to win this century, it needs the region to feel safe and respected.

Right now, Asia does not.

Humphrey Hawksley is a BBC Beijing Bureau Chief and Asia specialist. His latest book is Asian Waters: The Struggle Over the Asia-Pacific and the Strategy for China’s Expansion

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