Days before China started to celebrate the 70th anniversary of its people’s republic, communist leaders issued a policy declaration entitled “China and the World in the New Era” which hailed “a development path with Chinese characteristics.”
Reporting on the document’s release on September 27, the state-run Global Times newspaper opined that “China has grown into a giant” that has taken aim at “Western logic – that a country is destined to seek hegemony after becoming strong.”
That, according to the Global Times, “does not apply to China” and its strictly peaceful, not confrontational, rise. China is only interested in global development and “win-win cooperation”, the paper asserted.
While no one would dispute that China’s people’s republic has emerged into an economic and political superpower on its 70th anniversary, the paper’s other conclusions are not generally shared by rival powers.
While the Global Times was trumpeting China’s peaceful rise, Japan’s government issued a new defense white paper which concluded that “China engages in unilateral, coercive attempts to alter the status quo on its own assertions that are incompatible with the existing international order.”
In particular, Tokyo believes that Beijing could use its infrastructure-focused US$1 trillion Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) to deploy its military into the Indian and Pacific Ocean regions, in moves the paper said “could shake up regional security.”
That shake up is arguably already happening. In 2017, China established its first military base overseas, in Djibouti at the Horn of Africa and entrance to the Red Sea.
Western analysts say the Chinese base is now heavily fortified with landing facilities for naval warships and an underground space of 23,000 square meters for unspecified purposes, indicating there is more to the base than meets the eye.
Since the BRI was launched in 2013, at least 130 countries have signed deals of interest in China-supported projects. The World Bank estimates around $575 billion worth of BRI railroads, roads, ports and other projects have been built or are now under construction in 60 of those countries.
That’s already put certain BRI signatories in heavy, sovereignty-eroding debt. In Sri Lanka, for example, China secured a 70% stake and 99-year lease over the Hambantota port it built after the local government couldn’t afford to service its debt to Beijing.
Similar alarms rang in Myanmar over the $7.3 billion price tag China put on the Kyaukphyu deep-sea port and special economic zone it aims to develop under BRI. Already heavily burdened by foreign debt, Myanmar negotiated the project’s cost down to $1.3 billion, all the while raising questions about the intent of Beijing’s original inflated price.
Pakistan’s Gwadar, another port facility on the Indian Ocean built and managed by China, has likewise courted controversy as Islamabad now owes China at least US$10 billion for the facility’s construction and other BRI projects at a time the nation teeters on the edge of sovereign default.
Japan’s stated concern over the terms and conditions of China’s infrastructure projects are now apparently shared by the European Union (EU). On September 27, just days before China’s 70th anniversary celebrations, Japan and the EU signed a new infrastructure deal to coordinate and finance transport, energy and digital projects in Asia.
The purpose of the accord, according to a Reuters report, is to establish links between “Europe and Asia, seeking an alternative to Chinese largesse that has raised suspicion in Brussels and Tokyo.”
The deal formalized Japan’s involvement in a new EU-Asia “connectivity plan” that will be backed by a new 60 billion euro ($65.5 billion) EU guarantee fund, development banks and private investors, the Reuters report said.
In a snipe at China, Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe told an EU-Asia forum in Brussels that “whether it be a single road or a single port, when the EU and Japan undertake something, we are able to build sustainable, rules-based connectivity from the Indo-Pacific to the Western Balkans and Africa.”
The US is also pushing back, albeit more strategically, at China’s BRI designs for the region, including in Taiwan, which China considers a renegade province. On September 22, the US announced in Taipei that it will test in Taiwan its first-ever Cyber Offensive and Defensive Exercises in November.
The first part of the drill, Taiwan’s vice premier Chen Chi-mai said, will test the response of government staff and officials to phishing emails or text messages, which he characterized “as the most common form of cyberattack.”
That may be so, but the main reason may have been what Chen mentioned as the second part of the drill: responses in the public and private sectors to cyberattacks launched from “foreign and local countries.”
The exercises, Chen said, will “bring together 15 countries to address simulated cyber-threats from North Korea targeting social engineering, critical infrastructure, and financial institutions.”
Taiwan has no reason to be worried about North Korea, but the cyberattacks he described are exactly what China would likely launch if it tried to invade the self-ruled island, as Chinese President Xi Jinping has promised to do to “reunite” it with the mainland in 2020.
The main worry of Taiwanese military planners is not a full-scale “D-Day-style” Chinese amphibious invasion, which would cause an international outcry and strategically have slim chances of succeeding, but an initial cyberattack that knocks out Taiwan’s electricity grid.
Banks, companies and governmental institutions could also be targeted, disrupting the economy and causing the chaos China would need for a takeover to succeed.
On May 2, the US Department of Defense stated in its annual China Military Power report that Beijing would use “electronic and cyber operations during a Taiwan contingency” to seize and maintain “battlefield information control in contemporary informatized warfare.”
Without overtly mentioning China, Chen said that he is “hoping that the debut cyber security drill will not only prepare the government for future attacks but also help Taiwan and other countries to form a joint cyber security network.”
To be sure, Beijing’s “development path with Chinese characteristics” is not as benign as the authors of its recent policy declaration wants the world to believe.
Equally alarmingly for the region’s democracies, the document also states that China’s success “has inspired some developing countries” to follow the same authoritarian path to development laid out by Beijing.
According to the Global Times: “However, as China didn’t take the Western road, nor did it yield to pressure…some elites in a few Western countries are disappointed, frustrated and dissatisfied.”
But that disappointment, frustration and dissatisfaction is also arguably shared with countries which are now burdened by China’s sovereignty-eroding loans and credits issued on terms that critics say are designed for default.
Japan, Taiwan, South Korea, India and Indonesia, all functioning regional democracies, have also shown that Chinese-style authoritarianism is not the only model for economic development and prosperity.
And it will be increasingly difficult as the entire region becomes more globalized and integrated for Beijing to claim that what’s now happening in Hong Kong, or its threats against Taiwan, are merely “internal Chinese affairs.”
China’s dramatic rise has thus arguably done more to polarize than unite the Asia-Pacific region, a fact that is plain to see on the 70th anniversary of its people’s republic. And as China grows ever stronger, so likely too will the resistance to its rise, equally on strategic and ideological fronts.