China’s red line
Last week, China released a 51-page defence white paper that outlined its long-term military plans, as well as its concerns about countries such as the United States and Australia. Published in Mandarin and English, the document was the country’s first such white paper in four years. It did not label the US an adversary – as Donald Trump’s 2017 national security strategy characterised China – but it did say Washington’s recent “unilateralism” had increased global tensions. It also claimed that Australia had contributed to regional instability by strengthening military ties with the US and “seeking a bigger role in security affairs”.
However, the white paper’s most revealing feature was not its preoccupation with global threats, but with domestic affairs. Of nine listed military aims, only four related to foreign enemies and interests. The remaining five included preserving territorial integrity, opposing Taiwan’s independence and “crack[ing] down on proponents of separatist movements such as ‘Tibet independence’ and the creation of ‘East Turkistan’.” This list was a reminder that the ruling Communist Party’s objective is, above all, ensuring its own survival, and also that it remains deeply insecure.
Yet this focus on internal stability does not mean that conflict with other countries, such as Australia, is less likely. Instead, it suggests that the futures of Taiwan and Hong Kong loom as potential flashpoints. For Australia and other Western-oriented nations, China’s white paper indicates that the cost of supporting the democratic rights of the Taiwanese and Hong Kongese peoples will be terrifyingly high. “[China] will never allow the secession of any part of its territory by anyone, any organisation or any political party by any means at any time,” the paper said. “We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures.” On Taiwan, it stated: “The [People’s Liberation Army] will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs.”
On the same day that this white paper was released, Beijing made rare comments about recent events in Hong Kong, where the population has been marching against the pro-Beijing government. A defence ministry spokesman, Wu Qian, said the protesters “absolutely cannot be tolerated” and that the PLA could intervene to restore order if the local government requested it. Earlier this week, another Chinese spokesman, Yang Guang, went further, saying of the protesters: “They have crossed the red line of the principle of ‘One country, Two systems’.” He would not say whether Chinese troops will be deployed to occupy the streets of Hong Kong.
The Hong Kong protests could lead to a showdown between the people and the PLA, whether this time or the next. The situation in Taiwan, which is preparing for an election in January, is also precarious. Xi Jinping has made it clear that he will respond harshly to any Taiwanese gestures towards independence.
The fates of Hong Kong and Taiwan present difficult choices for Australia, which wants to support democratic rights but fears retribution from China. Yesterday, foreign minister Marise Payne encapsulated this dilemma in her guarded remarks about Hong Kong. “Australia very much values the freedoms and the advantages of Hong Kong,” she told Sky News. Asked whether Beijing should acknowledge the concerns of the Hong Kong protesters, she said: “They’re matters for the Chinese government.”
China’s global reach is spreading, particularly through its growing trade and loans and the Belt and Road Initiative. The extent of its foreign ambitions – including whether it would like to expand territorially – remains opaque. But its plans for the territories it regards as domestic are brutally clear.