A planned China-Russia naval exercise is a provocation to the US in Southeast Asia
We are living in an exceedingly dangerous world that is challenging the core values of our Western civilisation. But in Australia — remote from the main centres of military power and terrorist attacks — we live in a surreal world. In the federal election, there was scarcely a mention of national security or terrorism.
The fact is Russia and China, both authoritarian powers, are challenging the Western liberal order through the use of military force and coercion. They are aligned in their hostility towards the US and its democratic allies. They are seeking to alter international borders and extend their territories. All this is occurring just as Western electorates are experiencing a yawning gap between the governed and their governments. Domestic politics in the West are in disarray over the impact of globalisation, illegal immigrants and the control of borders.
At the same time, Western democracies are facing an unprecedented assault by extreme Islamic terrorists. The ambitions of a resurgent Russia are to reassert Russia as a great power (derzhava) and to recover lost territories.
Vladimir Putin’s “new model Russia” is one of an independent great power resuming its geopolitical position on its own terms. Putin speaks of Russia’s civilising mission on the European continent.
He claims the right to a sphere of strategic interest in Russia’s neighbourhood, in which Western influence would be limited. That sphere includes not only Crimea and Ukraine but also the Baltic countries, as well as Belarus, Moldova and Kazakhstan.
Putin’s Russia is set on a path of confrontation with the West. US Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Joseph Dunford has described Russia as presenting “the greatest threat to our national security”. From Putin’s perspective, Russia faces a weak and divided Europe that is ineffective and leaderless, overwhelmed by a huge refugee problem, and with Britain’s exit from the EU as heralding the unravelling of European unity.
Moscow’s political will to resort to force seems to be entirely absent in Europe these days.
This is not to underestimate the challenge emanating from a rising China but China does not pose an existential threat to world peace in the same way as Russia.
Unlike Russia, China is not yet using military force to assert its territorial claims but it is using such harsh coercion that — like Russia — it is causing serious alarm in its neighbourhood. China’s territorial ambitions in the South and East China seas are being pursued with great belligerence and they are the likeliest source of miscalculation leading to direct military conflict with the US and its allies.
China’s rejection of the legal findings of the UN Permanent Court of Arbitration on July 12 with respect to the South China Sea uses dismissive and threatening rhetoric. Beijing treats the Association of Southeast Asian Nations claimants with contempt, stating China is a big country and other countries are small.
In an ominous development, The Wall Street Journal on July 29 reported China and Russia would hold joint naval exercises for the first time in the South China Sea next month. The Chinese Defence Ministry said these would be “routine” exercises “not targeting any third party”. Who believes that? Moreover, on June 8 and 9 three Russian destroyers met a Chinese warship to transit through the waters adjoining Japan’s Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands claims in the East China Sea. This is starting to look like a co-ordinated China-Russia challenge to US naval supremacy in the region.
All this is occurring just as major Western powers, and not least the US and Britain, are becoming increasingly obsessed with the effects of globalisation on their domestic politics.
In their different ways, presidential candidate Donald Trump and the Brexit vote in Britain reflect deep-seated anger about the loss of jobs and falling living standards. The Economist on July 30 headlined what it called a new political divide in which populist, xenophobic and anti-globalist politicians were on the rise in Europe and the US and promising to put up walls to keep out the world.
Twenty years ago, Massachusetts Institute of Technology economics professor Lester Thurow proclaimed that capitalism had no plausible competitor. But, he observed, dissatisfaction and hostility was growing and governments were in trouble everywhere in the world since they had no answers to the real problems and worries facing their citizens. Demonstrably, that is even more so the case today. Thurow raised the key question: will capitalism be able to adapt? Or will it be yet another unchallenged, then suddenly obsolete, ideology?
This witches’ brew is coming to the boil just when the West is facing ceaseless barbaric assaults from extreme Islamic fundamentalism. What happens if, as a result, civil war erupts in a European country such as France?
As historian Barbara Tuchman observes in her book The Proud Tower, the turn of the last century was a pivotal moment in history, when widespread and violent anarchist terrorism, and the helplessness of society to defend itself, occurred at the same time as the geopolitical challenge of the rising military power of Germany. The nations of the West were self-satisfied and setting themselves up, all unwittingly, for the catastrophe to come in World War I.
I am not predicting here that history will repeat itself, but we are clearly entering a dangerous era for which we are ill-prepared.
Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University.