Is Xi Jinping really focussed on world domination?
China’s ambitious Belt and Road Initiative is often seen as an attempt by Beijing to extend its influence around the world. But is there evidence that China wants to extend its direct influence beyond a few territories it regards as Chinese?
Coronavirus has boosted China’s growing economic might as the west flounders amid bungled lockdowns and endless debates about masks and vaccines.
The Chinese military is increasingly powerful and assertive in regions like the South China Sea and East China Sea, threatening the territory of Vietnam, the Philippines and Japan.
Taiwan looks ever more vulnerable to the growing power of Chinese President Xi Jinping who regards the island as a breakaway Chinese province. It seems Taipei has few international allies who would be prepared to defend it against a Chinese invasion.
Few observers still talk about the prospect of meaningful autonomy for Tibet. Meanwhile, the democratic movement in Hong Kong and the Muslim Uyghurs of Xinjiang are crushed.
And the Belt and Road Initiative appears to be spreading Xi’s influence around the world, taking Chinese soft power and financial dominance across central Asia, Africa and much of Europe.
Chinese ports, pipelines, roads and railways are spanning the globe with the looming prospect of a Chinese century. The idea is unpalatable to many in the west. Beijing has little respect for western concepts of privacy, human rights and even architectural heritage.
Chinese Communist Party urban planners have happily bulldozed China’s architectural and cultural heritage since 1949.
However, it appears Beijing’s territorial ambitions are limited to territories it regards as part of China. These include Hong Kong, Tibet, Xinjiang, the South and East China seas and Taiwan.
Xi and previous Chinese leaders appear unwilling to extend their direct authority beyond these areas. This makes Communist China unusual, and potentially unique, among great powers.
On February 1 Myanmar’s corrupt and brutal military seized power from the democratically elected National League for Democracy government after a second consecutive humiliating general election defeat.
The response of both China and Russia was morally bankrupt, vetoing any action by the United Nations Security Council and maintaining close ties with the bloodthirsty regime.
Beijing refused to use the word “coup” and instead referred to a “major cabinet reshuffle”. China continues to deal with the Burmese junta without any apparent concern about the ongoing murder of civilians and imprisonment of Myanmar’s elected leaders.
Myanmar is key to China’s Belt and Road Initiative (BRI) with existing oil and gas pipelines running from the Rakhine State coastline at Kyaukphyu to Yunnan province.
Beijing hopes to extend the pipelines to a wider corridor linking southwestern China by road and rail with the Indian Ocean.
Xi has envisioned turning the landlocked, agricultural province into an economic hub, capable of exporting rapidly through Myanmar. A pair of shoes destined for the European market made in Yunnan currently has to travel thousands of kilometres across China’s interior and then around a lengthy sea route through the Pacific and Indian oceans and the Suez canal before reaching their destination.
Transport links through Myanmar could transform impoverished Yunnan farming communities into a vibrant export belt, capable of sending manufactured goods to Europe and Africa far quicker than factories on the Pacific coast that have to negotiate the crowded Malacca Strait near Singapore.
But this ambitious vision has been jeopardised by Myanmar’s military thugs who have turned a compliant neighbour into a failed state where Chinese businesses are targeted by rebels and its BRI projects are vulnerable to attack by the popular resistance movement.
No previous rising power would tolerate this level of instability on its borders or disruption to its strategic vision for regional dominance.
Myanmar’s February coup and the subsequent shut down of the administration by the civil disobedience movement provided Xi with a pretext to send his troops to secure a corridor around its pipelines to secure Chinese investments.
The British empire extended into Egypt, Cyprus, Aden, Sudan and other territories to preserve control of its umbilical link to India, the Suez Canal.
The US occupied the Panama Canal and backed numerous developing-world dictators and right-wing insurgencies to defend its perceived interests.
The Roman empire pushed into Tunisia, Armenia, Syria and Egypt to crush regional powers that threatened its hegemony.
But China appears incapable of crushing the destabilising North Korean regime.
It is has been made clear that any US invasion of North Korea would be intolerable to China because of the prospect of American troops being stationed along the Chinese border.
However, there would be few international complaints about a Chinese occupation of North Korea.
There is speculation about whether North Korea could reach the US Pacific cities with nuclear missiles while Beijing is less than 600km from North Korean territory.
North Korea is a clear and present danger to China.
But Xi appears unwilling to use his growing military muscle and unparalleled economic clout to ensure Chinese security and foreign assets that are key to his strategic BRI vision.
China’s apparent unwillingness to expand into neighbouring states also raises questions about western defence budgets.
Can Washington continue to justify channeling almost US$1 trillion each year into its military if its primary strategic adversary is not interested in extending its control beyond scattered, artificial islands in the South China Sea and Taiwan?
China’s armed forces are increasingly formidable. Picture credit: Flickr