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Zhao didn’t think the Communist Party could endure. The “Western parliamentary system is the one that has demonstrated the most vitality”, he wrote in his memoir. He thought China’s repressive system would vanish into history. He was wrong.
After an initial burst of indignation, the great nations of the West quietly let lapse their sanctions against Beijing. Instead of shunning China, countries everywhere got on with the business of selling to it. Bill Clinton denounced China’s leaders as “the butchers of Beijing” in the 1992 election campaign. A year later, the US president visited Beijing and shook hands with them. China proved too big, too powerful, too profitable to shut out.
“In just a single generation, the party elite has been transformed from a mirthless band of Mao-suited, ideological thugs to a wealthy, besuited and business-friendly ruling class,” says Australian journalist Richard McGregor in his book The Party. The party’s success is so overwhelming that, in the West, today it’s considered poor form to even mention the Tiananmen Square massacre in any mainstream business conference.
So it’s no real surprise that the party is confident it can pull off another brazen use of force to get its way. Week by week, push by shove, China is muscling its neighbours aside to assert ownership of large tracts of ocean. What other nations regard as disputed seas, China’s propagandists call “our blue national soil”. By ignoring international norms and laws in intimidating one country after another, China is asserting itself according to the precept set out by its former foreign affairs minister, Yang Jiechi, in 2010.
“China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact,” he told his counterpart from Asia’s smallest country, Singapore.
In 2009, China lodged with the United Nations a new claim to 90 per cent of the South China Sea. The claim is marked by the much-contested “nine-dash line” on the map. It’s in the shape of a giant scoop, dipping southwards from China to collect territories also claimed by Vietnam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Indonesia and Brunei. China also has overlapping claims to islets and rocks administered by Japan in the East China Sea.
When China towed a massive oil rig into the middle of waters claimed by Vietnam last month, the Vietnamese sent 20 to 30 ships to try to interfere. But Beijing sent 80. It put a protective ring around the rig.
China’s coast guard vessels used water cannon on the Vietnamese and rammed and sank a Vietnamese fishing boat.
“We cannot accept the coercion,” complained Vietnam’s foreign affairs minister, Nuguyen Quoc Cuong. But the rig is now in place.
China is rewriting history. The leaders of two of the nations in dispute with China, Benigno Aquino of the Philippines and Shinzo Abe of Japan, have likened China’s assertiveness to that of Germany under Hitler and warned against appeasing a bully. Senior political figures from the US and Japan spoke the obvious at a big defence conference on the weekend, the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore. US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel and Abe said that China was destabilising the region.
But the most senior Chinese military officer at the conference reacted angrily. China’s deputy chief of the general staff, Lieutenant-General Wang Guanzhong, rejected the speeches by Hagel and Abe as “unacceptable”. Hagel’s speech, he said, was “full of words of threat and intimidation” and part of “a provocative challenge against China”. But Wang knows that China is safe from any imminent challenge from the US. That’s one of the reasons China is pressing its case for territorial aggrandisement so insistently now – it assesses the US to be weak-willed.
President Barack Obama disappointed observers in the capitals of the US’s Asia-Pacific allies last week with a speech on foreign policy. It was generally judged to signal no serious intention to try to rein in China’s behaviour. And American relative power is only growing weaker with each passing year.
“If China expands its submarine fleet to 78 by 2020 as planned, it will be on par with the US navy’s undersea fleet in quantity,” writes an American expert, Robert Kaplan of Stratfor.
But China has the advantage that its diesel-electric subs are quieter than the US nuclear-powered fleet.
“At some point,” Kaplan says, “China is likely to, in effect, be able to deny the US navy unimpeded access to parts of the South China Sea.”
There is much for Tony Abbott to discuss with Obama when they meet next week. As it did 25 years ago in a very different situation, China is using force, rewriting history and getting away with it.
Peter Hartcher is the international editor.
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Tiananmen Square, 25 years on: Chinese dictatorship rewriting history as it ...