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10 August 2022

From the NS archive: The dragon with new teeth

9 June 1995: Why China’s military muscle-flexing should be a cause for concern.

By New Statesman

In 1995, six years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, there was growing evidence of Chinese geopolitical muscle-flexing. The writer of this piece, which looks increasingly prescient, warned against British inaction in the face of increasing Chinese militarism, noting that: “China is a nuclear power that is increasing arms spending by 25 per cent a year. It has a standing army of three million, and its navy, previously a defensive coastal force, is becoming a deep-water fleet of aircraft carriers, submarines and assault craft.” The year 2022 has recently seen that capability in action around Taiwan. In 1995, said the writer, “Taiwan is still not recognised diplomatically by Britain. This absurd denial of geo-political reality, reminiscent of the Cold War refusal to recognise East Germany, needs to be revised.”

China’s leaders were not alone in sighing with relief as the sixth anniversary of Tiananmen Square passed off without impact. The leaders of other Asian states are also quietly pleased that the memory of the Tiananmen revolt is fading. Although nominally anti-communist, the ruling elite in countries such as Singapore, Indonesia, Malaysia and Thailand are extremely nervous of pro-democracy movements in the region. But they are even more concerned about a new and alarming spectre from Beijing.

In the week of the Tiananmen anniversary, China showed the latest side of its growing military might when it tested its mobile-launch ballistic missiles at the secret nuclear testing site of Xinjiang. Other authoritarian states in Asia may not care about Chinese repression of human rights, but they are concerned about a new Chinese militarism that threatens to lead the world’s most dynamic economic region into instability and a massive 21st-century arms race.

Foreign Office policy is to play up British money-making in China, play down human rights abuses and say nothing about the growth of Chinese aggression and menace. Yet China is a nuclear power that is increasing arms spending by 25 per cent a year. It has a standing army of three million, and its navy, previously a defensive coastal force, is becoming a deep-water fleet of aircraft carriers, submarines and assault craft. Boeing is now building aircraft in China, a move designed to take advantage of cheap, union-free labour, but which represents a wholesale transfer of US aerospace technology to modernise the Chinese airforce.

In recent years, China has shown a determination to flex its military might that would have been denounced if undertaken by any other state. Despite the worldwide agreement to shelve nuclear testing, for example, China undertook an underground test as an act of deliberate provocation during the recent UN conference on the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Treaty, which China refuses to sign. It continues to occupy Tibet, sabre-rattles in Vietnam’s direction, and remains insistent that various groups of islands in the South China Sea, most more than 1,000 miles from the Chinese coast, fall under Beijing’s control. China has refused to sign the International Law of the Sea convention, which would place most of the disputed islands under the sovereignty of the Philippines, Malaysia or Vietnam. Instead, Chinese naval forces have sunk Vietnamese patrol boats and planted the Chinese flag on the appropriately named Mischief Reef, which is as close to the Philippines as the Scilly Isles are to England.

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Far to the south, Indonesia is concerned about Chinese claims on the Natuna gas fields, within Indonesian waters. Malaysia has sharply stepped up its military spending. Filipino admirals are clamouring for extra money to defend their islands against Chinese threats. And the growth of a Chinese nuclear-military profile is the perfect excuse for South Korean generals to keep their military budget high.

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Another unresolved question is that of Taiwan. If, thanks to Margaret Thatcher’s blundering diplomacy, the six million people of Hong Kong are shortly to be handed over to the Chinese gulag, the people of Taiwan have no intention of letting their burgeoning democracy be transformed into another outpost of Beijing totalitarianism. Taiwan certainly has a gruesome past, but its current wealth and level of political development make it one of the more interesting areas in Asia.

The rise of an educated citizenry has helped change Taiwanese politics in a progressive direction. Fist-fights in the Taiwanese National Assembly may make parliamentary purists shudder but reflect a real tension between different viewpoints no longer repressed by a monolithic ruling party. There are powerful student, women’s and green groups. Taxi-drivers recently sealed off the centre of Taipei with a “honk-a-thon” in protest at political corruption.

Taiwanese politics makes mock of the old Beijing slogan, “One country, two systems”, which still governs official British policy thinking. Instead, there is now one-system authoritarian market capitalism and three recognisable Chinese nation-states – China, Taiwan and Singapore. Yet, despite having a GDP greater than most EU members, Taiwan is still not recognised diplomatically by Britain. This absurd denial of geo-political reality, reminiscent of the Cold War refusal to recognise East Germany, needs to be revised.

In addition, British policy-makers should focus more clearly on the threat posed by China. The military resurgence of Chinese imperialism needs careful watching. The continuing repression of human and labour rights in China will be as big a challenge to democracy in the next century as was the threat of Hitlerism and Stalinism in this one. The students of Tiananmen Square may feel they are forgotten, but the torch of democracy they lit flickers as one of the major unresolved issues of global politics.

Read more from the NS archive here, and sign up to the weekly “From the archive” newsletter here. A selection of pieces spanning the New Statesman’s history has recently been published as “Statesmanship” (Weidenfeld & Nicolson).

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