CHINA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
'One Ring to rule them all': China's strategic aims
, March 2, 2013
Less than a month ago I was on board the ferry from Georgetown on Penang Island, travelling to Butterworth on the Malay Peninsula. Taking the ferry was totally unnecessary; a bridge now connects Penang Island and the mainland.
Butterworth for many years hosted a squadron of planes from the RAAF under the Five Power Defence Arrangements (FPDA). Some Australian personnel are still stationed there.
Much to my surprise, however, I saw under construction a second bridge between Penang Island and the Malay Peninsula.
Why surprise? It is quite obvious that the first bridge, which was recently widened, is not being used to capacity. The second bridge, at 24 km (15 miles), will be the longest in South-East Asia if completed on schedule in September 2013.
The bridge is being funded by a loan from the People’s Republic of China and being built by a Chinese construction firm.
The aim is that the bridge will carry freight and passengers by a more direct route from Malaysia across Thailand to China, with the intention of bringing Penang and northern Malaysia into China’s economic orbit.
This is a typical and by no means unique Chinese strategy. To quote the late Professor Julius Sumner Miller: “Why is it so?”
It is often said that China is not an aggressively expansionist power. For the last two centuries, China has been weak. Its exploitation at the hands of the yang gui dz (“foreign devils”) is still bitterly resented. China was unable to be aggressively expansionist in the south and east because it did not have the means. The Ching emperors tried to cut China off from the Western world, but in the north and west it consolidated its hold on lands that were not traditionally part of China, such as Manchuria.
The means by which China acquires and consolidates its power are as fixed and immutable as the laws of physics which Professor Miller demonstrated so ably many years ago on ABC television.
These laws have been described as developing a “Sinocentric sphere of influence”. Each gain is consolidated into the Han Chinese motherland by a progression of economic integration, social integration and finally ethnic colonisation.
Tibet, for example, was never part of China. Indeed, “Tibet”, as it appears on the map, is only a relatively small part of the historical Tibet.
Other surrounding provinces have many areas with majority Tibetan populations. However, the population of Lhasa, the capital of Tibet, is now three-quarters Han Chinese.
Similarly with the western province of Xinjiang, which means “New Frontier”. The majority Uyghur (pronounced “wee-goor”) population, a Muslim people of Turkic origin, are being displaced by Han Chinese settlers.
China has most recently turned its attention to South-East Asia, in particular the South China Sea, and also the East China Sea. It claims both as its domain.
China’s strategy is one that is easily understood by aficionados of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings trilogy:
One Ring to rule them all,
One Ring to find them,
One Ring to bring them all
And in the darkness bind them.
We have already seen how China uses the well-established desire of neighbouring politicians to conciliate their electorates with economic growth funded by China. This growth can be funded directly, as in the second Penang bridge, or through trade.
Burma, which has been taking steps to reintegrate with the world, was at one time a virtual Chinese colony. China has significant interests in Burma, including oil and gas pipelines worth $2 billion crossing Burma and China’s Yunnan Province. These pipelines allow China to avoid shipping its energy needs through the Strait of Malacca.
China has also been plundering Burmese forests and stripping Burma of its precious jade and rubies, which Chinese women covet. Beijing has been watching Burma’s rapprochement with the West apprehensively. One would be very obtuse not to realise that Burma’s emergence is due in part to its desire to loosen the Chinese bear hug.
Laos is a small landlocked Indochinese country. During the Vietnam War, it had the misfortune to be the dumping-ground for excess US bombs and other ordnance. When I visited Laos almost a decade ago, it was a charming country almost devoid of development, except for the Sepon gold mine, run by an Australian mining company.
In November 2012, Laos hosted the ASEAN Summit. The necessary upgrades it required to just about everything, in order to match its status as the summit’s host, were paid for by China.
Saying that China aims to be only a “first among equals” is incorrect. China first aims to acquire influence, then consolidate its power and then consolidate that entity every more fully into the Sinocentric power structure.
This may take years. It may take centuries. But the Chinese are a patient people. And memories of Western gunboat diplomacy and the Opium Wars still rankle.
Jeffry Babb is a Melbourne-based writer, who has recently returned from a tour of South-East Asia.