“China is not interested in invading Australia. It is not a threat to anyone,” the former Australian Prime Minister Paul Keating said in a National Press Club interview on March 15. It was an astonishing statement from a man who usually displays a sound awareness of national and global affairs, because the course of events shows that China is intent on being the dominant world power. Indeed, it has unwaveringly and determinedly followed a plan and a process to that effect for almost fifty years.
In 1976 Mao Zedong died and was replaced in 1978 by Deng Xiaoping. Deng never held the posts of chairman or president, but nevertheless he was the de facto supreme leader for over a decade and his government commenced a process and implemented a broad-brush plan which established the principles and the basis for all its actions ever since. The process has been applied in a resolute, methodical and single-minded fashion. Because of the secretive nature of China’s government it is not clear if a definitive original plan exists in a single document, but its key elements are clear from the trajectory of the nation’s development in recent decades. Countless papers have been written about China, but this article summarises the core features of the process and the plan as evidenced by the way they have been implemented. The plan and the process of implementation have been modified and refined over time, but there are several key elements that have remained steadfast.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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The aim of the plan is simple and straightforward: to establish China as the pre-eminent nation in the world. This objective was prompted by the sense of national humiliation that Chinese people felt they had experienced at the hands of Western countries since the early nineteenth century. Also, it stemmed from the self-belief that China had always been a great nation and that it should become great again. The plan requires that everything—everything—must be dedicated to that end, and all the actions of the Chinese government, Chinese corporations, individuals, and all social and cultural agencies are expected to contribute. Moreover, all international activities undertaken by China, including those which appear to be benign and benevolent (such as foreign aid and Confucius institutes), must be seen as contributing in some way to the progress of the mother country.
The plan and the process are not founded on a single theory or philosophy. Indeed, they have changed and adapted, but any changes have consistently sustained the objective of national advancement. The government is generally referred to as the Chinese Communist Party (CCP), but it is not communist at all, the general principles formulated by Marx and Engels, and Mao, having been pushed into the background. Public utterances by the government might make use of such traditional communist rhetoric as “the workers” and “the people”, but in practice it is a totalitarian system, a dictatorship which severely limits individual liberties and expects total adherence to government demands. Contrary to communist doctrine, free enterprise is encouraged, but as has become apparent in recent years, seemingly independent private corporations large and small (such as international businesses Huawei and TikTok) are required to act as agents of the central government—an instance of capitalism being recruited to the benefit of the government. It is sometimes described as communism with Chinese characteristics.
Many historical influences have been important in shaping Chinese thinking. It is not possible here to consider them all, but the two best-known and most enduring are Confucius and Sun-Tzu. Even though these two men lived several hundred years BC, the lessons they (and others) presented have been important in shaping modern-day events, including the plan and the process. Confucius stressed moral and ethical principles, the value of orderliness, virtue, filial respect and social harmony. The thing the central government fears most is social unrest and disharmony.
Sun-Tzu, on the other hand, focused on military matters, his treatise, The Art of War, describing ways of preparing to deal with a competitor or an enemy. He emphasises the importance of discipline, orderliness, preparedness, social order and the garnering of intelligence about an opponent. Among his statements are: obtain detailed intelligence about your opponent; war should be total and one should win at all costs; all warfare is based on deception; defeat the enemy even before conflict has commenced; arrange for the enemy to do all the work. These various concepts still apply and are closely studied by military personnel, and they are the bedrock of much of China’s military thinking.
But the most important idea Sun-Tzu propounded was that it is possible to defeat an enemy without firing a shot. This concept is especially relevant to Australia, and indeed to many other open democratic countries which welcome immigrants and which adhere to the principle of free trade. Such countries have become highly vulnerable to Chinese economic and political influence.
It is instructive to see that these concepts are evident in both military parades and the workings of government. Military parades demonstrate astonishingly high degrees of organised precision on the part of very large numbers of participants. Similarly, the broadcast reports of the annual CCP meetings in the Great Hall in Beijing show a closely choreographed display. Of course, these events are just for public show, the visible part of the working of the Chinese system, yet their relevance here is that they are testament to the importance the government places on unity, harmony, order and discipline; there are no signs of individualism, opposition, disunity, or disrespect for authority.
To achieve its goal of global importance and to implement its great plan, China’s government has applied some general strategies that may be summarised as follows.
First, the process in implementing the plan is very methodical. Every activity it undertakes, especially internationally, is meticulously planned and orchestrated. Nothing is left to chance, nothing is done spontaneously.
Second, the process is all-encompassing. In internal matters it includes social and cultural activities and areas such as farming, transport, infrastructure, housing, local government and health. But the focus has been on economic development, especially manufacturing, and so successful has this been that globally most manufactured goods now come from Chinese factories. Internationally, China has reached into all continents and established a presence in all nations—priority being given to economically developed economies and to those with valuable natural resources.
Third, learning from developed nations. Since Deng’s time in office, China has devoted special attention to education. This has entailed raising the overall level of education of the populace, but more importantly it has involved young people studying at overseas universities, with a focus on subjects which would be of material benefit to Mother China. Ignoring the social sciences and humanities, students are expected to specialise in scientific, technical and business topics as well as medical courses.
But education aside, the central government has been particularly adroit in the use of tactics which provide shortcuts to development; after all, why start from scratch when you can buy, copy or steal ready-made technology? One shortcut has been to buy existing businesses from developed nations. These have included aircraft companies, car companies, and especially high-tech computer and microchip businesses. Another shortcut has been to copy manufactured goods and then produce identical, or similar, items at lower cost.
The most successful tactic has been to offer low-cost manufacturing. Many manufacturers in Western economies were attracted by the promise of big profits from the production of their goods at reduced cost in Chinese factories. As has been well documented, this tactic has resulted in the US, Europe and Australia losing their manufacturing capacity and becoming reliant on China for most goods. Australia once made high-quality steel, electrical appliances, ships, trains, clothing, household items and vehicles, but our knowledge, skills and production capacity have been lost.
The theft of intellectual property has been particularly galling for Western nations, yet this process has persisted despite promises from Chinese leaders. The focus of theft has been on the high-tech industries associated with the likes of space research, aviation, defence, quantum computing, the internet and micro-electronics, and it has enabled many Chinese corporations to leap ahead without the cost or time required for original basic research. It is no accident that many Chinese items (such as aircraft) look identical to those produced by the US.
Fourth, taking advantage of every event. Absolutely every event—good or bad, local or global, natural or man-made, worthy or reprehensible—can be turned to the benefit of China. This has been an especially cynical aspect of China’s foreign policy. Events such as civil strife and financial difficulties create vacuums which, in turn, provide an opportunity to acquire resources cheaply or to intrude into the affairs of other nations. An example is the “debt trap” whereby China extends to poorer countries high-interest loans which cannot be repaid and so the debtor nation is forced to cede resources or strategic infrastructure. Examples are the 2014 infrastructure-loan crisis in Tonga and the unsustainable loan to Sri Lanka for the port of Hambantota, which resulted in Sri Lanka ceding to China a Chinese-built port which is now claimed as sovereign Chinese territory.
Natural disasters, too, offer the chance for China to parade its apparent benevolence as a disguise for obtaining advantage. One instance in 2014 involved a sophisticated surveillance vessel sent to the Indian Ocean to search for the missing Malaysian flight 370. When given permission to berth in Perth it made a prolonged stay near the HMAS Stirling naval facility until it was asked to leave. It was evident that the ship was more concerned with obtaining information about Australian naval methods than with searching the ocean. Another petty but instructive event occurred in 2022 after a cyclone in Vanuatu. Shortly after the damaging storm an RAAF Hercules arrived with emergency aid but was blocked from landing by a Chinese air force transport which shortly before had halted in the middle of Vila airport runway, purportedly immovable because of a mechanical problem, but after its cargo of aid had been unloaded it was miraculously repaired and promptly departed. The RAAF flight was obliged to wait until the next day, by which time the Chinese had been able to obtain favourable media coverage by claiming they were Vanuatu’s best friend and the first to assist.
The methods whereby China has been implementing its great plan are too numerous to be considered in detail here, but they include the contentious Belt and Road program, projects in resource-rich African countries, using North Korea as a proxy to threaten the US, and belligerent naval activities. At the time of writing Xi Jinping is basking in the role of honest broker by apparently arranging détente between Saudi Arabia and Iran.
The implementation of China’s great plan and the strategies and tactics described here have particular relevance to Australia. Indeed, the Chinese government has already achieved a strong (some would say a controlling) interest in our country. We now have a substantial population of ethnic Chinese, the number growing steadily. Many are so comfortable in their local communities that they do not bother to learn English. The Australian government has accepted Chinese investment, in the mistaken belief that it is only investment when in fact the objective is not financial return but rather ownership and control. Mineral resources, farmland, food processing, communications, infrastructure, transport, water rights in the Murray-Darling Basin, management of ports, tourism; all have been the target of Chinese takeovers, and once acquired they are rarely relinquished.
The dictum of Sun-Tzu mentioned above, that deception is a key strategy for gaining control of an opponent, certainly applies here and elsewhere. When dealing with Chinese entities nothing is what it seems, the CCP having a seemingly endless capacity for artifice and duplicity. A few recent examples serve to illustrate. Many universities and some schools now contain Confucius institutes which nominally promote culture and language, and while they may do these things it has become evident that they can have a malign influence by monitoring the behaviour of Chinese students and by providing propaganda material under the guise of education. Other seemingly benign groups purport to foster cultural understanding. For instance the Australia China Friendship Society sounds worthy but much of its attention is on gaining access to politicians, to governments, and to people of influence.
The process outlined here, and some of the tactics described, are just parts of China’s quest for global influence. So much is happening on the other continents that it is difficult to list all the steps that China is taking to obtain influence and control. It is evident from Paul Keating’s comments that he refuses to recognise the malign influence of the Chinese government and its ultimate long-term plan. Yet he and other leaders opened the door for that influence.
Dr Christopher Nance is a retired public servant and academic. He contributed “The Political Weaponising of Truth-Telling” to the January-February issue.