Field notes from the foothills of the new cold war
5 Dec 2019|

The growing pace of strategic change means that every week brings more data points charting the Indo-Pacific’s slide towards a riskier, more dangerous reality.


More than 300 attendees of the 1st Tokyo Global Dialogue—hosted by the excellent Japan Institute of International Affairs on its 60th anniversary—watched with concern and amusement the performance of Liu Mingfu, professor at China’s National Defence University and ‘an outstanding Chinese Communist Party member of the Chinese People’s Liberation Army’.

Liu is a type of celebrity PLA colonel, something of a media star and author of a 2010 book, The China dream: great power thinking and strategic posture in the post-American era. The flamboyant professor shouted, saluted, marked time and heroically pointed to the upper-middle distance while explaining the unstoppable but nonetheless desirable rise of the People’s Republic to global dominance.

Liu’s book is a calmer account of how China will win a race for dominance with the United States. Here’s a small taste:

China’s role as a great power cannot be limited to a major economic role. Those who think China’s rise is not an ideological and military rise, or who think China’s rise is just an economic rise, and that China is only rising to become an economic power or a GDP power, are making a strategic mistake. A rich nation without a strong military is an insecure power.

Those many folk in Australia who conveniently claim that China is too complex or too opaque to form views on should read Liu’s book. He’s a hardliner, but no less believable for that. He offers a clear guide to the thought processes behind China’s military expansion and activities in the South China Sea, the Pacific and elsewhere. Liu is pleased to be credited with coining the now familiar phrase ‘new China dream’.

A Japanese audience member asked the professor/colonel if he understood that his shouty calisthenics were putting the audience offside, which led to a loud declaration that this was the moment when Japan could escape from under the American yoke to join China in redesigning the regional security order. Also on the stage was the Hudson Institute’s Michael Pillsbury. No meek-minded accommodationist, Pillsbury said he once organised for Liu to give a talk at the Pentagon which had resulted in an ‘immediate’ $5 billion US defence budget increase. Feeling the love, Liu said that it was his intention to save Pillsbury from internment when the moment came.

South China Sea

In late November both China and the US were reported to have increased their naval activities in the South China Sea. China transited a carrier south through the Taiwan Strait into the South China Sea to conduct research and routine training, according to Xinhua. Two US warships conducted freedom-of-navigation operations.

At around the same time, reports emerged that China had deployed an aerostat (a Zeppelin-like airship) to Mischief Reef in the South China Sea. There are multiple potential uses of these highly stable platforms, but broad-area surveillance potentially linked to weapons targeting is an obvious application in the South China Sea.

Even as China pursues agreements with several Southeast Asian countries on resource exploration in the region, Beijing continues to strengthen its capacity to operate from its artificial island airbases. In front of a large Perth audience, the case was once put to me by a senior political figure that, having built the islands, China was unlikely to provoke further international incidents by actually using them for any military purpose.

What is clear is that—years after the islands’ construction—China is sharply strengthening its military capacity in the region, giving it first-mover advantage and options for control of sea and airspace that could not be quickly countered.


It was lost in the media coverage of President Donald Trump’s goodwill visit to NATO’s 70th anniversary meeting, but the alliance’s secretary general, Jens Stoltenberg, pointed to important work that NATO is doing to develop a shared policy on China:

What we see is that the rising power of China is shifting the global balance of power and the rises of China—the economic rise, the military rise—provide some opportunities but also some serious challenges …

[W]e have to address the fact that China is coming closer to us, investing heavily in infrastructure. We see them in Africa, we see them in the Arctic, we see them in cyber space and China now has the second-largest defense budget in the world. So of course, this has some consequences for NATO.

Not before time, but hopefully just in time, Europe is starting to get its collective and individual act together on China. Few, if any, serious European countries continue to regard China simply as an economic opportunity. Earlier this year the European Union in an official document described China as an ‘economic competitor’ in critical industrial fields and, notably, a political ‘systemic rival’.  The aim is to have a common EU China policy settled by the time the annual EU–China Summit is held in Leipzig in September 2020.


Special mention this week goes to Treasury deputy secretary Meghan Quinn who, according to an article in the Australian Financial Review by John Kehoe, told a recent conference: ‘We do tend to be trained about incentives in a monetary form but there are actors out there that have a different framing on what the final objective is.’ Yes indeed! This is one small step at least towards Treasury acknowledging that all is no longer sunlit economic uplands in relations with China. We have come a long way since the dangerous single-track economic thinking of the Australia in the Asian century white paper of 2013.

Sadly, with one step forward there’s also one step back. What a pity to see News Corp’s approach to dealing with Channel Nine’s story about alleged spy and asylum seeker Wang Liqiang. ‘China Spy Farce’, the Daily Telegraph thundered, Colonel Liu-like, last weekend. Is there no issue so important that it can’t be reduced to the battle for eyeballs?

The suggestion that Australian agencies (partners in the Five Eyes community) would have no interest in Wang because he didn’t operate in Australia rings completely hollow to me, as does the suggestion that being in one’s late 20s is somehow too young for espionage. Remember Chelsea (Bradley) Manning, aged 26, convicted by court-martial in July 2013 of violations of the US Espionage Act.


And finally, we have the welcome news that New Zealand has revised its laws on donations to political parties with the effect of limiting foreign donations to no more than NZ$50. But the changes may amount to less than meets the eye. The new legislation reportedly does nothing to limit party donations from foreign business entities domiciled in New Zealand, or money channelled through New Zealand citizens. Redoubtable Kiwi blogger Michael Reddell says:

I’m not sure what the law can do about this particular risk, but political parties can. Political parties can choose to do the right thing, and declare—and take seriously—a determination not to take money from, or solicit it from, people—even registered electors—who are known to have close associations with foreign regimes, perhaps especially with such troubling regimes as the PRC.

Just like in Australia, one has to wonder how serious New Zealand political parties are about rigorously clamping down on foreign donations. The cash seems irresistible to some, even if the long-term price is the loss of credibility for these institutions.