Tuesday, 15 April 2014

Three lessons China learned from Crimea invasion

As of mid-April, satellite photography shows the Russian military carefully reinforcing troops on their border with Ukraine. While Russia is not likely to invade mainland Ukraine, China in particular is paying close attention and thinking deeply about what the whole scenario means for its own stability.

China has many problems right now. At least three standout issues can be identified for which Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov’s advice was surely requested during his visit to Beijing on April 14.

•            Instability among a Chinese population facing escalating economic woes has refocused the state’s security efforts. 
•            China is dealing with an increasingly violent separatist Uighur Muslim population in the rural east of the country. 
•            Territorial disputes with Asian neighbours over small islands are beginning to show visible signs of wear.

The first has been the source of leadership paranoia in China for thousands of years. The relatively richer coastal region is constantly worried that rural Chinese will revolt to show their displeasure against wealth disparity. This has happened so often to be almost cyclical.

It is especially concerning today because much of the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) legitimacy springs from an implicit agreement that every citizen will experience rising standards of living indefinitely. That is a mighty promise for any country, yet it is exactly why the CCP cannot afford to let their economy slow. 

To counter any threat, Chinese authorities are building an enormous surveillance network. The stated purpose of the system is to catch corruption, but once completed it would be ideal for monitoring and suppressing internal dissent.

China is spending billions of dollars wiring its cities with Internet, video surveillance cameras, cellphones, GPS location data and biometric technologies, all of them fused into a monitoring system of Orwellian proportions. 

One example is in Sichuan province where over $NZ4.85 billion is being spent on 500,000 security cameras. Guangdong province is spending $NZ6.92 billion on 1 million cameras and Beijing’s municipal government will install cameras in every entertainment venue.

Political contagion spreads easily in an age of light-speed communications. International news is difficult for Chinese citizens to gather, but even if they can, and even if they take encouragement from the Kiev protests, an invasive surveillance state ensures anti-regime sentiment is nipped in the bud. 

Which leads to China’s second priority: a smouldering Uighur Muslim militancy creeping across China. Although qualitatively different to the Caucasus militancy in Russia, China’s problem with the group shares some similarities and appears to be getting worse. 

On March 1 a group of around 10 knife-wielding men attacked people waiting at a train station in Kunming killing 29 people and injuring over 130. 

The attacks highlight a broader foreign policy issue for China: threats are now suspected to come from anywhere, at any time. Russia has used this excuse to suppress assumed threats from outside its borders. 

China could be learning from the Russian experience that it can do whatever it wishes to stop threats, so long as it keeps the noise down. The international community should encourage Beijing not to let the coming crackdown against the Uighur population cross humanitarian lines.

Two Chinese surveillance ships 
The third lesson China learnt might be the most worrying for international security. While panicky Western diplomats tried to defuse the flashpoint and reassure worried allies in Eastern Europe, one important international relations taboo was quietly broken. 

Former deputy director of the CIA, John McLaughlin, points out that since the end of World War II territorial acquisition (a political euphemism for invasion and absorption of land) is blessedly uncommon. Russia’s effort to annex Crimea is the first time this occurred since 1976.

It would be entirely unfair to assume China is waiting for a chance to do the same in its backyard. But the nationalistic bellicosity and territorial squabbles flaring up almost every week in the South and East China Seas suggests a different mindset in Beijing.

China might not have the same reasons as did Russia to annex Japanese or South Korean islets, but the basic situation is not too dissimilar. Right now, Crimea is effectively lost to Europe because neither NATO nor the US is willing to do anything to drive Russia out of the territory.

China has surely noticed that reaching out to take small chunks of contested land might not attract the feared attention from the US military after all. Perhaps if they could package such a movement in the dry political dialogue so expertly manipulated by Russia, they might get away with absorbing whatever island they want.

Russia’s movements in Eastern Europe are a lesson for everybody, including China. Responses by the international community to aggressiveness need to be unambiguous and strong. 

Nations with territorial arguments are learning lessons about what the international community is ready to respond to, and what it is not. The last thing the world needs is for the dangerous ripples of geopolitics in one region to spread across the world unchecked. 

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