The Chinese Communist Party and President Xi Jinping, like Donald Trump and any number of bullying autocrats before them, are playing a self-destructive game.
In a way, Australia should welcome Chinese coercive diplomacy because of its very self-destructiveness.
The schoolyard bully gets his way by picking off the weaklings one by one and moving up the food chain until he (and it is invariably a he) has the whole schoolyard at his command.
The same for the heads of organised crime gangs. And the same for President Xi. Since his rise to power beginning in 2013 he has used all the tactics of the schoolyard bully and head of an organised crime gang. He has done it to cement himself in power (for life) through the vehicle of the Chinese Communist Party – the party which he, and others before him, assert is the sole and perpetual source of legitimate governing power in China.
His weapon of choice has been coercive diplomacy, rather than use of direct force. The Australian Strategic Policy Institute has recorded 152 cases of coercive diplomacy affecting 27 countries (nearly all western democracies) over the past 10 years.
It has been used against any nation that dares call out the Chinese Communist Party for its external aggression in annexing territorial, resources and fishing rights in the South China Sea or internal suppression of any ethnic group which has a different religious or cultural view than that of the party.
Any nation, business or individual who dares question the Chinese Communist Party’s destruction of Tibetan, Mongolian or Uyghur culture or religion and its brutal suppression of those people becomes a target of coercive diplomacy.
The weapons of coercive diplomacy include the arbitrary arrest of the other nation’s nationals in China on false charges that carry heavy sentences, including death. They include arbitrary trade sanctions on trumped up allegations of dumping or breach of health regulations.
More importantly, they include the weapon of inciting the Chinese people to the cause suggesting they boycott the target nation and its exports, thereby causing great economic damage which in turn results in the affected businesses urging their government to kowtow to whatever the Chinese Government wants because it is good for business. The weakling in the schoolyard.
The theory is that the Chinese Communist Party is the legitimate government of China so when it hints, suggests or commands its people to boycott a target nation or company they will obediently fall into line.
There are some enormous ironies here. The effectiveness of China’s coercive diplomacy relies upon capitalist behaviour. For example, China well knows that when it wants to punish Australia over the 5G network or a Covid inquiry by restricting Australia’s barley on some unfounded basis, any number of other barley-producing companies in the rest of the capitalist world will jump at the opportunity to fill the gap.
The western democracies must not allow China to pick us off one by one. Schoolyard bullies are only defeated when the rest of the school collectively stands up.
Western democracies must act collectively. If China imposes tariffs or restrictions, all other supplying nations must self-impose those restrictions on themselves. So, if China puts a 200% tariff on Australian barley, all other barley-producing nations should put at 200% export fee on any of their barley going to China.
If China bans a product from one nation, all other developed democracies should ban that same product going in to China.
Once that is done collectively, China cannot bully anyone on the trade front.
The arrest of foreign nationals on trumped up charges in China is more difficult. But again, collective action would be effective. Western democracies cannot force their people into certain actions but their governments can be a lot more vocal in discouraging their nationals from going to or remaining in China.
While ever China is picking us off one by one it hurts us more than them. But if western democracies collectively act to push back, it will hurt China more than us.
To date there has been little adverse consequence to China for its coercive diplomacy. To the contrary China has succeeded in getting nations and businesses kowtowing.
That can change with a bit of collective blowback. It is like the pandemic. Short term pain for long term gain.
Of course, it would be helpful if Australia were more of a model global citizen when calling for help. It would be better if we were not a climate pariah or had not bugged Timorese negotiators in order to cheat Timor out of its off-shore resources or had not locked up refugees or did not have governments tainted by petty corruption or susceptible to corporate donor wishes.
Nonetheless, with or without international cooperation, coercive diplomacy will still be self-destructive for the Chinese Communist Party for several reasons.
First, its hold on the Chinese diaspora will be shown to be weak. The diaspora in targeted nations will tell their friends and family in China about the good things and products in the targeted nation so the artificially created “people’s boycotts” will not work. Word of mouth from family is more powerful than edict from the party. This will undermine the authority of the party.
Secondly, it will prove the effectiveness of capitalism. People buy stuff because it is good or do not buy it because it is no good, not because what their government tells them.
Thirdly, coercive diplomacy unites people in targeted countries against China generally and the communist party in particular. Where possible, they will seek more reliable markets to send their goods and more friendly places to visit as tourists.
We must not underestimate the ruthlessness of the Chinese Communist Party, but in the long run, the internal contradictions of communism run much deeper than Marx’s internal contradictions of capitalism, provided it is capitalism bounded by liberal democracy.
As for the official Chinese Tweet graphically referencing Australian war crimes in Afghanistan, it will backfire. Chinese people will ask why can’t we all Tweet whatever views we want. And it invites the riposte that at least Australia has investigated and is moving to the prosecution stage whereas the Chinese Government actively sponsors its crimes against its subjugated peoples.
This article first appeared in The Canberra Times and other Australian media on 5 December 2020.