Week of 11 to 17 October 2021

AUKUS by implication

Per the Ministry of Foreign Affairs readout from Foreign Minister Wang Yi’s call with Luhut Pandjaitan, Indonesia’s Coordinating Minister of Maritime and Investment Affairs:

“Both sides are on the alert for and against acts that trigger the risk of nuclear proliferation and division in the region, and stress that all parties should work together to maintain regional peace and stability.”

Quick take:

Although neither AUKUS nor Australia were mentioned, it’s quite clear whose military capability acquisitions are at question. This is savvy signalling from Beijing. It gives China an opportunity to emphasise that objections to AUKUS are not just limited to its own concerns about what it considers to be a US-led and allies-supported effort to contain China and undermine its interests. Without making any comment on the substance of the thinly veiled criticism of AUKUS, it at least provides added regional and diplomatic weight to China’s efforts to delegitimise the new trilateral security partnership.

More broadly, it strikes me that China’s messaging on AUKUS has evolved and become increasingly shrewd. The initial AUKUS announcement was followed by predictable rhetorical broadsides from the more nationalistic and flamboyant parts of the Chinese press. But Beijing has increasingly sought to elevate the nuclear technology proliferation/safeguards concerns that it has about AUKUS (e.g., herehere, and here). Again, without commenting on the substance of these concerns—spurious or not—this strikes me as savvy for a few reasons:

  • Focusing on nuclear technology proliferation/safeguards concerns allows China to present its objections to AUKUS as less about its own security concerns and more about the interests of the region and the globe.
  • These concerns also allow China to present itself as a responsible actor and *gasp* a defender of the rules-based international order, given that the nuclear non-proliferation/safeguards regimes can plausibly be understood as elements of this order.
  • The nuclear technology proliferation/safeguards concerns are a weak point for the AUKUS partners, especially considering that the limited detail provided so far on this issue sits uneasily with its critical importance.
  • Finally, from the perspective of mounting a classic info/psyop, fixating on nuclear technology proliferation/safeguards is an effective way of dissembling and distracting. These issues are immensely technically complex (both legally and scientifically speaking), which leads to a huge information asymmetry and opens the way for claims and counterclaims that can be easily used to muddy the water.

I hasten to stress that none of the above is to endorse China’s criticisms of AUKUS. But from the point of view of Australian diplomatic priorities, Canberra and the other AUKUS capitals will need to mount much stronger and more fulsome responses to these concerns from China and other powers. Not only can Beijing do more to delegitimise AUKUS based on nuclear technology proliferation/safeguards criticisms, but these concerns clearly resonate in many quarters in the region. AUKUS might be in motion, but the battle over its international legitimacy is only beginning.

Olympic politics

Per a Xinhua summary of Australian Olympic Committee President John Coates’ National Press Club address on 15 October:

“Coates voiced against the boycott of the Olympic Games and reaffirmed that Australian athletes will take part in the Beijing Winter Olympic Games in 2022.”

Quick take:

These remarks were highlighted on the website of the Chinese Embassy in Canberra and were given a dedicated Xinhua article. That kind of emphasis makes sense. The Chinese government understands that the leadup to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics will prompt vocal and rhetorically charged calls for boycotts of varying levels of intensity and format. Regardless of whether they are acted upon, calls for boycotts and the associated publicisation of criticisms of both China’s human rights record and the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics represent a reputational risk for the Party-state.

Notwithstanding recent indications that the systematic repression in the Xinjiang region may be easing—or at least taking different forms—the run up to the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is nevertheless likely to see additional global scrutiny of China’s domestic politics and human rights abuses. Given the strong positions that many Australian parliamentarians, human rights groups, and commentators have taken on China’s human rights record, the debate about boycotting the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics is likely to be especially high-octane and damaging for the Party-state’s reputation in Australia.

Not only are often-outspoken parliamentarians like independent Senator Rex Patrick on the record calling for Australian to not participate in any way in the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, but members of both the Government and the Opposition seem to support a boycott of some kind. Senators Kimberley Kitching (Labor) and James Paterson (Liberal) are member so the international Inter-Parliamentary Alliance on China, which in June this year stated that the Olympics as “a shared celebration of sport, friendship and solidarity … cannot be reconciled with holding the Games in a country whose government stands credibly accused of perpetrating atrocity crimes against its own population. To do so discredits the ethos of the Olympic movement and undermines its purpose.”

Regardless of the format of any eventual boycotts, it seems clear that the leadup to the Olympics will see the airing of much more criticism of China’s human rights record from a range of voices in Australia, including parliamentarians. So, notwithstanding China’s and the International Olympic Committee’s best efforts to hose down the prospect of a politically charged human rights dimension to the Games, such an outcome appears unavoidable.

The Politburo’s philosopher

Wang Huning, Politburo Standing Committee member, writing in 1994, per David Ownby’s translation:

“The struggle for cultural sovereignty is not as intense as struggles for political or economic sovereignty, but no struggle over sovereignty can be completely divorced from politics, and under certain conditions, this struggle over cultural sovereignty will develop into an open struggle for political sovereignty. As a result, one cannot interpret conflicts over cultural sovereignty or cultural hegemony solely from a cultural perspective. Behind these struggles are reflections of struggles for political sovereignty, or of competition over national interests on the international stage, or of trends and structures of differing interests in the realm of international relations.”

Quick take:

Written when Wang was an academic and administrator at Shanghai’s Fudan University, this essay offers a fascinating tour of the views of one of China’s most powerful political leaders. As well as containing a useful survey of Wang’s assessment of post-Cold War intellectual debates, his account of the connections between state power, culture, and politics resonates with contemporary political developments in China and internationally. I don’t think it’s a stretch to find echoes of Wang’s holistic emphasis on cultural, political, and economic sovereignty in Beijing’s renewed focus on global “public opinion struggle” and the “right to speak,” which can plausibly be seen as elements of an overarching effort to safeguard China’s interests in an international contest over political and cultural discourse.

This and other resonances should come as no surprise though, considering that Wang has for decades wielded growing influence in the Party-state. As the explanatory introduction of the essay observes: Wang “has directly served the Chinese Communist Party Central Committee under three successive leaders: Jiang Zemin, Hu Jintao, and Xi Jinping. He is currently the fifth-ranked member of the Party’s seven-man Politburo Standing Committee and directs the Central Secretariat, effectively making him Xi Jinping’s deputy in managing day-to-day Party affairs.” For me, Wang’s words provide a timely reminder that many of the political and policy developments in China today are not as novel as they sometimes appear, with their intellectual lineage often stretching back years, if not decades.

As always, thank you for reading and please excuse any errors (typographical or otherwise). Any and all objections, criticisms, and corrections very much appreciated.