Chinese premier Li keqiang's welcome at Premier House: China's interest in the region has some worried Photo: Supplied

Faced with an assertive China and a warring but isolationist United States, Asia is becoming more dangerous by the day. Thomas Coughlan talks to visiting American academic Zach Cooper about the security concerns in the region.

Tinian and Saipan are two islands in the Commonwealth of the Northern Mariana Islands. Though beautiful, they would not be of much interest to world affairs if it were not for the US military presence there. That makes them of interest to other powers too, particularly nearby China. 

Zack Cooper, a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, tells me that at one point Chinese companies tried to build a $US7 billion (NZ$9.63b) casino on the island. It was a suspiciously large development given the island’s population and the occupancy of existing hotels. 

“It would have 6,000 rooms, just to put that in perspective of how little sense it makes economically, the current number of residents on the islands is something like 3000 people and at the moment there is a hotel there with about 15 percent occupancy,” he says.

“You have to ask yourself, does this make economic sense?”

It doesn’t, of course, but there’s another cost-benefit analysis going on here.

“There is a separate cost-benefit proposition here that has to do with the Chinese Government’s desire to prevent the United States from having ‘basing access’ on US territory,” Cooper says.

“That crosses the line from being something that is a beneficial economic engagement to something that will change the political dynamic on these islands”. 

Chinese hard on soft power

Cooper is visiting New Zealand for a conference with other China experts on security interests in the region. He spoke with Newsroom about the deteriorating security situation in Asia and the mixed messages coming out of the United States.

The episode on the Mariana Islands is an example of the opaque way China exercises its influence economically, which Cooper argues is different to the way the United States exercises its economic power.  

“When the United States uses economic leverage it is usually very open about doing so. We have sanctions in US law and we have to announce and give 30 day’s notice of who is going to be sanctioned and specific reasons why,” he says. 

“In many cases there is a judicial process to appeal them”. 

“In China, what we’ve seen in places like South Korea is that they don’t even announce the sanctions and if you ask the Chinese whether there are economic sanctions, they would say no,” he says. 

The Chinese Government wields economic influence by, for example, telling package tour operators not to visit certain uncooperative countries for a period, or advising local authorities to close down shops owned by people from an unfriendly nation. 

Chinese threats to New Zealand’s security were in the news in the month before Cooper’s visit. University of Canterbury professor Anne-Marie Brady told the Australian Parliament’s Intelligence and Security Committee in Canberra that her office and home had both been broken into and she had received threatening mail. Brady has been critical of China. The revelation prompted Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern to ask intelligence agencies to look at the episode. 

“I find the discussion about Chinese political influence here much more advanced than the one in Washington,” Cooper says. “But clearly the concern about Chinese economic coercive practices is much higher than Washington than I think it is here”. 

President Donald Trump has made targeting China’s economic coercion and power a top priority. His recently announced steel and aluminium tariffs were designed to hurt China in particular. 

America’s warring retrenchment

Trump’s stance has come at a cost of uncertainty, both at home and abroad.

“Two years ago if you went to China most foreign policy experts were very confident about where the United States was heading on its Asia policy and very concerned and unsure about where China was going and now I think you find the opposite,” Cooper says. 

This has come as a result of the United States being proved wrong on China’s development.

“Many Americans thought that we could convince our friends in Beijing to open up their Government to be more representative, to be more open to trade and investment,” he says. “Actually, China has become more repressive and more closed and has certainly showed no signs of opening up”.

The other change happening simultaneously is that China has become more assertive internationally, particularly in its own region. 

And the region is worried. It is faced with a bellicose but erratic and isolationist United States as well as an assertive China. Cooper has found in his research that this has many countries concerned. 

“Usually we talk about allies and partners being worried about being trapped either in an unnecessary conflict or, the fear of being abandoned if a conflict were to occur,” Cooper says.

“Now some allies and partners are worried about both of those at the same time… South Korea worries that the Trump administration might start a war that it doesn’t want, but also that there might be a conflict that the Trump administration wouldn’t actually engage in,” he says.

The practice is eerily similar to that employed by the British Empire during the nineteenth century

Meeting the challenge of a growing China is complicated. Cooper says that New Zealand’s best response is to stand up for the “rules based order” that governs the relationships between countries. 

The United States for its part needs to propose and talk up its record of Foreign Direct Investment in other countries. Much of the investment China is dolling out is part of its mammoth Belt and Road initiative, which it hopes will link China’s economy with all of Eurasia, from Shanghai to London. But Cooper says that most of this investment never shows up and when it does, it has strings attached. The work must be done by Chinese companies using Chinese workers.

Sometimes, as in the case of a Sri Lankan port, money is lent at usurious interest rates that locals cannot hope to pay back. The practice is eerily similar to that employed by the British Empire during the nineteenth century. Britain would lend to countries like Egypt and then take over their finances when they couldn’t repay their loans.  

At several times in the conversation, Cooper pauses to acknowledge the United States’ own chequered record in international affairs. He hopes that it is held to the same standard as China. 

He discusses the Middle East, which Chinese investment is now flowing into and the United States’ experience there.

“We have experience there,” he says of Afghanistan. The small slice of land has shaken off Britain, Russia, and the United States, giving it the nickname “the Graveyard of Empires”. Now the country is firmly in the sights of the Belt and Road initiative. The country might again prove that it takes more than money to build and maintain an empire. 

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