The fact that Australian Rio Tinto executive Stern Hu and his three Chinese citizen colleagues are languishing in a Shanghai jail has very little to do with any crimes against local laws they may or may not have committed. Their trial will serve China’s purpose - another flex of the muscles in its increasingly tense arm wrestle with the West.
Hu was a player in a tough league, the representative of a powerful company that has the iron ore that China desperately needs. Beijing’s negotiations to get that ore at a price it considered fair had collapsed, its attempt to exercise control over Rio through a buy-in deal by state-owned Chinalco had failed. Some form of pay-back was probably inevitable.
China is on the march, and getting in its way is a dangerous exercise, especially for a mid-range Western power like Australia. As its influence spreads through the South Pacific and further afield into South America and Africa, the Rudd Government’s attitude can be summed up by the comments of the then Parliamentary Secretary for Pacific Island Affairs, Duncan Kerr at an Australian Institute of International Affairs seminar last year:
“We welcome China’s increased presence in the Pacific,” Kerr said in answer to a question. “It is inevitable that China is a growing economic presence in our region and will have a growing economic footprint in the Pacific.
“We simply want to do all we can as a good and effective friend to all the Pacific Island countries and particularly as chair of the [Pacific Island] Forum to not only open the door to their engagement in as constructive a way as possible, but to encourage that process.”
And on China’s increasing support for the illegal military regime in Fiji: “I think it is very important for me not to respond in any way which might even be privately thought that we take the view that China is in a sense fermenting a difference between our position and the rest of the international community on Fiji.
“I do not fall into the cast of those who are warning against the dangers of China’s presence in our region. We see broadly China’s investment footprint as positive. We expect that an expanding economic power will expand also into the Pacific.
“Does that potentially raise issues that will have to be managed? Of course it does, but no more so than any other large expanding economic force in an area where we would be seeking to harmonise international action to get outcomes.”
Sort through this barrage of weasel words and you will discover that while the Australian government is not denying that China’s expansion into its perceived sphere of influence is happening, it is going to pretend it is all very altruistic and that we can work together for what the spin doctors delight in calling a “win-win” situation.
China is probably the least altruistic nation on earth. Its actions are guided by a single and all-embracing principle: the advantage it gives us in our long-term mission to achieve global economic and political hegemony.
It was not always the case. In the 1960s China was serious in its efforts to build a Socialist bloc in the Third World in competition with the West and the Soviet Union. It charmed many of the contemporary leaders in Africa and South America with highways, dams, presidential palaces and office blocks all in the name of the international brotherhood of workers and peasants.
Those days are long gone. Today China is back in the developing world, but for one reason only - to get the best possible deal for the natural resources it needs to fuel the fastest growing economy on earth.
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About the Author
Graham Cooke has been a journalist for more than four decades, having lived in England, Northern Ireland, New Zealand and Australia, for a lengthy period covering the diplomatic round for The Canberra Times.
He has travelled to and reported on events in more than 20 countries, including an extended stay in the Middle East. Based in Canberra, where he obtains casual employment as a speech writer in the Australian Public Service, he continues to find occasional assignments overseas, supporting the coverage of international news organisations.