The creation of an Australia-United Kingdom-United States military alliance last week caused a tempest in a teapot, but the real action was elsewhere.
In Washington on Sept. 24, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (‘“Quad” for short) held its first-ever face-to-face summit and defined the sides in the great power confrontation for the next generation.
The Quad consists of the U.S., India, Japan and Australia.
Nobody was willing to say the word “China” out loud, but containing China is just as much the focus of the Quad as containing the Soviet Union was when the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) was founded 72 years ago. And, like NATO countries then, today’s Quad members collectively outnumber, outgun and surround their adversary.
The U.S., India, Japan and Australia have more than two-billion people to China’s 1.4 billion and economies that add up to around twice the size of China’s. All the Quad members except Japan still have growing and relatively young populations, whereas China’s population is rapidly aging and predicted to start falling fast by 2030.
It’s becoming commonplace to see claims in Western media that China now has the world’s largest navy, but that’s only if you count every rowboat and rubber dinghy.
In terms of serious naval hardware, China has one-sixth the tonnage of the Quad navies, including only two aircraft carriers compared to 15 for the Quad and 12 nuclear-powered submarines compared to the Quad’s 69.
So, what’s this all about? The Chinese are clearly not equipped for a bid at world conquest and the country’s rulers are obviously not interested in spreading their ideology, either. They don’t even believe in it themselves. Communism provides a rhetorical excuse for single-party authoritarian rule, but the economy is capitalism with Chinese characteristics.
The motivation is not really ideological on the Quad’s side, either. All four members are democratic countries and, in the United States, it is normal to portray any foreign war as a defence of “freedom” and “democracy,” but democratic countries that don’t have a dog in this fight (such as Canada) are not queuing up to join the Quad.
It’s superficially about minor territorial issues around China’s perimeter, but just below the surface, it’s about sheer power in an almost abstract sense. The United States has been the world’s paramount power for the past 75 years and China is a challenger with its own sense of manifest destiny.
For Japan and India, lesser great powers that have minor border disputes with China, an alliance with the U.S. is a cheap and handy insurance policy. For Australia, perpetually nervous about being all alone as a Western country in Asia, alliance with America has been the sole foundation of defence policy ever since the end of the British empire.
Should we despair that only 30 years after the last Cold War ended, we are heading into another one? Not at all. We’re lucky that we got out of the last one without a war and we’re even luckier it took so long before the next organized confrontation between the great powers got underway.
These confrontations are normal, even cyclical, and they have been coming along at around half-century intervals for the last 400 years. What drives them, regardless of what people tell themselves at the time, is mostly differential growth rates in the power of great states.
Some grow faster, some slowly or not at all and, after half a century or so, some formerly low-ranking state feels powerful enough to challenge the reigning top dog. The top dog always answers the challenge and away we go again.
That’s what’s happening right now. It’s not about “freedom” or “socialism” or the right of navigation in the South China Sea. It’s about the pecking order, pure and simple — and it doesn’t have to end in a great war. These cycles always used to end in that sort of war, but the last one didn’t and this one may not, either.
The last one ended peacefully because the challenger ran out of steam. The old Soviet Union just collapsed economically. China is unlikely to collapse, but it’s no longer growing very fast economically and the threat of global warming might ultimately distract both contenders from this foolish contest.
It could also go another way, especially if President Xi Jinping should decide to invade Taiwan, but most of the irritants that are being used to justify the militarization of the Quad — Hong Kong, the treatment of Uyghurs in Xinjiang, China’s actions on the Indian border, etc. — do not threaten the international order.
And then there’s nuclear weapons, the other main reason the 40-year U.S.-Soviet confrontation did not end in a world war.
Cheer up. It may never happen.
Gwynne Dyer’s latest book is The Shortest History of War.