The Fallacy of Casting China as an Imminent Threat: the Case of the Netherlands
In response to the AUKUS security pact announced in September, law Professor De Vos of Macquarie University argued in de Volkskrant that an independent European course has now become impossible. Ostensibly, participating countries Australia, the UK, and the US have made the choice ‘for us’; there would be no other option but to recognize the Sino-American ‘Cold War reality’ and join the American front against China in the so-called ‘Indo-Pacific.’ This would serve Dutch and European interests, says De Vos, because we ‘share the desire for a world order based on freedom, democracy, and human rights.’
A similar legalistic plea came in the summer after a Dutch frigate joined an Anglo-American Carrier Strike Group traversing the South China Sea. Henk Schulte Nordholt, independent speaker and writer on China, and Alex Krijger, Americanist and vice-chairman of the Netherlands Atlantic Association, argued in the NRC against alleged ‘pacifism’ and even ‘appeasement’ toward Xi Jinping’s increasingly authoritarian China and for upholding international rule of law.
This new crusade of democracies fits in with the developments of the last three years in which China is framed in the Netherlands as a new imminent threat. But is that really the case?
Admittedly, there is growing adversarial nationalism in resurgent China and Xi has taken concrete steps toward the full reunification of the ‘Motherland.’ However, nothing in international politics is inevitable or predetermined, something that is often claimed based on historical precedents or political theory involving emerging powers. And although ‘regime type’ matters, it cannot on its own be sufficient in causing conflict.
Moreover, authors’ harking back to the liberal internationalism of the unipolar 1990s – and its Clintonian ‘end of history’ thinking – has become obsolete; the international system will change dramatically in the 21st century in tandem with the declining relative power of the US and the West.
It is a paradigm shift that is especially difficult for American-oriented observers to grasp or accept. And with a multipolar order come (partially) new rules, some of which will not be liberal, such as spheres of influence. To avoid confusion, this is a factual assertion about the world as it is, not a normative statement about how I would like it to be.
As to inserting military means toward political ends, the only way to stop China’s expansion into the South China Sea was in 2013-2014 with the maneuvering of the US Seventh Fleet, when China began creating artificial islands there. At present, the so-called ‘freedom of navigation’ missions of the Americans, which the Netherlands and other European countries have now also conducted, are limited to preventing the legal status of the sea from being changed through customary law. But in doing so, the decades-old island disputes have become the flashpoints where an accident or strategic miscalculation could ignite a war between China and the US along with its regional allies. With rapid escalation due to the across-the-board proliferation of missiles – and no clear lines of escalation as existed during the US-Soviet standoff – this is a perilous game indeed.
Further, American interests – perpetuating power for the sake of preserving power, influence, and status in East Asia – must be separated from Dutch and European interests and strategic culture. The question should therefore be asked whether we, after twenty years of counterterrorism/insurgency and ‘nation building,’ should again hobble along with the Americans, now in its proclaimed era of ‘extreme competition’ with new (old) enemy China.
In his review of the book The Resurrection of China by Clingendael scholar Dr. Frans-Paul van der Putten, Leiden Professor of modern China Frank Pieke rightly concluded that China is not striving for world domination. Indeed the hawkish narrative that is dominant in Dutch media reflects the American political consensus as propagated by former foreign affairs chief Pompeo and adopted unchanged by the Biden administration, not that of China experts.
In addition, the position lacks an empirical foundation. The ‘Indo-Pacific’ is first and foremost an American rhetorical construct to lock in India in its ‘Quad’ balancing strategy in East Asia. That said, the waterways in the Indian Ocean and access to the Arabian Sea are of direct economic importance to the Netherlands and Europe.
Still, while asymmetric ‘measures short of war’ can be observed in for example the cyber domain, China’s ability to conduct and sustain joint naval and air (and Rocket Force) operations does not extend beyond the Western Pacific Ocean and the Strait of Malacca. For now, China simply does not have enough capable aircraft carriers or other power projection capabilities to assert itself in the Indian Ocean or beyond. Chinese influence on the Eurasian continent is currently limited to geo-economic Belt & Road vulnerabilities and dual-use ports such as in Gwadar, Pakistan.
Yet even though the analysis of Chinese intentions is partly different, my advice to the coming Dutch cabinet – as for other European nations – is nevertheless one of arming in accordance with the 2% Wales-norm as well as doctrinal evolution: breaking with transatlantic dogma and premised on the notion that hard power resources are not primarily for winning wars but for deterring them from erupting.
A Dutch and European military strategy is thus crucial, something that Dr. Paul van Hooft of HCSS already called for in 2015. Without a clear picture of Dutch and European long-term interests and gearing the development of defense capabilities toward 2035 to this end, Europe cannot possibly achieve its desired ‘strategic autonomy.’ As a result, we will continue to buy off this weakness with the Americans through (irresponsible) mission participations.
Last year’s Azerbaijan-Armenian conflict over Nagorno-Karabakh made painfully clear what can happen if your treaty ally-patron (Russia) abandons you and you have let the new Revolution in Military Affairs pass you by. In the brief war, the relatively cheap Turkish and Israeli-made drones were able to pick off the rusty armored vehicles and tanks of the Armenians one by one.
It is essential to have the debate on the future of Europe's defense now.
Friso M.S. Stevens is a Max Weber Fellow at the Robert Schuman Centre for Advanced Studies of the European University Institute in Florence and a Non-Resident Subject Matter Expert at The Hague Centre for Strategic Studies (HCSS).