Commentary: China’s divide-and-conquer strategy isn’t fooling anyone anymore

LONDON: Exactly 500 years in the past, the Italian Renaissance thinker, Niccolo Machiavelli, printed his treatise, The Art of War. 

In it, the chief protagonist, Lord Fabrizio Colonna, declared: “A Captain ought, among all the other actions of his, endeavour with every art to divide the forces of the enemy.”

Half a millennium later, this precept appears to explain one in all China’s overseas coverage dictums.

Case in level? Australia. The nation has come beneath the Chinese radar in latest months.

Import bans, tariffs and different restrictions on Australian wines, beef, barley and extra had been slapped on after April 2020, when Australia led requires worldwide inquiries into the origins of the coronavirus, apparently with out consulting China beforehand.

Joe Paratore (L) shows his catch of western rock lobsters to customers in Fremantle. Australian

Joe Paratore reveals his catch of western rock lobsters to clients in Fremantle. Australian fishermen have needed to discover new markets for his or her catch after China imposed a near-total ban on lobster. (Photo: AFP/Trevor Collens)

A second spherical of curbs had been rolled out in early November, with dwell lobster, timber and extra delayed on the borders, although formal notices on bans weren’t issued.

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But punitive sanctions on Australia are solely a part of the divide-and-conquer story.

Here’s exhibit B: China signed a commerce take care of New Zealand in January to improve an current free commerce settlement, eradicating or chopping tariffs on most of the exact same items Beijing simply sanctioned from Australia.

The general messaging is evident: Anger Beijing and we are going to punish you. But keep on Beijing’s good aspect and we are going to reward you.

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And the strategy is efficient. It’s difficult for nations benefiting from better entry to the world’s second-largest financial system to surrender that reward.

That identical month, Australia and New Zealand had a particularly uncommon diplomatic spat just lately.

New Zealand Trade Minister Damien O’Connor recommended Australia ought to “show respect, and speak with a little more diplomacy” to China when requested by CNBC concerning the timing of New Zealand’s commerce take care of China and what position New Zealand may play in mediating within the dispute. 

It was a exceptional assertion that underlined the rising tensions within the often rock stable trans-Tasman relationship.

China-Australia trade has been hit by the growing diplomatic tensions between the two countries

China-Australia commerce has been hit by the rising diplomatic tensions between the 2 nations. (Photo: AFP/STR)


Beijing makes use of a variety of instruments and ways to divide and conquer. This consists of financial and diplomatic levers to punish states which have transgressed unwritten crimson traces and market-based enticements for smaller, weaker states to domesticate affect.

Many such ways usually are not distinctive to China. It is commonplace for nations, significantly bigger ones, to sanction others in tits-for-tats to form behaviour and keep state-to-state relations on a fair keel in defending home pursuits and pursuing nationwide objectives.

But Beijing is comparatively uncommon within the method by which it undertakes this coercion, utilizing disproportionality, extra-legal processes, and deniability.

Through obfuscation and manipulation, it needs to situation nations to contemplate China’s pursuits.

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In the Australia case, for instance, technocratic causes for the sanctions somewhat than authorities coverage got by China, from alleged mislabelling of wine to delayed quarantine inspections and claims of beetle infestations in timber.

China’s observe report on this has been constant. The awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to a Chinese dissident led to an unofficial ban on Norwegian salmon exports in 2013.

The arrest of a Chinese fishing trawler captain by Japan noticed an unofficial export quota on uncommon earth metals in 2010.

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Mongolia too noticed an elevated in import taxes adopted a 2016 go to by the Dalai Lama. The Chinese Foreign Ministry even went as far to say: “We hope Mongolia has taken this lesson to heart.”

In all these infractions, China punishes every nation disproportionately in a bid to discourage comparable actions, whereas concurrently utilizing unofficial avenues to keep away from being labelled as a bully.

Worryingly, the usage of such coercive diplomacy has been increasing quickly in recent times: A report by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute in September 2020 tabulated greater than 150 situations of Chinese financial coercion between 2010 and 2020.

From 2010 to 2017, the variety of circumstances of such coercion by no means rose above 20 every year; by 2019, it was practically 60.

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This rising use of coercion is a key a part of China’s divide-and-conquer strategy, alongside incentives and diplomatic makes an attempt to drive wedges in multilateral grouping.

An officer adjusts China's national flag before the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit in Singapore

 An officer adjusts China’s nationwide flag earlier than the ASEAN Plus Three (APT) Summit in Singapore on Nov 15, 2018. (Photo: REUTERS/Athit Perawongmetha)

The strategy has served China properly in latest a long time, particularly on this area. As an instance, China’s insistence on bilateral negotiations and normal foot-dragging has hampered progress on a binding Code of Conduct within the South China Sea with the ASEAN states, some 20 years for the reason that non-binding Declaration of Conduct was signed in 2002.

But there are actually indicators this strategy is starting to fail. China’s extra assertive overseas coverage has managed to unnerve a variety of regional states, whether or not from clashes on the Sino-Indian border, coast guard and maritime militia exercise within the South and East China Seas, or flights by means of the air defence identification zones of neighbouring states and entities.

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These actions are encouraging a extra united stance amongst regional states, with a broad pushback in opposition to China now being facilitated by a extra engaged US. 

With a robust bipartisan consensus within the US for a extra hawkish coverage in the direction of China and a brand new administration, the US is adopting a conventional management position on this key strategic space.

In doing so, the US is bringing collectively allies which may in any other case be trying to compete with one another for China’s favour.

China is thus watching with dismay because the Quadrilateral Security Initiative (the Quad) develops quickly into an anti-China proto-alliance, whereas 4 of the Five Eyes (the US, Canada, Australia, and the UK) interact in actions that irk China, from arresting Huawei executives to providing Hong Kongers passports.

China’s divide-and-conquer strategy might be counterproductive, as states develop aware of such ways and cooperate with one another to hedge in opposition to China throughout numerous fields of engagement – commerce, regulation, defence and safety.

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The penalties for Beijing are severe.

A extra hostile worldwide setting, with rival states coalescing into alliances and groupings designed to thwart China’s ambitions of changing into a world superpower and obtain sustainable development may come up.

That can be unlucky certainly not only for the world however for China, if such a divide-and-conquer strategy creates a extra bifurcated and antagonistic worldwide order inimical to China’s rise.

Christian Le Miere is a overseas coverage adviser and the founder and manging director of Arcipel, a strategic advisory agency based mostly in London.


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