A sabre is not an instrument of peace



The very name of the military exercise currently being held around Australia captures the difference in approach to international relations by the West and China. The exercise is called Talisman Sabre, and includes the United States, France, Germany, the United Kingdom, Japan, and the Republic of Korea. Although not openly acknowledged, many commentators feel it is clearly aimed at China.

A talisman is worn to avert evil and bring good fortune.

Many in China choose to wear a talisman jade carving of Guanyin (the goddess of mercy in Chinese mythology). She is able to hear all prayers and cries for help and offers merciful protection to travelers and sailors who venture outside their hometown.

The Sabre talisman selected by the Western countries is a weapon of war. The sabre is a symbol of attack, often without a hint of mercy — an approach experienced by colonized countries in Asia. Exercise Talisman Sabre is predicated on the incorrect idea that China harbors the same motives and reactions as the West when it comes to the idea of protection. Using this viewfinder, the West sees China as expansionist and aggressive because that is the way the West has behaved in similar situations.

China makes it very clear that it is not interested in converting its neighbors, let alone the world, to the concept of socialism with Chinese characteristics. America makes it very clear that it wants to convert the world, by the sword if necessary, to their version of democracy and governance.

While white America has never been invaded or colonized, the United States has been involved in more than a hundred military and political interventions in the affairs of other countries to elicit regime change. In recent decades these include Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Grenada, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Chile and Vietnam amongst others. The U.S. finds it difficult to understand the feelings of those who have been invaded.

In a broader context and in previous centuries, France, Germany, England, Italy, Spain, Portugal and others have all been involved in expansionist military colonization.

China was amongst the victims of this expansionism, invaded and carved up by European powers of the time. This experience underpins China's determination not to allow this to happen again.

Just as many Chinese wear Guanyin as a talisman, so too has China developed its armed forces as a means of protecting its territory. Starting from a low base, the build-up appears to be substantial but China's defense-to-GDP ratio has been almost flat since 1992 at around 2 percent, with defense outlays growing proportionally to its GDP. It remains at around one third of U.S. military expenditure levels.

More importantly, this development has but one objective — the protection of the Chinese territory. It is not designed to support the imposition of a world order or expand an ideological system of government. China is rightfully proud of its development model and its achievements. It stands as an alternative to rapacious and exploitative capitalism. Those in the Global South are free to follow the China model if they wish.

This is an essential difference between China's approach to foreign affairs and the approach adopted by those Western nations who support the global rules-based order, which is nothing less than a U.S.-based order where rules are observed by America at its whim.

Exercise Talisman Sabre is a significant political and military event because it consolidates an approach to international affairs that undermines the arc of stability in the ASEAN region. Talisman Sabre drags back to Asia the old European colonial powers.

"Australia's defense co-operation with the United States is unprecedented in scale, scope and significance," said Australia's Minister for Defense Richard Marles. It is his welcome message extended to these relics of colonialism. This enthusiasm for the philosophy of exercise Talisman Sabre does much to undermine the diplomatic efforts of Australian Foreign Minister Penny Wong who wants to promote cooperation in the region rather than coercion. Several ASEAN nations have sent observers, an indication of the increasing concern in the region around this growing militarization of diplomacy.

The active participation of European powers in these exercises harks to a past of unwelcome foreign interference in the affairs of ASEAN nations. A sabre was never an instrument of peace.