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China’s Galaxy Empire 

Published 29 May 2024

On Tuesday 21 May 2024, the Australian Institute of International Affairs NSW was addressed by John Keane, Professor of history at the University of Sydney. He spoke about his latest book – China’s Galaxy Empire, published this month by Oxford University Press – arguing that China is a new empire of a kind never before witnessed: a galaxy empire.

Professor Keane opened his speech with a Chinese proverb quoted from former People’s Republic of China Premier Li Keqiang in 2015: “When the wind of change blows, some build walls, while others build windmills.” On this note, he suggested China has no doubt capitalised on all opportunities – economically and socially – to grow into the empire it is today. A significant part of its emergence as an empire since the Chinese Communist Party gained power in 1949 is attributable to President Xi Jinping’s leadership initiatives and achievements. He highlighted the Belt and Road Initiative, the ten-fold increase in investment in education, and China’s efforts towards de-dollarisation of international trade. In forging extensive trading relationships while not extending its territory – despite forming the largest standing army in the world – China’s version of an ‘empire’ differs from all previous definitions of the term.

Professor Keane moved to deconstruct the concept of an empire, explaining how China’s power spills out well beyond its own borders and enters into the affairs of other states. This is not simply an economic or political arrangement, but rather a polity that works to reshape the everyday habits of its subjects without seizing political power. He suggested it is now a common characteristic of rising empires to deny imperialist strategies, using the United States as an example with its 800+ airbases scattered across 45+ countries, comparable to China’s growing Belt and Road Initiative.

In China’s Galaxy Empire, Professor Keane seeks to stimulate thought about the unfamiliar nuances of the familiar term ‘empire’ that can be applied to China. He hopes his readers understand the great complexity associated with the rise of China, positing that previous usage of the word ‘empire’ was far too simple. The significance of the term ‘galaxy’ also lies in its reference to China not being merely a land, sea, or air based empire, but rather an amalgamation of them all, extending into outer space. He criticises the grip of traditional perceptions of sovereignty, and instead calls for a new perspective towards the rise of China, one that is strategically distinct from the emergence of the Soviet Union and the United States after 1945.

Professor Keane suggested that the method of exploiting resources and subsequently guarding such investments from scrutiny, as applied by the British Empire, is being manipulated by China in a manner designed to divert suspicion. China instead builds governing institutions like the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation or the Confucius Institutes with their far-reaching influence via the delivery of Chinese studies across education institutions worldwide.

This deep investment interest becomes an extension of China’s power, and growth of their empire. But a third of young people are suspicious of China’s exercise of power in their countries’ industries.

China is aware that if the governing Chinese Communist Party loses popular support at home, its demise is imminent. He describes their political system as a ‘phantom democracy’ in which its leaders acknowledge they cannot rule with brute power alone, as demonstrated when protests took place against the extended lockdowns against COVID-19.

The Q&A session raised China’s interests as an empire, on which Professor Keane reflected that there are areas for substantial gains, particularly economically. He underlined the unending potential for capital to be earned, driven heavily by private equity interests, but also a material interest in spreading the norms of the empire as a geopolitical manoeuvre.

Asked about tensions between China and Taiwan, Professor Keane commented that the economic and social repercussions of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine continue to serve as a stark reminder for China to tread carefully. He believes that China is seeking to test the boundaries of its empire, referencing the recent provocations between the People Liberation Army Air Force and the Royal Australian Navy in the Yellow Sea, which Australia had condemned.

The session ended with a question for the audience: does China have the capacity to restrain itself in order to win cooperation?


 Report by Jie Rui Lin, AIIA NSW intern

From left to right:  Professor John Keane, AIIA NSW intern Jie Rui Lin

and AIIA NSW president, Ian Lincoln