Former Australian PM Paul Keating holds that as a non-Asian power, the US cannot remain ‘the strategic guarantor’ of Asia in perpetuity. It remains ‘important to the peace and good order of East Asia… [but] as a balancing and conciliating power’. The Australian’s Labor Party’s foreign affairs spokesperson, Senator Penny Wong argues that to get its Asia policy right, Australia first has to get its China policy right. Arguably, the reverse may be even truer: relevant external actors will fail to get their China policy right unless they first get their Asia policy right.
China has been a continental and not a maritime power. Now its maritime interests and activities are growing. US Pacific commander Admiral Harry Harris – who was chosen as the next US ambassador to Australia but then sent to Seoul instead – evocatively described China’s reclamation policy in the South China Sea as ‘a great wall of sand’. China seems to be pursuing a three-pronged strategy of building up war-fighting capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion of rival claimants in its string of maritime territorial disputes. Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocations and showdowns may fail to coerce and intimidate opponents. But each push and probe tests retaliatory assets and calls into question US capacity and will to come to the aid of the beleaguered smaller ally.
That is, acts of provocation that are deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist. The strategy has paid dividends. In recent times the Philippines accepted a sizable Chinese trade and investment package, Malaysia has bought Chinese naval vessels and Vietnam has deepened diplomatic and military relations with China.
But there has also been pushback. Thitinan Pongsudhirak warns that the totality of China’s activities on land and sea, and its weaponization of water resources and trade, risk feeding an arms build-up across Asia. This could accelerate if US attention is diverted to other regions or Washington’s reliability as the guarantor of Asia–Pacific security becomes suspect. Moreover, the absence of effective regional institutional frameworks to prevent, mitigate and resolve competing territorial claims also deepen the reliance on military preparedness, both to deter potential attacks and to increase the costs of an attack should one be launched. Appointed a special envoy to China to improve relations after the 2016 Hague tribunal’s ruling, former President Fidel Ramos bluntly noted: ‘the discussions are not just about rocks and atolls; they are about war and peace’.
As an industrialized, high-income, geographically isolated Western country drawn by the gravitational pull of Asia, Australia has an exceptional stake in the seas to its north being governed by legal principles. China’s military modernization and naval expansion are changing the Pacific balance of power in a direct challenge to Australia’s strategic weight. Without taking sides in the China–Philippines territorial dispute, Australia formally backed the Hague tribunal’s decision ‘as an authoritative articulation of international law and the application of UNCLOS’ (the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea).
Gareth Evans notes that the prospect of China withdrawing from any island, reef or rock where it has already established a physical presence is low. But it could take some steps without losing face, like putting further reclamation activities or military constructions on hold, and agreeing to a code of conduct with ASEAN for all parties in the South China Sea. If the hardliners in Beijing prevail and China refuses to moderate its regional behaviour, Australia and others could join the pushback and conduct freedom-of-navigation operations (FONOPS) within 12 nautical miles of disputed claims under Chinese control. The likelihood of military incidents will then increase. Nye reminds us that the forerunner to the currently fashionable FONOPS was the US decision to fly two B-52 bombers through China’s unilateral Air Defense Identification Zone in 2013.
Chinese provocations have given Japan’s PM Shinzo Abe domestic space to seek revisionist interpretations of the restrictive post-World War II pacifist constitution, offer coastguards to Vietnam and the Philippines and pursue deepened security links with Australia, India and the US.
While the US–China relationship is the world’s most critical, the most critical Asian geopolitical relationship is that between China and India. Over the past decade, the US has been more generous in accommodating China’s interests and concerns as a rising power than China has been vis-à-vis India. Shashi Tharoor highlights a choreographed barrage of insults and threats directed at India by China when the Dalai Lama went to the border town of Tawang in the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh to address devotees at the historic Buddhist monastery there. China has failed to respect India’s sensitivities in rejecting India’s US-backed application to join the Nuclear Suppliers Group, vetoing India’s effort to list a Pakistan-based militant as a terrorist by the UN Security Council, encroaching into Indian territory in northern Kashmir while President Xi was visiting India in 2014, and building an economic corridor through Pakistan-controlled parts of disputed Kashmir.
In 2015 Brahma Chellaney argued that China was not being held accountable for its creeping maritime colonialism in the South China Sea. In 2017, in constructing roads at an altitude of 4,000 metres at the tri-junction of China, Bhutan and India, Beijing seemed to emulate the tactics of creating new facts on the ground by stealth that it had followed for years at sea. Chellaney pointed to similarities between China’s navy following its fishermen in the South China Sea, and semi-permanent army encampments following herders, farmers and grazers on land in a strategy of ‘non-violent terrestrial aggression’. In a subsequent article Chellaney further underlined the weaponization of trade by China where business and politics are intertwined. The announcement of an amicable agreement was made simultaneously in the two capitals on August 28. In the clash between principles, norms and interests, China did not compromise on its principle of sovereignty and India did not compromise on its national security imperatives.