With the Quad and AUKUS, the US and its allies — especially Australia — are clearly challenging China militarily. All eyes are now on China to see how it will react. It has many options.
China has many options in dealing with the US, the Quad and AUKUS, but perhaps the wisest is to avoid military conflict, exercising its tried and true patience.
The Quad (the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) is a security forum of Australia, India, Japan, and the US that purports to maintain a “free and open Indo-Pacific”.
The Quad leaders met in person in Washington last week and reaffirmed that they would “champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS), to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas”.
This statement alludes to what they consider China’s illegitimate claims in the South China Sea. The Quad countries have undertaken several joint naval exercises. The US — which is now the driving force — clearly hopes it will become an anti-China security partnership and is pushing it in that direction despite reservations by India, perhaps Japan and some South-East Asian countries.
AUKUS is an agreement between Australia, the UK and the US for the US and the UK to supply nuclear-powered submarines and underwater drone technology to Australia. A major use of these assets will be to maintain the “balance of power” in the South China Sea.
The agreement also calls for “rotations of US fighters and bombers to northern Australia” and to potentially “acquire more rotational basing for its submarines in Perth”. So the US will eventually be using Australia for its surveillance and deterrence of China in the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean.
These aggressive US-driven realpolitik strategic moves are meant to counter what it sees as the “China threat” to its hegemony in Asia.
How might China respond? First of all, its military will probably consider these anti-China security coalitions a “crossing of the Rubicon” and step up its preparations for military conflict with the US and its allies.
For China, military conflict becomes not an “if”, but a “when” and that is probably when it is strong enough to win. That is not yet.
It will probably counter these strategic US moves by drawing closer militarily to Russia and other potential allies in the region — like Pakistan, Cambodia, Laos and possibly Vietnam which is the focus of the current soft power contest between the two. It may even try to negotiate the “rotational” basing of its naval and air forces in friendly regional countries.
When they come online in 10–20 years, the nuclear-powered submarines will enable Australia to stealthily patrol the South China Sea and detect, track, and if necessary, target China’s nuclear powered and armed submarines based in Yulin on Hainan.
Meanwhile Australia may lease advanced US submarines or allow the US to “rotate” its own through Australian bases. This is particularly threatening to China because one of its military weaknesses is anti-submarine warfare.
For China, the South China Sea is a “natural shield for its national security”. It provides relative sanctuary for its second strike nuclear submarines that are its insurance against a first strike — something the US, unlike China, has not disavowed. To China, these deployments would mean that the US and its allies want to deny China the sanctuary and defensive buffer of the South China Sea.
The arrangement is thus an existential threat to China. In response it will likely accelerate its efforts to protect its retaliatory strike nuclear armed submarines by enhancing their stealth and its anti-submarine warfare capabilities — especially its aerial, surface and subsurface drones.
China is unlikely to stand down militarily in its near waters like the East China Sea and the South China Sea because it has been drummed into the heads of its populace that its claims there are “core” interests. However it may continue to avoid incidents and to manage them well if they do occur.
China will likely step up its efforts to win the hearts and minds of more South-East Asian countries. In order to win over those that are sitting on the fence, it may temporarily back off the aggressive prosecution of its claims to resources in their claimed waters. It may also reach pragmatic provisional arrangements with its rival claimants in the South China Sea that implicitly recognise their claims.
It may even compromise on some of the critical provisions in the draft code of conduct with ASEAN and agree to ambiguous language on its geographic coverage, legal status and enforcement or dispute settlement mechanisms.
Meanwhile it is likely to step up its economic and diplomatic “punishment” of Australia as a warning to others who may be tempted to side militarily with the US It has already imposed tariffs on Australian barley and wine exports and placed other barriers on imports of Australian timber, lobster and coal.
Diplomatically, it will likely portray itself as the victim and appeal for international moral support against the US bully and hegemon. It may try to exploit UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres’ appeal to both to avoid further hostile moves by claiming that it is doing its part and the problem lies with the US side.
Above all China will likely maintain patience in pursuit of its long term goal of restoring the nation to regional if not global pre-eminence. Its economic and military power will inexorably continue to grow. Soon it will be the most powerful nation in Asia.
Short of war and its defeat, this cannot be prevented by the US and its allies. One by one like ripe fruit smaller regional states will be drawn into its orbit. All it needs to do is avoid succumbing to internal problems that the US may try to exacerbate and just bide its time.
The more powerful it becomes the more the US and its allies will try to provoke it into conflict. But it is unlikely to take the bait — until it is ready to do so or is given no other realistic choice. Time favours China.