Dutton’s posturing can only lead to military confrontation with China

Feb 11, 2022
Peter Dutton
(Image: AP/Rod McGuirk)

As the US draws its allies in an  encirclement campaign against China, Australia’s Defence Minister is adding fuel to the fire.

Some politicians have a particular flair for proposing US military moves that would goad China into a military confrontation with collateral damage for Asia. This takes a special mind-set that includes a phobia of China and a penchant for using military power to coerce other countries to change their policies and behaviour — even if it risks kinetic conflict.

Australian Defence Minister Peter Dutton appears to be one of these ‘special’ politicians.  On the eve of the visit of US Secretary of State Tony Blinken,  he proclaimed that the US and its allies have “acquiesced and allowed” China to enhance its control of the South China Sea. He added that “If we continue in that trajectory, then I think we’ll lose the next decade”.

He obviously wants the US — and Australia — to do more militarily. This may be election cycle rhetoric. But if the present government is re-elected, the US needs to be very careful of such dangerous militarism lest it be dragged into a war that is not in its national security interest.

America has had its share of domestic militarists and should be wary of more. Infamous in recent American history was Curtis Le May. As chief of staff of the US Air Force, Le May called for the bombing of Cuban missile sites during the 1962 missile crisis. Fortunately,       President John F. Kennedy and Defence Secretary Robert McNamara outmaneuvered him — perhaps avoiding Armageddon. Le May also proposed to bomb North Vietnam “back to the stone age”. Dutton may not be in this class yet — but he is headed in that direction.

First of all, China’s rise is not the end of the world as we know it. Yes, China has behaved badly in the South China Sea. It has used ‘carrots and sticks’ against rival claimants and ignored an international arbitration decision against it. But this is how big powers have behaved toward smaller powers throughout history. Indeed others, including the US (Nicaragua), the UK (Mauritius) and Russia (the Netherlands) have set this negative example.

It is also predictable and not unusual that a big power wants to dominate its ‘near seas’ much like the US does the Gulf of Mexico. Moreover there is no direct threat to the core security interests of either the US or Australia. The hyped China threat to freedom of commercial navigation is a red herring.

No country should acquiesce to claims that it considers illegal. But such non-acquiescence can be — and normally is — effectively and sufficiently demonstrated by verbal and written diplomatic communiqués. Indeed, diplomatic protest rather than ‘gunboat diplomacy’ is more consonant with the UN Charter that requires that “[a] Members shall settle their international disputes by peaceful means in such a manner that international peace and security, and justice, are not endangered.”

The US has not “acquiesced” to China. It has frequently made public protests against China’s actions there. On the military front, the US has already increased the frequency and aggressiveness of its Freedom of Navigation Operations there.

Indeed, its use of warships to challenge China’s sovereignty claims over low tide features and its territorial sea regimes could be interpreted as a threat of use of force against the territorial integrity of a state. It has also markedly stepped up the presence of its foremost conventional weapon — aircraft carrier strike groups — as well as  nuclear capable B52 overflights of the East and South China Seas and its naval transits of the Taiwan Straits.

To Chinese military leaders, it appears that some of these US actions are an ‘in your face’ flaunting of its superior military power and a dare to China to “do something about it”. The US is already pushing China to the limit in the South China Sea. Any further military escalation could push it over the edge.

In the bigger picture, China’s military leaders see China as hemmed in by US bases and rotational ‘assets’ in US allies and strategic partners stretching across a wide swath of Asia from Japan and South Korea in the east to the Philippines and Australia in the south and Singapore, Malaysia, and Thailand in the south-west.

Now the US is trying to make military inroads with China’s neighbours Vietnam and India in its obvious efforts to further hem it in and maintain its continued hegemony in Asia.  It appears to China’s increasingly politically aware public that the US is stepping up its asymmetric ‘provocations’ in China’s near seas.

As one leading US analyst put it, from Beijing’s perspective these ‘threats’ could eventually bring into question the legitimacy of the ruling Chinese Communist Party — and this is indeed dangerous for the leadership and the fragile status quo ‘peace’ if not carefully considered and  addressed.

Yet Dutton has joined the chorus of militarists in the US advocating more aggressive coercive action against China. But what more does Dutton want the US to do? One militarist proposal from a US military-associated analyst was to have the US deploy its forces to the front lines of the disputed areas so they can play a more direct role helping other states counter China’s seaward expansion.

So far the US threat of use of force has not caused China to change its policies. But it has led to growing concern on the part of South-East Asian states that fear the collateral damage of a US-China military confrontation. Being even more aggressive militarily on the behalf of South-East Asian claimants would be a dangerous gamble with their futures.

It would also cause China’s nationalist leaders to lose face and infuriate the nationalists. More concerning, it would likely force prospective participants in the strategy to choose between the US and China, and the US — and Australia–might not like the outcome.

A ‘might makes right’ approach is not a shining example of international behaviour for other nations — including China.  The US should tell Dutton that if Australia starts a kinetic fight with China, it is on its own.

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