Geoff Miller. Managing or containing China.

Mar 31, 2016

Australia, China, the South China Sea – and the uses of language.

Recent reports published in both Australia and the US—including most notably in our case the Defence White Paper—and a series of visitors to Australia from China, the US and Japan, have increased the already high degree of interest and concern over future strategic dispositions in the Pacific and Indian Oceans, and over the present state of affairs in the South China Sea.

In a recent post Cavan Hogue made important points about one piece of language frequently used in discussion of these matters, namely the need to uphold the “rules-based international order”. He noted that the phrase is commonly used to refer to the current set of international arrangements essentially created by the West—but with one very important exception: the US, unlike China, has not ratified the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea (UNCLOS).

Another piece of language much used at a recent conference at the ANU three weeks ago was the injunction that, in the interests of maintaining this rules-based order, “we” must manage China’s rise. This was said in particular by a number of Japanese speakers at the conference, which was on the record, on the Indo-Pacific maritime Security, and held by the ANU’s National Security College. “We” were described as the “liberal, open-minded, free market democracies”, notably including the US, Japan, India and Australia. This of course describes the group of countries frequently suspected of trying to “contain” China, rather than “manage its rise”.

But that concept of “managing China’s rise”, with its connotations of from on high to below, also invites some scepticism. Given the size of China’s economy and of its foreign exchange reserves, its importance to its economic partners (which include all of the possible “managers” or “containers”) and its policy vitality as shown in the Asian Infrastructure Investment Bank and “One Belt One Road” initiatives, it is hard to see China’s rise being “managed” by anyone.

It may not be too big to fail but it’s too big to manage!

Indeed, according to press reports (“The Australian”, 17 February) China’s Foreign Minister Wang said during Foreign Minister Bishop’s visit to Beijing that he did not see Australia’s possible purchase of Japanese submarines as a deliberate tactic to contain the rise of China because “no country in the world can stop that”.

A recent Chinese visitor to Australia said something akin to that: he did not see the US as the main obstacle to China’s rise: “if there is to be any obstacle it will be ourselves”.

So if China isn’t to be contained or managed what are we to do about it or with it? “Live with it, engage with it, influence it if possible, oppose it if necessary” would seem to be the practical answer. One of the recommendations made by Dr Elsina Wainwright in her recent US Studies Centre paper on the ANZUS alliance was to seek to involve and engage China to the maximum extent possible.

Once again language comes into play. It’s very common to read or hear of Australia’s US-China choices or dilemma spoken of as a choice between Australia’s major strategic ally and its biggest trading partner. But both the US and China are very big countries, both can “walk and chew gum at the same time”. The US is very important to Australia economically as well as strategically. And it is important for Australians to remember that our relationship with China is not only about trade and investment, but also represents a long-standing, major and successful policy, pursued on a bipartisan basis by both major Australian political parties, to encourage and support the entry of China into the international community as a successful and engaged participant, rather than remain as a feared external “other”. China has done and is doing this in so many ways, and we should, and do, welcome that. Indeed in 2013 Australia and China expanded their relationship to become a “Strategic Partnership”, with regular talks at the highest levels between the two governments.

Of course things have not remained as they were, and some changes have been very difficult for some to accept. Japan is no longer the pre-eminent Asian power, for example, and that has not been welcomed by many patriotic Japanese. But, in my view, to seek to counter or reverse this by constructing an anti-China coalition is not a constructive course.

Needless to say this does not mean that points of difference or difficulty don’t arise, and Chinese actions in regard to contested – or formerly non-existent! – territories in the South China Sea are a case in point. There are various possible reasons for China’s behaviour, some more justifiable or presentable than others. Once again language comes into play. The United States’ Naval passages or over-flights aimed at challenging China’s position are designated as “Freedom of Navigation” operations, and various Australian commentators, including Opposition Defence spokesman Senator Conroy have called on Australia to conduct similar operations, and to proclaim them publicly.

But in this regard it is worth noting that at the ANU’s Maritime Security Conference Emeritus Professor Carl Thayer, of the Australian Defence Force Academy, said that there were many areas of at least verbal agreement among all parties, including freedom for maritime commerce. (He also noted that China has not announced baselines or promulgated zones; and that much “militarization” can be dual use, and could usefully be defined.) A recent senior Chinese visitor to Australia also gave guarantees about the freedom of trade through the South China Sea.

If we are concerned about freedom of navigation in the South China Sea our concern at this stage should not be about freedom of sea-borne trade. Indeed, if commercial shipping through the South China Sea is of concern to us it must of even more concern to China, the destination of the largest share of our exports, and dependent on its East Coast ports for energy and other raw material imports and for its enormous export trade.

What is going on? One thing that is going on is a contest between the United States, the established dominant maritime power in the Western Pacific, and China, which in 2012 announced its intention of increasing its maritime role and presence both in its own region and beyond.

The rise of China as a Naval power, even though its capacities will for many years remain far below those of the United States, has of course created competition with the US, and with the US Navy. US Pacific Fleet Commandeer Admiral Swift spoke strongly against Chinese activities in the South China Sea at the ANU Conference, though he went on to speak of good Navy-to-Navy relations, and good relations which he has personally with senior Chinese naval officers.

We don’t know how the clash between these two great powers will be resolved. But I believe we can conclude that it’s not a matter for or against freedom of trade, but rather a struggle for position between a super-power and its regional challenger, taking place near the challenger’s homeland. It’s not in our interest to become involved in such a clash, particularly militarily, and particularly when our relations with both contenders are both very good and very important.

However it is impossible to overlook the fact that other things are going on as well, namely the construction by China of air and naval facilities on real or constructed islands in the South China Sea, and the pressure it is exerting on other claimant states in regard to real – fisheries – and potential – oil – resources. The clash some days ago between an Indonesian patrol boat and Chinese fishing and coastguard vessels indicates that even more countries, including Indonesia, the largest ASEAN country, could become involved in the South China Sea dispute.

This raises the crucial and tantalising question, “why is China behaving like this, in particular in regard to the other claimant states?”.   Our Prime Minister has called its behaviour counter-productive, and it’s hard to argue with that description in regard to its regional and international reputation, whatever the immediate imperatives or perceived benefits may be.

At the ANU conference on Maritime Security the distinguished Japanese strategist Masashi Nishihara said that the “basic question” is whether we “can expect an eventual partnership with China, or increasing tensions?” That is indeed a basic question, and China’s recent behaviour has been concerning.

Some time ago the respected Sinologist Linda Jakobson presented a picture essentially of disaggregated Chinese decision-making in regard to the South China Sea, with the military and agencies to do with oil and fisheries playing a large part in deciding what happens, rather than simply following an established central policy line. But this seems hard to reconcile with the current Chinese emphasis on central control, and Xi Jin Ping as the “core” of authority and policy-making.

There are indeed many possible reasons for, or factors contributing to, China’s stance in the South China Sea. To an outside lay observer they include:–

  • the Chinese Government actually fully believes in China’s historical claim, and is simply prosecuting it
  • China seeks to strengthen its naval position against Unites States Naval and air activities near its coast, including the possibility of an attempted US blockade of its trade routes, which has been advocated as a possible strategy by some US academics
  • it seeks the potential to interdict the trade routes of its North Asian neighbours
  • it seeks to ensure access to South China Sea resources, notably oil and fish
  • the forward policy in the South China Sea is essentially domestic in its drivers:-
    • It appeals to nationalism as a counter to slackening of and troubles in the economy; and
    • It is a sap to, and ensures the support to the government of, the PLA.

Some of these possible drivers are of more concern than other, but together they add up to a potentially alarming picture, particularly given uncertainty over how much weight to ascribe to each factor, and the potential of missteps and escalation. US Defense Secretary Ash Carter has said that specific Chinese actions in the South China Sea will be met by specific US responses: and Chinese spokesmen are reported as saying much the same thing.

As I said earlier, we can’t “manage” China’s rise. But in regard to the South China Sea we should work diplomatically to calm the situation to the extent possible and to promote both adherence to international law, effective communication between the contending or competing parties and, where possible, an appreciation of others’ positions. Australia is in good standing with all the parties involved and, complex and difficult as it is, we may be able to assist in handling this potentially dangerous situation, and should make attempting to do so a priority.

Geoff Miller was formerly Australian Ambassador to the Republic of Korea, Australian Ambassador to Japan and Australian High Commissioner to New Zealand. He was also the Director General of the Office of National Assessments.






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