The call for Australia to ‘take the fight to China in the South China Sea’ by a retired, senior bureaucrat is surprising. It fails to take account of China’s expressed defence strategy.
In a recent edition of the glossy on-line publication ‘Defence Connect’, it has been reported that a former head of the Defense Department, Mr Dennis Richardson, has called on the Navy to “take the fight to China in the South China Sea”.
Leaving aside the irresponsibility of a senior ex-bureaucrat promoting such aggressive and provocative action, it is instructive to look at some of the thinking that might lie beneath it.
According to the article, Richardson argues that China is ‘determined to dominate and control access to the South China Sea’. He is not alone in holding suspicions about every military move that China makes, but that betrays a level of fear and, possibly, a failure in analysis.
There is no denying that the fortification of islands in the South China Sea was an assertive, military move – one that would have been calculated to challenge the dominance of the USA. But to regard this is an act of aggression, as opposed to an act of assertive defence, carries with it the assumption that China behaves in an imperialistic manner, trying to extend its ‘empire’ wherever it can, through the use of military power. In other words, it rests on the assumption that China will behave in much the same way as the colonial powers of the West have behaved over the last couple of centuries. It rests on projecting onto China strategies that the West (and the USA in particular) have long used, to material advantage.
In this connection, it is instructive to contrast the USA’s ‘National Defense Strategy’ (2018) with China’s ‘National Defense in the New Era’ (2019). As official, government documents, both are intended to outline their respective nation’s defence strategy. Both have a similar appraisal of the global situation, highlighting the growing complexity and military competition in the world at large, and in our region in particular. Their responses to the situation do not, however, run parallel.
The USA’s document is extrordinarily open and honest about its military strategy. It makes no pretense about the fact that military power works to ensure the USA’s prosperity.
“…the Department of Defense will be prepared to defend the homeland; remain the pre-eminent military power in the world; ensure the balances of power remain in our favor, and advance an international order that is most coducive to our security and prosperity.”
And “A dominant Joint Force will protect the security of our nation; increase US influence; preserve access to markets that will improve our standard of living…”
What could be clearer?
On the other hand, China’s document announces that China will pursue a defence policy that is defensive in nature. It states:-
“Though a country may become strong, bellicosity will lead to its ruin. The Chinese nation has always loved peace.”…
“History proves and will continue to prove that China will never follow the beaten track of big powers in seeking hegemony. No matter how it might develop, China will never threaten any other country or seek any sphere of influence.”
And “China advocates partnerships rather than alliances and does not join any military bloc.”
The cynic’s view would be to say that neither document can be taken at face value and that actions speak louder than words. However, each document can be relied upon, by senior officials in their respective governments, to justify any action taken.
The USA’s stated position of ‘maintaining military pre-eminence’ results in it feeling itself obliged to challenge any nation that approaches it in military capacity. The USA has a tendency to project its own image onto other nations – viewing all to be in pursuit of entirely self-interested ends, by any and all means, including military. When viewed in this manner, of course China’s establisment of fortifications in the South China Sea becomes a ‘threat’.
There are, however, other ways of looking at the matter. A small but significant error (or falsification?) serves to emphasis this point. The article in Defence Connect, where Dennis Richardson’s call has been made public, states that the USA announced its ‘pivot’ to the Asia Pacific in 2013. By doing this, it implies that the pivot announcement was a response to China’s annexation of the SCS islands. The sequence of events actually took place in the reverse order. The pivot was announced in 2011, and the fortification of the islands began in 2013. In light of that, and applying her stated doctrine, China’s action can be interpreted as a legitimate and purely defensive response to the USA’s stated intentions. If so, Australia should have no role to play.
Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that it remains in China’s interests to keep sea lanes in the South China Sea open. Their fortifications may be intended to do no more than that.
In a comment on the DC article, ‘Nautilus’ writes, “China is not necessarily motivated primarily to emulate the USA as an alternative hegemonic power. The differing motivations that we should consider might make us better prepared to deal effectively with a rising China to the benefit of regional stability.”
A past chief of the Department of Defence should have known more about China’s stated strategy and better than to advocate overtly aggressive action. In view of Mr Richardson’s past record, one wonders whether ‘Defence Connect’ has reported him accurately.
Nick Deane has a degree in Sociology. He is now retired, after a varied career, culminating in 17 years in the Australian Public Service. He is a convenor of the Marrickville Peace Group and one of two NSW members of the national committee of the Independent and Peaceful Australia Network.