Great expectations in the South China Sea

When Australia’s last Defence White Paper was released, Hugh White declared that “it’s time we talked about war with China”.

Hugh White has long been calling for discussion on this hopefully remote, but unfortunately real, possibility. And he’s absolutely right. I’m going to talk about it in this post, and highlight voices on this topic that I find valuable.

First, because I’ve enjoyed venturing outside my research area recently. Second, because the prospect of war in the Asia-Pacific poses a greater threat to Australia’s national security than terrorism. Third, because I recently listened to a Perth USAsia Centre podcast episode where Kim Beazley said something about this which really struck me.

In the episode, Beazley and others discussed the latest Shangri-La Dialogue. This is a summit in Singapore where representatives of Asia-Pacific governments, along with academics and other participants, discuss the region’s security and defence issues. Beazley said that Australia stood out by failing to attend the Dialogue. He speculated that this could have been because America has big expectations of Australia in the future, and that the government has hesitantly signed Australia up without bringing the public along:

We don’t understand how significant we are, and if we ever approach, mentally, a comprehension of that we run away from it. … So we weren’t there. We had officials there, but we did not have a minister there. That’s simply absurd………

The Americans arrived with messages for us. I have a fear that maybe that’s what we were trying to avoid. The American message for us was really quite strong. It’s the first time I’ve heard this expression, and that was ‘well now Australia is a global ally’ and we engage in a variety of activities around the globe. We have become, from the American point of view, the ally they want to deal with. Because we’ll commit. We’ll commit forces, we’ll commit diplomacy, and I think there’s a sort of, bit of a hesitancy now, in Australia, on that point.

Is that actually where we want to be? If you read the White Paper yes it is where we want to be. The White Paper mentions a priority of support for a global rules-based order, it mentions it as often as [US Secretary of Defense] Ash Carter did in his speech.  And that would seem to be logically the point of intersection, but there was no Australian there to give that definition. And we always get mentioned in American speeches, but not in a way that singles us out and actually puts us up, elevates us, in discussion, pretty much above most other American allies. [Emphasis added]

These increased expectations on Australia need to be understood in light of the possibility that war could break out with China. That dark prospect lurks in the background of all the discussions of a “global rules-based order”, that America, Australia and other countries are vowing to uphold.

US Aus navies(Ships from the American, Japanese and Australian navies in a joint training exercise)

Before going into Beazley’s comment, I need to set the scene. The “global rules-based order” refers to the current system of international law for resolving territorial disputes, which has come under challenge in the Asia-Pacific. Global economic power is shifting to the region (hence the Asian Century) and it’s strategic importance is growing with it. Asia-Pacific countries have increased their military spending, nationalism and territorial competition are growing, the United States is perceived to be in decline, and military tensions are flaring up.

Many of these centre on territorial disputes in the South China Sea, which caused some tense moments in the Shangri-La Dialogue this year. China had been militarily asserting a claim to territory claimed by the Philippines. The International Tribunal for the Law of the Sea at The Hague was considering the dispute, and was anticipated to rule in the Philippines’ favour. China was expected to reject this, and made that clear at the summit when Admiral Sun Jianguo declared “China will not recognize nor honor any award”.

The Philippines is not the only country China is making territorial claims against, hence Hugh White’s argument that this “is a contest over the future of the Asian order, and we should not for a moment assume that China is any less committed to building a new order than we are to preserving the old one.” Tanner Greer similarly expresses pessimism about the likelihood of China being bound by the Western-led “global rules-based order”:

The Chinese believe that our international order is a rigged system set up by the imperial victors of the last round of bloodshed to perpetuate the power of its winners. They use the system, quite cynically, but at its base they find it and its symbols hypocritical, embarrassing, outrageous, and (according to the most strident among them), evil. In their minds it is a system of lies and half-truths. In some cases they have a point. Most of their actions in the East or South China Seas are designed to show just how large a gap exists between the grim realities of great power politics and soaring rhetoric Americans use to describe our role in the region. …..

Wedded to this cynical vision of the current arrangements is an equally cynical take on the history of America’s imposed order. Beijing is well aware that if it decided to do to Tonga now what the United States did to Hawaii more than a century ago it would mean war. At the time the United States suffered nothing of the sort. Not that American wars were without their own rewards—the Americans claim island bases like Guam and Saipan as prizes won through conquest. China is not allowed to conquer its own prizes. It cannot fight wars to give its forces a new ports and bases; it is not even allowed build little artificial islands for the purpose.

Never mind that all of that strikes the Chinese’s ire happened generations ago. Anything this side of the Taiping is modern history for the Chinese. American attempts to deny that, to claim that the world should work differently now than it did when the American star first began to rise, simply prove that morality and sweet sounding words like ‘international norms’ are for the winners. All of that talk about being a responsible stakeholder is just a nicer way to say we plan on kicking down the ladder now that we have finished climbing up it.

In simpler terms, the Chinese equate “rising within a rules based order” with “halting China’s rise to power.” To live by Washington’s rules is to live under its power, and the Chinese have been telling themselves for three decades now that—after two centuries of hardship—they will not live by the dictates of outsiders ever again.

Tanner Greer quotes Bilahari Kausikan’s account of how these ambitions are tied to the Chinese Communist Party (CCP)’s efforts to retain power:

China’s use of history to legitimise CCP rule and justify sovereignty claims gets us, I think, to the crux of the matter. For the past century, the legitimacy of any Chinese government has depended on its ability to defend China’s sovereignty and preserve its borders. But what are those borders? Can the CCP meekly accept the borders imposed on a weak China that has now, to use Mao Zedong’s phrase, “stood up” under communist leadership? China is not reckless but the CCP must at least give the appearance of recovering lost territory. Revanchism is an intrinsic part of the story of China’s “Great Rejuvenation”.

The lands lost to a weak China include what are now parts of Siberia and the Russian Far East, Mongolia, Hong Kong and Macau, and Taiwan, as well as the Paracels and Spratlys in the SCS. Siberia and the Russian Far East and Mongolia are now beyond recovery. Hong Kong and Macau reverted to Beijing’s rule almost 30 years ago. The US has made clear it will not support independence for Taiwan. Without US support, independence is impossible. With that core concern assuaged, Beijing can multiply the economic threads binding Taiwan to the mainland and bide its time, confident that irrespective of internal changes and how the people of Taiwan regard themselves, Taiwan’s long-term trajectory cannot run counter to China’s interest. Changing the status quo is not an immediate possibility but is no longer an urgent issue, although China still eyes Taiwan’s Democratic Progressive Party distrustfully and will never entirely forgo the option of forceful reunification.

That leaves the SCS territories to put some credible shreds of meat on the bare bones of the CCP’s version of history as it navigates a second and more difficult phase of reforms and tries to manage social and labour unrest at a time of moderating growth and a future when slower growth will be China’s “new normal”. The very insignificance of the territories in dispute in the SCS may well be part of their attraction to Beijing for this essentially domestic political purpose.

This is extremely plausible, and not unique to this part of the world (Curtis Ryan and others have described how regime insecurity drives foreign policies and conflict in the Middle East). Barry Buzan similarly links the Chinese government’s commitment to retaining power at home to its military assertiveness abroad:

As Jonathan Fenby has argued, the CCP remains unbendingly committed to remaining in power in perpetuity. Yet as knowledge, wealth, organization, information and connectivity spread through Chinese society, that society becomes increasingly diverse, opinionated, and able and willing to mobilise in its own interests.

The CCP increasingly, and correctly, feels threatened by this society, which it does not understand, and does not like. As a consequence, China’s domestic and foreign policies are extremely closely linked, with the insecurity of the CCP as the central concern (see work by Susan Shirk and David Shambaugh). ….

The CCP has successfully cultivated nationalism for several decades, and while it has drawn legitimacy from that, it has also become trapped it into a ratchet effect of strong foreign policy responses. Because of its domestic insecurity, the CCP cannot afford to look weak abroad lest it invite comparison with the decaying Qing dynasty during the nineteenth century and lose the mandate of heaven.

On that basis, we can predict, and indeed we can already see happening, that in the coming years China will become more nationalist, more xenophobic, and probably more assertive in foreign policy terms (on a more assertive Chinese foreign policy, see Yan Xuetong and Zhang).

The Chinese government rejects the accusations against it, and they could certainly point to many hypocrisies. They could argue that as the largest contributor to United Nations peacekeeping missions, and as a country that that didn’t invade Iraq without UN approval in 2003 or carry out regime change in Libya in 2011, it’s hypocritical for Western countries to call China a threat to global order. They could argue that as a country that provides aid to others with few strings attached, and whose imports have driven economic growth for many countries (such as Australia’s mining boom), it’s ungrateful of others to rebuke China for seeking increased military strength in proportion with its growing economy. They could also argue that Australia itself spurned international arbitration during its oil and gas disputes with Timor-Leste, and that China is not the only country that could be accused of making problematic claims in the South China Sea.

But there’s little doubt that China’s maritime claims have been more ambitious, and its actions more aggressive, than the other countries involved.


To assert its claims, China has been constructing artificial islands in disputed territory and building military bases on them. The Asia Maritime Transparency Initiative provides plenty of satellite photos of this. China has also been intruding into waters that unambiguously belong within other country’s Exclusive Economic Zones (EEZs), and provoking confrontations:

China has carefully—but aggressively—pursued its goals in Asia. It has seized territory (the Scarborough Shoal) from the Philippines and refused to withdraw  despite promising to do so.3 It stationed an oil rig in Vietnamese waters, and established an East China Sea air-defence identification zone without first consulting its neighbours. It has intercepted US aircraft and naval vessels in reckless  ways, thus risking a repeat of the April 2001 EP-3 crisis. The Chinese Coast Guard continues to  aggressively defend Chinese fishing vessels operating in the waters of Southeast Asian countries, like Indonesia.4

This  approach has spurred countries such as Singapore and the Philippines to seek closer military ties with the United States, when they had grown wary of such military ties not long ago (the Philippines closed US military bases in the 1990s). Even the Cold War enemy Vietnam is seeking military support from America. This does not mean that conflict is inevitable (the new Philippines government may well accommodate China), and it is not necessarily even likely. But the pieces are in place for a potential confrontation, and there’s a real possibility that things could get out of control.

China does appear to sternly reject the current international order, viewing it as a Western trap, while the US and others appear determined to maintain this order. Unless one or both sides change their approach, the region’s future could be bleak.

This is the context to understand Beazley’s comment in. He paints a picture of Australia becoming further embedded in the US alliance system, in which the US would have high expectations of Australia in any conflict with China. But he suggests that governments have done this without having brought the public on board.

Several other foreign policy observers have also pointed this out. The Lowy Institute’s Aaron Connelly wrote this valuable post arguing that US government officials, who deal mostly with their counterparts in Canberra, don’t realise that the Australian public (and businesses) largely don’t share the US government view of a threatening China. Indeed a recent survey showed that Australians are calm about China’s rise and see the prospect of war as unlikely. The United States Studies Centre’s Simon Jackman viewed this as “Australians taking the US relationship for granted”.

If America indeed has great expectations of us, to help enforce a global order that the Chinese government appears to have emphatically rejected, then the alliance certainly can’t be taken for granted. Either the government will need to temper America’s expectations in line with the Australian public’s, or the government will have to persuade the public that committing more to the alliance is necessary.

In the latest Quarterly Essay, Firing Line: Australia’s Path to War, James Brown similarly warns about the risk of war with China and highlights the gap between successive Australian governments’  integration into the US alliance system and public hesitancy. He argues that the government needs to more open than it has so far, so that an informed choice can be made:

Australia’s politicians, seldom comfortable discussing military strategic issues, did little to address the growing chorus of alarm. In fact, they did little to explain the measures agreed to with the United States at all. When Prime Minister Tony Abbott signed the Force Posture Agreement formalising the Darwin presence [of US Marines] in 2014, there was no accompanying attempt to explain to the public what it meant.

Brown ties this into a broader theme, arguing that Australia has limited public engagement with, and scrutiny of, military issues. He states that our defence community is more closed than that of America and some other democracies, and that it’s rare for politicians, journalists and academics to have deep military knowledge.

That said, there are signs of this changing: the increased public consultation behind the latest Defence White Paper, the Army’s “intellectual pivot” (a factor behind the rise of Australia’s online strategy-sphere), and the chorus of voices calling for more discussion of defence issues in this election.

But this could go much further. If, as Beazley worries, America does indeed have great expectations for Australia in the event of war with China, it certainly doesn’t appear to be in the public consciousness. It’s indeed time we talked about it more.

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