After years of appeasing China in order to gain access to its markets, the US now appears to be taking a much harder line against Beijing, emphasising national security over commerce. That could be dangerous.
Addressing a gathering at the University of Adelaide recently, former Defence Minister Christopher Pyne suggested that Australia could be dragged into a war with China in the next five to ten years. Noting that Chinese General Secretary Xi Jinping’s apparent intention is to ensure that China dominates the region, the negation of the “one country, two systems” arrangement with Hong Kong and the repression of Uyghur population and other minorities in Xinjiang being only two indicators of that intent, Mr Pyne pointed out that, in his opinion, Taiwan remained the potential trigger for conflict between the US and its allies and China. While that is likely the case, the US’s actions in conjunction with the Philippines, with Taiwan and in the South China Sea appear to have been designed to provoke China and, simultaneously, counter its attempts to increase its influence in the region.
President Biden hosted his first meeting with a foreign leader, Japanese Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga, last week. The two leaders discussed several issues, including climate change, North Korea and the Covid-19 pandemic. Their main topic of discussion, however, was China’s aggression in the Indo-Pacific region. As the president stated after their discussions, the two countries re-stated their mutual commitment to working together to ‘take on the challenges from China’, amid other issues. Some of those include reforming the World Health Organisation, which is widely seen to be controlled by China, protecting their indigenously-developed technologies that the president described as being ‘governed by shared democratic norms that we both share – norms set by democracies, not by autocracies’, promoting secure and reliable 5G networks; increasing their co-operation on supply chains for critical sectors like semiconductors; to driving joint research in areas like AI, genomics and quantum computing, each of those being a field in which China seeks to become the world leader. The two countries plan, in short, to block China’s attempts to be the country that sets the standards according to which future developments in those fields will operate.
In his return speech, Prime Minister Suga was at pains to underline the volatility of the Indo-Pacific region, the need to co-operate with India, Australia and the ASEAN countries and, strikingly, ‘China’s influence over the peace and prosperity of the Indo-Pacific and the world at large’ and the two countries’ opposition to ‘any attempts [by China] to change the status quo by force or coercion in the East and South China Seas, and intimidation of others in the region’. Plain speaking, indeed.
It is not just speeches that highlight President Biden’s stance against China, however. He despatched an unofficial delegation, despite China’s standard objections, that included Christopher J. Dodd, a former Democratic senator from Connecticut, and former senior State Department officials, Richard Armitage and James Steinberg, to Taiwan last week. Those delegates dined with Taiwan’s President Tsai Ing-wen and its Foreign Minister, and discussed bilateral relations. Taiwanese officials briefed the delegates on China’s recent provocations against the island and across the region, and called for increased support from Washington on trade, security and economic matters.
Unsurprisingly, when Mr Biden’s Special Climate Envoy arrived in Shanghai for discussions on joint efforts with China to reduce their greenhouse gases emissions footprint, he was not met by a Chinese State Councillor, as is usually the case, and his delegation and he were transported in a coach hired from a travel company. It is probable that that insult will be portrayed by Beijing as a symbol of China’s efforts to reduce its emissions. Mr Kerry did make it clear prior to his departure to Shanghai that the Biden Administration would not compromise with China on economic issues or human rights in its attempts to address climate change.
It is in the Philippines, however, that China runs the greatest risk of losing face in the region. As the world has witnessed since the mid-2000s, when China sought to occupy an island or feature in, say, the South China Sea, it would send in vessels of the People’s Liberation Army Navy maritime militia to surround that island or feature and force vessels from other claimants from it. It would then proceed to construct an installation of some kind on that island and elevate its claim to it. Given that antecedent, Manila grew alarmed when, in December 2020, a fleet of vessels from that maritime militia, in reality Chinese patrol boats disguised as fishing vessels, anchored hull-to-hull around Whitsun Reef, which China claims despite the fact that it lies within the Philippines’ Exclusive Economic Zone and continental shelf. That alarm grew when the fleet expanded between December and March of this year to around 220 vessels. Manila feared that China was about to claim yet another reef. China’s refusal to withdraw the fleet compounded Manila’s fears. Manila’s demands that the fleet withdraw were met by asinine excuses from the Chinese embassy that it was “completely normal” for Chinese vessels to fish in the area and take shelter near the reef during rough sea conditions.
By mid-April, the fleet began dispersing after the US and the Philippines sent major assault forces into the area as their diplomats commented that China’s occupation of a reef within the Philippines’ EEZ warranted a military response. To be clear, Beijing could have been testing the US’s commitment to its mutual defence treaty with Manila. It could also be the case that Beijing sought to examine the nature of the US response. At least superficially, however, the common perception is that China withdrew its fleet in the face of strong military opposition. As a retired US Navy officer put it, ‘The Chinese have blinked.’
Therein lies the seed of possible conflict. The US naval force that potentially sailed towards conflict with the Chinese fleet consisted of the aircraft carrier, USS Theodore Roosevelt, and the assault ship USS Makin Island, escorted by their cruisers, destroyers and submarines and carrying their individual air wings. The Philippines sent four of its frontline naval ships, including the brand-new missile corvettes, the BRP Jose Rizal and BRP Antonio Luna. To describe the combined power of that group as potent would be an understatement. China likely had few immediate options but to withdraw its fleet, leading to its subsequent loss of face and its need to demonstrate to the region that its withdrawal was a tactical and temporary measure. It is possible that if it were to execute a similar manoeuvre on another disputed island or feature it could send better armed and equipped warships along with its patrol boats to gauge if the US would act as it did when China’s fleet anchored at Whitsun Reef.
Beijing would have been surprised by the speed at which the US and Philippine navies came together. It could reason that it was their mutual defence treaty that motivated, in the immediate sense, that joint effort. Taiwan, on the other hand, is a different matter. While the US has a duty to ensure Taiwan’s safety because of the Taiwan Act, it is also aware that Beijing views Taiwan as a breakaway province. Beijing has not given up its claimed right, moreover, to re-take Taiwan by force if necessary. It remains to be seen what course of action the US would take if China were to occupy, say, Pratas Island, which is administered by Taiwan. China has now learned that the US will come to Manila’s aid if required. While Washington would likely also come to Taipei’s, Beijing would like to be sure of that. If China were to occupy Pratas Island, therefore, and if the US were to work with Taiwan to force the Chinese troops off that island, China could portray that act as inhibiting its “sacred duty” to reunify the country. The current poor relationship between the US and China could plunge even further.
Those factors, when combined with others such as China’s fears of the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue becoming an Asian NATO and the ongoing arms race in the US, China and the Indo-Pacific region, bring the two adversaries and the region closer to a kinetic war, thereby supporting Christopher Pyne’s contention that Australia could find itself at war in five to ten years’ time.