A DISTURBING ISSUE that we have intermittently watched in this column concerns the belligerent military aspirations of China, and its potential to spark a conflict that could spiral out of control; recent developments make that threat greater than ever, and it is imperative China not be appeased.
The last time we checked in on what was going on in China was almost a year ago; far from being deserving of ridicule to at least keep an eyebrow raised toward the region, it seems the latest developments from China validate the concern this issue has elicited.
At the very least, it makes the assessments and analysis featured both in my article at the time and through the material I linked to pertinent now.
As China watchers and others with an interest in foreign affairs know, China’s recent unilateral declaration of an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) — whereby all planes passing through must notify China in advance, file a flight plan, state the purpose of the flight and use a transponder for the duration of the period flown in the zone — has been ignored by the US military and by other countries which have followed suit.
And China has not been backward in issuing official rebukes and reprimands wherever and whenever it believes compliance and/or support should be forthcoming.
This article, from Britain’s Telegraph newspaper, outlines how China has scrambled fighter jets to “investigate” movements through the airspace in question by aircraft refusing to comply with its demands; chief among them have been those from the US and Japan.
Australia, officially, has backed the right of the USA and Japan to ignore China’s new ADIZ; I believe this is exactly the proper stance to take, given our support of traditional key allies and considering that the airspace in question is otherwise universally regarded (except, perhaps, by the Russians, whose position is not known) as open international airspace.
The airspace also covers an area which is the subject of territorial claims by a number of countries in the region: China and Japan aside, the Taiwanese and South Koreans also have claims over parts of the area, as do — further afield — Vietnam and the Philippines.
It seems clear that given the intransigence of many of these territorial claims, the most sensible course of action is to maintain the status quo in the interests of regional balance, peace, and security.
But Australia has been on the receiving end of one of China’s rebukes for the position it has adopted: this country has made “an error” which must be “corrected,” according to Beijing; the spectre of downgraded trade relations between the two countries has also been dangled by China as a menacing additional layer of threat, lest it gets what it wants.
A rather wan justification for China’s actions in declaring an ADIZ at all is that other countries — it cites Europe as an example — have them, so why should China be treated any differently?
The big difference, of course, is that European countries are not at present eyeing off each other’s territory, nor taking even elementary steps to claim or annex it.
China, on the other hand, claims Taiwan; it has already reclaimed Macau and Hong Kong; and it lays claim to vast tracts of land and sea (and now air) across south-east Asia, around the East China Sea, the South China Sea and beyond.
It is known — as readers will see from the article I linked to and the links contained therein — that many of the countries affected by China’s claims are deeply concerned at both Beijing’s motives and the prospect of China attempting to seize any or all of the territory it claims by force.
All of the components of a powderkeg have been assembled; one spark will detonate it.
Already, the US government has passed a number of resolutions condemning China’s territorial ambitions, and pledging to support the Philippines and Vietnam in particular in the face of hostile action by China in relation to disputed lands.
This is additional to the much closer alliances that already exist between the USA and Japan and South Korea and, indeed, Australia.
The rhetoric from Beijing over its territorial ambitions has grown increasingly strident and bellicose in recent years; developments such as the ADIZ around islands disputed by China and Japan — and the belligerent noise to go with it — increases that stridency further.
A rising tide of Chinese nationalism — perhaps the greatest threat to the ruling Communist Party — is pushing Beijing to take a far harder line than it has to date; at some point, tough words may well be backed by tough action simply to protect the regime on its home flank.
And — as readers will see from the Telegraph article provided — China has already stated it will be “escorting” aircraft through the ADIZ it has decreed, without co-operation or consent from its neighbours; even if its promise not to shoot at these aircraft is genuine, the fact such a prospect has been mentioned at all is worrying — to say the least.
It really boils down to two key points — and neither of them is particularly satisfactory.
One, that to comply with China’s demands and edicts over a sector of international airspace is, to be brutal about it, appeasement; to cave in to such demands now, in an area subject to territorial claims, is to invite further such adventures from China until it demands something the West can’t or won’t concede.
The management of Hitler and his demands by the Allies in the 1930s is an excellent template of where such an exercise in appeasement might end.
And two — appeasement or not — China’s actions, and its malevolent lecturing of those countries ignoring its baseless demands, has ratcheted up an already high temperature in the region; it generates a risk of military confrontation between the USA and China that is potentially one stray shot at a US or allied aircraft from reality.
So much for the scary hypothetical I was accused of canvassing previously. It could happen deliberately, or in a misunderstanding, but it could happen — and escalate — very quickly.
The consequences, in the true sense of the word, would be dire.
And for those who laughed when I posed the question about which side of the fence Australia would land on if conflict between the USA and China ever occurred, perhaps a little more sober thought about such questions is due now China is, undeniably, throwing its weight around — with an obvious intention to do some damage in the process.
Should it ever eventuate, then trying to walk with one foot on either side of the proverbial barbed wire fence — as Joh Bjelke-Petersen once famously said — would be extremely uncomfortable indeed.