Chinese Military Mischief: One Slip Can Trigger Conflict

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.


Chinese Belligerence: Could World War III Start Over A Few Lumps Of Rock?

The question would be ridiculous if it weren’t so serious, but China’s recent record of bellicose rhetoric and throwing its weight around in south-east Asia runs an increasing risk of the unthinkable; a Third World War over a few islands might seem extreme, but that is what any conflict would lead to.

Regular readers of this column will recall that a little over a year ago, I posted an article based on the rhetorical question of whether, were an armed conflict to erupt involving the US and China, Australia should stand with its old ally, America, or its new-ish trading partner, China.

At the time, the US had announced its intention — and agreement with the Gillard government — to establish a permanent troop presence in Australia as part of its strategic “pivot”away from the Middle East and toward Asia and the Pacific.

And at the time I was roundly criticised, in short, for being delusional.

Yet the geopolitical realities of the world are evolving phenomena, and have been since the beginning of civilisation; and, lest we forget, the incidence of wars across thousands of years have been a permanent feature of human history.

And so it has been with some interest, both before and since posting that article, that I have kept a lazy eye on China’s moves in this regard, and specifically, within what it sees as its immediate sphere of interest.

And it was with great interest indeed that shortly after Christmas, I read an excellent opinion piece in The Age by its regular contributor on world affairs, Hugh White.

I strongly urge readers with a serious interest in such matters to read White’s piece.

The disputed islands to which White refers — the Senkakus if you take the Japanese view, the Diaoyus if the Chinese — are one of the hotspots in the South China Sea that I alluded to in my earlier article on this subject; they are uninhabited and, essentially, mere specks of rock to which both Japan and China lay claim.

Japan has much to fear from any conflict with China, given the fraught history between the two nations, and in view of Japan’s occupation and subjugation of large portions of China during the former’s imperialist past.

And other countries in the region — the Philippines and Vietnam, for example, who are also embroiled in territorial disputes with China over the Spratly Islands — have equal reason to observe with alarm the growing confrontation between Japan and China over the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands.

It’s worth remembering that World War I started, ostensibly, over the shooting of an Austrian Archduke by a Serbian peasant, and that World War II began after Adolf Hitler ignored an ultimatum to remove German occupying forces from Poland.

Yet — to paraphrase — White notes there is a difference between what a war begins over, and what the real reason for the conflict is; and just as the first two World Wars began as a result of German aggression and expansionism, a conflict in the Asia-Pacific could well begin as a result of Chinese militarism and territorial aggression that has been rising, steadily, for years.

This latest flashpoint — one of many — is different from the longstanding issues of Macau and Hong Kong, which were resolved in China’s favour, and Taiwan, which has not been and will be unlikely to be.

Those three issues, rightly or wrongly, were and are predicated on China’s reclamation of what it has always viewed and claimed as its own territory.

The Senkaku/Diaoyu dispute, along with those based on the Spratly Islands and others — and certainly with regard to China’s conduct — seem more motivated (in no particular order) by prestige, the acquisition of sizeable deposits of natural resources, and a determination to demonstrate to everyone in its neighbourhood exactly who the boss is.

The thing that makes the dispute over the Senkaku Islands so dangerous is how any military conflict over them might play out.

Already, the Japanese — under the leadership of a newly elected Liberal Democrat government and its restored Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe — are canvassing their right to acquire nuclear weapons as a bulwark against Chinese militarism and military misadventure.

Somewhat ominously, the recent election in Japan that restored the LDP to power also heralded a decisive lurch to the Right, with right-of-centre parties securing over 70% of the seats in Japan’s lower house. Some elements in this grouping openly advocate a return to the country’s imperial and militaristic past.

And were war to erupt over these disputed islands in a conflict that drew the United States’ involvement as Japan’s defender, it is difficult to believe that Russia would simply look on from a distance, and would more than likely join the fray on the Chinese side.

And from there…

(I would also like to include a link to another article of direct relevance to the point; I originally attached it to a late response to the first article; it should probably be included in the main body of the discussion forum, and so readers can access that here).

In case anyone thinks I’m engaging in a revisionist view of history, I’m not; historically, neither China nor Japan arrive at the current threshold of confrontation with an unblemished record.

But the fact is that in this modern time — in which nations have supposedly learned the lessons of mass conflict — it is incumbent on both sides to pull away from the precipice and, as White suggests, find a peaceful solution is face-saving for both, and that each can abide.

The alternative, potentially, is too terrible to contemplate.

But as has oft been said, it is those who ignore the lessons of history that are bound to repeat it.