Author: Greg Raymond, ANU
Great states, wrote US scholar Edward Luttwak, commonly suffer from a condition known as ‘great state autism’: an insensitivity to the feelings and views of other states. Luttwak argued that nowhere was this condition stronger than in China, where he thought the Chinese Communist Party’s lack of domestic political legitimacy bred an overwhelming focus on the security of the Party.
It appears that China’s greater assertiveness in its international relations — in particular its island building in the South China Sea — has provoked the beginnings of a balancing coalition. In this case, that coalition would be the proposed Quadrilateral Security Dialogue between Japan, India, the United States and Australia. Reports suggest that it may have its first meeting on the sidelines of this year’s ASEAN summit season.
One of Australia’s most articulate proponents of the ‘Quad’ is Peter Varghese, a former senior bureaucrat of Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. In a recent speech, Varghese endorsed a ‘balance of power’ system in Asia and described India and Japan as natural balancers of China due to their history and geography.
While Varghese was careful to stipulate that the Quad should neither be a formal military alliance nor be aimed at China, the risk remains that future governments and leaders who are less nuanced in their policymaking than Varghese will take it in precisely those directions.
While there are profound differences between now and the era of great power rivalry that preceded World War One — most notably the proscribing of force as a legitimate tool of statecraft and the existence of multilateral security institutions — it would be unwise to not consider the parallels.
Europe was fissured into two alliance systems: the Triple Entente of Britain, France and Russia and the Triple Alliance of Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Italy. It was the hardening of these alliance blocs as well as the conduct of so-called secret diplomacy that fostered such intense distrust between Europe’s great powers before the outbreak of war.
China’s recent actions have fed the various security pathologies and anxieties of the Quad states: India’s residual distrust stemming from its 1962 border war with China, Japan’s fear of Chinese revanche over World War Two grievances, the United States’ fear of relative decline and Australia’s perennial anxiety as a sparsely populated nation with populous northern neighbours.
China’s conversion of three South China Sea islands into military airbases has brought Chinese forces 1100 kilometres closer to Australia. It is this along with China’s increasing use of its economic might to dominate the ASEAN region that has most triggered Australia’s latent anxieties.
But has there been an overreaction? Analysis suggests the military value of China’s islands in the South China Sea may be marginal.
First, as former Australian defence bureaucrats Ric Smith and Allan Hawke noted in 2012, fuel storage and supply are critical limiting factors for airbases, and present difficulties for bases even on Australia’s mainland. These difficulties would be increased many times for China’s island airbases, which are situated thousands of kilometres from China’s mainland.
Second, the island bases themselves are extremely vulnerable to missile attack. Indeed, they are a military planner’s dream: personnel and military platforms have nowhere to hide, and there is little-to-no risk of collateral civilian casualties.
Third, Vietnam, Indonesia and Malaysia are acquiring potent sea denial capabilities, such as mobile ground-based anti-ship missiles and submarines (including in Vietnam’s case the deadliest anti-ship missile thus far invented — India’s supersonic BrahMos). China’s capacity to dominate or control the South China Sea looks to be far from a done deal.
It is sensible for Australia to consider whether these ‘anti-access area denial’ capabilities may be suited to Australia’s legitimate defence needs. It is less sensible to get on board with a policy aimed at showing China that it must learn how to ‘behave as a model citizen in the region’, as one Quad proponent recently suggested.
China’s dismissal of the 2016 arbitration tribunal findings in the South China Sea have been rightly criticised by Australia on numerous occasions. But to date China has been notably reluctant to employ lethal force to enforce its claims. There has not been any serious military use of force by any claimant since 1988.
Australia would be prudent to avoid assuming the merits of any claimant’s case in these historically complex disputes. It is also worth noting that China has often conceded territory to settle border disputes, including 100 per cent of Afghanistan’s land claim, 76 per cent of Laos’, 66 per cent of Kazakhstan’s, 65 per cent of Mongolia’s and 50 per cent of Vietnam’s.
It would be a tragedy if China’s great power short-sightedness — born in part from a need to express a stronger national identity, in part from a defence strategy based on protecting its maritime hinterland, and in part from a need for the Chinese Communist Party to shore up its threadbare legitimacy — were to provoke a spiralling security dilemma in the region.
Greg Raymond is a Research Fellow in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University, and co-editor of the journal Security Challenges. Follow him on Twitter at @gregoryVraymond.