Slow-burning China crisis the birth of a new order

4 June 2018


Getting on with China now involves a learning curve for Australia as Beijing probes and coerces to test this new strategic environment.

In recent weeks there has been a crisis in China Australia relations. What sort of crisis is it?

There is a lot that we do not know about China, including what sort of power it will become in the next few decades. China is still an emerging major power in the IndoPacific, with the important qualification that there are other countries there that will also enjoy great power in coming decades.

These include India and Indonesia, and it would be foolish to downplay the significance of Japan, the Republic of Korea and Vietnam. There is also the United States, whose military pre-eminence is unlikely to be seriously challenged for some time to come. The Indo-Pacific is a crowded strategic space. China’s rapid economic growth and size is creating pressures, but it is not the only cause.

China’s strategy is driven primarily by a need to guarantee resource security to ensure economic growth to support the aspirations of its growing middle-class.

Regardless of President Xi Jinping’s renovation of the Communist Party, and his imposition of increasingly authoritarian modes of governance, it will be his government’s capacity to deliver growth that will determine its long-term viability.

Economic development remains the critical foundation of the Chinese government’s legitimacy. Access to resources and the guarantee of supply thus becomes a strategic imperative. This pressure accounts for much, but by no means all, of China’s behaviour in the Indo-Pacific and beyond.

China’s strategy in the South China Sea has been incremental advance through island building and occupation while never conceding what has been gained, even in the face of strong criticism. China’s activities, particularly its building of military infrastructure and deployment of missiles and recently strategic bombers, have made the disputes a strategic challenge. The militarisation of the artificial islands has increased the level of risk of military confrontation and has shown the incapacity of regional institutions to manage the emergence of a potential hegemon. By its development of military infrastructure, China has sought to give itself more strategic space and at the same time reduce the strategic space of regional countries, including Australia It is challenging longstanding norms governing free passage in that area Chinese strategy in the South China Sea is part of a broader pattern of activity, some of which is in the service of economic development, such as the Belt and Road initiative, but some of which has a stronger military dimension.

As an emerging major power, China is challenging the existing strategic order. It has called into question the capacity of both Indo-Pacific countries and regional institutions to manage this change. China is also testing the limits of US strategic and security predominance, without going so far as to seek to remove the US from the Indo-Pacific or directly challenge it at sea.

None of this should surprise anyone. As China grows and pursues its interests, it will bump up against other countries, including Australia, and it will use the full range of policy levers to pursue what it considers to be its interests. It is inevitable that there will be problems, including with Australia.

China and Australia’s interests do not always converge, and we, like our regional neighbours, are learning to live with a China that is learning how to be a major power and is probing and testing its environment, including by using coercion.

This is a slow-moving crisis that will not be settled quickly because it involves the negotiation of the Indo-Pacific strategic order. We can expect more problems across the full spectrum of the relationship, as will other countries in our region. It would be surprising if this were not to be the case.

We need to be clear about how we define our strategic interests. The question for policy is: if we, as all countries do, seek to trade some independence of action for the benefits of a relationship, how should we understand this trade-off. What is the cost and when does it become unsustainable?

Some countries will be asking this question as the real costs of the Belt and Road initiative emerge.

In the current environment, building defence capability becomes strategically important It creates strategic space by signalling a capacity and willingness to defend ourselves and to assert our national interests through the exercise of hard power, if necessary.

China is a state with very different values to those we hold important Part of our ability to make our best contribution to the larger Indo-Pacific community rests on the foundation of our sense of our Australian identity, and to be able to express this with confidence in word and action. We should expect problems and we should be confident in our ability to manage them within the framework of our national interests. We should invest in diplomacy because it is one of the most important ways in which we manage our participation in the Indo-Pacific community. Diplomacy is critical to managing what can be managed and to understanding what cannot With the rise of China and the emergence of an Indo-Pacific community, we are seeing the birth of a new strategic order. We are seeing experimentation by China in its regional relationships as it seeks to strengthen its position and perhaps set the terms by which this emerging order functions. The challenge for Australia is to understand how we can participate effectively in this community. We need to be very clear-eyed about who we are and what we stand for. We need to support our interests - and demonstrate that we wish to defend them, particularly through strengthened diplomacy and a robust defence capability.

Brendan Sargeant is an honorary professor at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Australian National University.

This article originaly appeared in the Australian Financial Review on 4 June 2018

Tags: China

Updated:  30 January 2023/Responsible Officer:  Bell School Marketing Team/Page Contact:  CAP Web Team