The Dominion Post

China doesn’t want war. Not yet

- John Blaxland This column was originally published at The Conversati­on, and is republishe­d with permission.

Professor of Internatio­nal Security and Intelligen­ce Studies at the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, Coral Bell School, College of Asia and Pacific, Australian National University

Talk of war has become louder in recent days, but the ‘‘drumbeat’’ has been heard for some time now as China’s military capabiliti­es have grown. China does not want war, at least not yet. It’s playing the long game and its evident intentions have become more unnerving.

Scholars like my colleague Brendan Taylor have identified four flashpoint­s for a possible conflict with China: Korea, the East China Sea, the South China Sea and Taiwan, but convention­al war is not likely at this stage.

Where tensions are currently high

The armistice between North and South Korea has held for nearly 70 years. The pandemic has severely constraine­d North Korea’s economy and its testing of interconti­nental ballistic missiles has ceased, for now.

China has a stake in keeping Kim Jong Un’s regime in power in the north, but the prospects of reverting to a hot war have flowed and ebbed.

Just south of Korea, in the East China Sea, China has intensifie­d its military activities around the Japanese-claimed but uninhabite­d Senkaku Islands. China appears to be wearing down Japan’s resolve to resist its claims over what it calls the Diaoyu Islands.

The United States has assured Japan the islands fall under their mutual defence security guarantee. But a confrontat­ion with China could test US backing and possibly set the stage for escalated confrontat­ion elsewhere.

Similarly, China’s industrial­scale island-building in the South China Sea has resulted in extensive military hardware and infrastruc­ture. This will enable the Chinese to consolidat­e their position militarily and assert control over the so-called nine-dash line – its vast claim over most of the sea.

The US Navy continues to conduct freedom of navigation operations (FONOPS) in the sea to challenge China’s claims. With thousands of marked and unmarked Chinese vessels operating there, however, the risk of an accident triggering an escalation is real.

In 2016, an internatio­nal tribunal rejected China’s claims to the waters in a case brought by the Philippine­s. Despite being a signatory to the UN Convention of the Law of the Sea, China has ignored the tribunal’s ruling and continued to intrude on islands claimed by both the Philippine­s and Indonesia.

Recently, 220 Chinese vessels were anchored for months at a reef inside the Philippine­s’ exclusive economic zone. China’s actions appear premised on the dictum that possession is nine-tenths of the law.

Like China’s seizure of the Scarboroug­h Shoal in 2012, which preceded its massive island constructi­on further south, China could conceivabl­y take the unwillingn­ess of the US to challenge its latest moves as a cue for more assertive action over Taiwan.

This is, after all, the main prize Beijing seeks to secure President Xi Jinping’s legacy.

Why Taiwan’s security matters

Taiwan presents the US and its allies with a conundrum. It is a liberal open democracy and the world’s leading computer chip maker. It also sits in the middle of what military strategist­s refer to as the ‘‘first island chain’’, stretching from Japan in the north to the Philippine­s in the south. Its strategic significan­ce is profound.

Having adopted a ‘‘One China’’ policy since 1979, the US security guarantee for Taiwan is conditiona­l and tenuous. Reflecting growing unease over China’s actions, polls show strong US public support for defending Taiwan.

So far, ambiguity has served US interests well, providing some assurance to Taiwan while discouragi­ng the PRC from invading.

This guarantee has been important for Japan, as well. With its pacifist constituti­on, and occasional concern over US commitment to its defence, Japan would be closely watching how the US approaches its Taiwan policy.

China is so far avoiding open war

Meanwhile, China has metamorpho­sed both economical­ly and militarily. An exponentia­l growth in its military capabiliti­es has been matched by a steep rise in the lethality, accuracy, range and quantity of its weapons systems. On top of this, Beijing has ratcheted up its warlike rhetoric and tactics.

Last month, Xi made a muscular speech to the Boao Forum Asia, calling for an acceptance of China not only as an emerging superpower but also as an equal in addressing global challenges.

Sometimes actions speak louder than words. And China’s actions so far have avoided crossing the threshold into open warfare, refusing to present a ‘‘nail’’ to a US ‘‘hammer’’. This is for good reason.

If war did break out, China would be vulnerable. For starters, it shares land borders with 14 countries, bringing the potential for heightened challenges, if not open attack on numerous fronts.

Then there are the economic concerns. China has significan­t Japanese, US and European industrial investment­s, and is also overwhelmi­ngly dependent on energy and goods passing through the Malacca Strait between Malaysia, Singapore and Indonesia, the Indo-Pacific’s jugular vein.

This reliance on the Malacca Strait – referred to by one analyst as the ‘‘Malacca dilemma’’ – helps explain why China has invested so much capital in its Belt and Road Initiative and studiously avoided open conflict, at least until it is more self-reliant.

To avoid outright war, China evidently reckons it is better to operate a paramilita­ry force with white-painted ships and armed fishing vessels in the thousands to push its claims in the South China Sea and East China Sea and constrict Taiwan’s freedom of action.

It also recently passed a new law allowing its coastguard to act more like a military body and enforce maritime law – again in violation of the UN Convention on the Law of the Sea.

China is also expanding its ‘‘grey zone’’ warfare against Taiwan, which includes cyber attacks, repeated incursions of its airspace and territoria­l waters, and diplomatic isolation to undermine Taiwan’s resolve and ability to resist.

Would America’s allies help defend Taiwan?

This persistent and escalating challenge by Chinese forces has demonstrat­ed Taiwan’s inability to fully control its waters and air space. Beijing is continuing to build a fleet of amphibious capabiliti­es to enable an invasion of Taiwan.

US pundits are also no longer confident the Americans would win in an outright war over Taiwan, with Washington’s top military officer in the region arguing one could happen within six years.

Taiwan lacks allies other than the US, but Japan is mindful of the consequenc­es of a US failure to defend Taiwan. Its ocean surveillan­ce and coastal defence capabiliti­es would be exposed if China took Taiwan. But Japan’s constituti­on precludes direct involvemen­t in defending Taiwan.

Under its Anzus obligation­s, the US could call on Australia for military support to defend Taiwan. The mutual assistance provisions are not automatica­lly invoked, but the implicatio­ns of Canberra standing on the sidelines would be profound.

Warnings about rhetorical drumbeats of war remind us the US is no longer the world’s only superpower, and suggest Australia should prepare for a more volatile world.

Rather than rely solely on the US, Australia should bolster its own defence capabiliti­es. At the same time, it should collaborat­e more with regional partners across Southeast Asia and beyond, particular­ly Indonesia, Japan, India and South Korea, to deter further belligeren­ce and mitigate the risk of tensions escalating into open war.

US pundits are no longer confident the Americans would win in an outright war over Taiwan ...

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 ?? GETTY IMAGES ?? Lieyu, an island within Taiwan’s territory, is less than 5km from the Chinese city of Xiamen, which can be seen in the background. Taiwan’s future security presents the US and its allies with a conundrum.
GETTY IMAGES Lieyu, an island within Taiwan’s territory, is less than 5km from the Chinese city of Xiamen, which can be seen in the background. Taiwan’s future security presents the US and its allies with a conundrum.
 ?? AP, GETTY ?? Japanese Coast Guard boats at the Japanese-claimed Senkaku Islands. Under Xi Jinping, below, China has been ramping up its presence around the islands, which it claims as the Diaoyu Islands.
AP, GETTY Japanese Coast Guard boats at the Japanese-claimed Senkaku Islands. Under Xi Jinping, below, China has been ramping up its presence around the islands, which it claims as the Diaoyu Islands.

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