Over the next few months, as Asia's leaders gather for their annual round of summits, we are going to hear a lot about the South China Sea. Australia doesn't care who owns the uninhabitable rocks and reefs that dot these waters, but we have a huge stake in an edgy game of double bluff that is playing out there.
The issue no longer concerns the rocks themselves, or even the oil and gas that might lie around them. It is about the growing rivalry between America and China over who exercises power in Asia. Unless both countries are very careful, a small incident in the Spratly Islands could shatter the US-China relationship, plunge Asia into a major crisis, and destroy the foundations of Australia's foreign policy.
Disputes over the Spratlys and other fly specks in the South China Sea have been around for decades, but they have taken a new turn since 2009, when China, after years of restraint, began to push its claims much more assertively. It started to describe its claim to almost the whole area as a ''core national interest'' and to more vigorously enforce those claims, especially against Vietnam and the Philippines.
This has not been cost free for China. Its carefully cultivated image of a benevolent friend of south-east Asia has been badly dented. Why has China done it? Unfortunately, the most plausible answer is the most worrying - that the Chinese now feel strong enough to throw their weight around. Assertiveness in the South China Sea is only one sign of this. Since the global financial crisis, China has become notably bolder on many issues, and especially so on issues of maritime power in the western Pacific.
This therefore seems a direct and deliberate challenge to America's position as the primary maritime power in Asia. That is certainly how Washington sees it. But it is a risky gambit, because a conflict with America would be a disaster for China. So Beijing presumably believes that America will back off and allow China to assert its claims to regional primacy. The trouble is that Washington has called their bluff.
Since last year, the US has taken clear steps to counter China's challenge by stepping up its support for Vietnam and the Philippines. Hillary Clinton declared in Hanoi that America has ''national interests'' in the South China Sea. Other officials have reaffirmed US obligations to defend Philippine territory under their defence alliance, and the US Navy has conducted high-profile exercises in the area. All this has sent a clear and welcome message that Washington will support Hanoi and Manila in standing up to Beijing. America's stocks in south-east Asia have climbed as China's have dived.
This all sounds good, but what happens next? This is not at all clear. The problem is less that America cannot afford a conflict with China and more that China can afford one with America. There is a big element of bluff in America's position, as well as China's. What if China calls America's bluff, just as America has called China's?
In fact this seems to be exactly what is happening. Just over the past couple of months China has become even more forceful in asserting its claims over disputed waters against Vietnam, for example, twice cutting the seismic cables of Vietnamese survey ships. It is all too easy to imagine where this leads. In the next incident, Vietnam responds by attacking and sinking a Chinese patrol boat, China responds by sinking a Vietnamese ship, and as escalation looms Vietnam asks America for support.
What does America do then? If it does no more than utter stern diplomatic warnings, Washington's bluff has been called and its place as Asia's dominant naval power takes a major knock. Its stocks in south-east Asia will plummet again, and China gets a big win. But if it offers Vietnam material help - especially if it sends ships of its own - it runs a major risk of being drawn into a serious conflict with China.(emphasis mine) Then consider this piece from StrategyPage:
The Chinese government recently ordered more auditing of how the military spends money, and has changed the way senior commanders are evaluated for promotion, to include the amount of corruption uncovered among subordinates. This puts more pressure on military commanders to refrain from corrupt practices, and to pay closer attention to how honest their subordinates are.
Corruption has long been a big problem in the peacetime Chinese military. The effects of this corruption are usually responsible for Chinese forces doing so poorly in the opening stages of a war. It has been this way for thousands of years. But the current Chinese government is determined to clean things up.
Chinese leaders want to ensure that China's growing military might is real. Corruption can create a situation where ever increasing spending on modern weapons and military equipment only gives the illusion of growing military power. Currently, it is very much an illusion. The 2.3 million troops in the Chinese armed forces are poorly trained and led. A lot of this can be traced directly to a long history of corruption and rot in the military during long periods of peace. The last time the Chinese military has been in action was 1979 (when they attacked Vietnam, and got beaten up pretty bad). You could also count the encounter, in the Spring of 2001, where a Chinese fighter buzzed an American navy patrol aircraft, and managed to collide with the U.S. plane, and crash (the U.S. aircraft landed, despite its damage.) That incident did not reflect well on how the Chinese military was run.
There are many more examples. American sailors are constantly exposed to examples of the poor training and leadership in the Chinese navy, whenever they encounter Chinese warships at sea. Foreigners living in China, and speaking Chinese, can pick up lots of anecdotes about the ineptitude and corruption found in the military. It's all rather taken for granted. But in wartime, this sort of thing would mean enormous problems for the troops, when they attempted to fight better prepared troops. You don't see much in the media about the poor training of Chinese military personnel.
You don't hear much about the poor leadership and low readiness for combat. But all of this is common knowledge in China. There, the military is not walled off from everyone else. Cell phone cameras and the Internet make it easy to pass around evidence (often in the form of "hey, this one is hilarious"). The government tries to play up how modern and efficient the military is, but most Chinese know better, and don't really care. China is winning victories on the economic front, and that what really counts to the average Chinese.StrategyPage goes on to lament how, in its opinion, the US defense establishment is "playing up" Chinese military capabilities to get increased funding. Bottom line:
China has a lot of domestic problems to worry about, which is apparently one reason the government isn't willing to give a lot of money to the military. In fact, the generals have been told to shrink their manpower strength, and gradually increase the quality of equipment and training. Over the next few years, China will shrink its armed forces by another few hundred thousand troops. The Chinese armed forces have already shrunk by 1.7 million troops in the last twenty years, and now consist of 2.3 million active duty personnel. Soon, there will be only 1.6 million troops (not much larger than the 1.4 million American forces). China also has 660,000 personnel in the national police, and 1.2 million organized reservists. Remember, China is still a communist police state. There are a lot of Chinese unhappy with the government (which is actually rather corrupt and inefficient by Western standards.)
Given the sorry state of Chinese weapons and equipment, it will take them decades to even have a chance of "catching up with the United States". And that's apparently the Chinese plan. And it's a very traditional plan. The Chinese like to think long term. Works for them. Meanwhile, China does not want to make the U.S. Navy angry. China is now dependent on imports, especially oil and other raw materials. Access to the sea is a matter of life or death for the Chinese economy, and the survival of the communist dictatorship. But the same could have been said for Japan in 1941. The difference is that China is not making big trouble with any of its neighbors, and China and the United States both have nuclear weapons.We better figure out which analysis, if any, is correct (my bet is on the first), as tensions are now mounting (as if they ever stop) over Taiwan and its possible election of a pro-independence presidential candidate:
With her American tour underway this week, Taiwanese presidential candidate Tsai Ing-wen is showing Washington and her many supporters in Taiwanese-American communities across the country that the island’s anti-unification opposition party is back. And that it is stronger than ever. [...] The implications of this are reassuring. For one thing, it is encouraging news that East Asia’s most besieged democracy has not been quashed by anti-democratic regression at home or by intimidation from China.
More practically, this is an opportunity for policy makers in Taipei and across the Pacific to re-think their working premise that politically dubious accommodations of Beijing are necessarily the best way to manage stable and mutually beneficial relations over the long haul. A more principled approach is beckoning, even if Beijing is not yet ready to listen. Tsai and her band of aspiring office holders are on the front line of this debate. After four years of broad accommodation of Beijing under [current President Ma Ying-jeou], the received benefits have been deeply disappointing. Yes, the atmospherics between Taiwan and China have improved and the number of official visitors has exploded, giving more scope to greater mutual understanding.
But little has changed on the ground. Despite a modest boost in revenues from Chinese tourism, the net benefits to Taiwan’s economy have been minimal and arguably a setback in the longer term.
In the world of diplomacy, little has been achieved for expanding international participation beyond a hotly disputed observer status in an obscure UN-related agency. The military build-up across the Taiwan Strait continues unabated. In general, Beijing has been unrelenting, demanding more cooperative behavior from Taipei than it is willing to reciprocate.
Moreover, the political risks of playing into Beijing’s declared strategy of economic integration as the first step toward eventual annexation look less and less acceptable to the Taiwanese public, which judges the Chinese government more harshly than ever, according to recent opinion polls. Even Ma has recognized the risks involved, slowing the pace of cross-strait initiatives during the past year as he saw expectations were raised too high and his policies over-sold. [...] Along with others in Taiwan from outside the opposition movement, [Tsai's Democratic Progressive Party (DPP)] dissents from the assertion by Ma and the Nationalists that the only way to manage the commercially rich relationship with China and to guarantee peace in the Taiwan Strait is to revert to political formulas from the past. These include a “one China” policy that subsumes Taiwan as a province of China and the so-called “1992 consensus” in which each side holds to it own definition of “one China.”Predatory is right. Belmont Club highlights the problem the US is facing here:
Ma inherited these understandings from a Nationalist party agreement reached in 2005 with the Chinese Communist leadership. The main weakness of this party-to-party pact is that it is not backed by approval from Taiwanese citizens or any other domestic consensus. One need not be politically partisan to recognize that enshrining them in formal agreements with China would lock future governments in Taipei into an ambiguous and probably untenable relationship with its predatory neighbor.
If Taiwan should succeed in its goals the administration will certainly proclaim its foresight. But in the meantime the administration lives in fear of China, an attitude so marked that Democratic Senator James Webb was moved to say “our situation in East Asia with respect to China and China’s expansionist military activities has deteriorated. We are at a point in the South China Sea right now where we are approaching a Munich moment with China, and it’s not being discussed.” Those are strong words from a member of the President’s own party and its no surprise that nobody wants to discuss nothing.Indeed it does. That's why we need a strong military, whether at peace or at war. Better to have a strong military and not need it than to need it and not have it.
If anything the administrations nerves will be further jangled by a warning from China that it would not tolerate the idea there could be two countries on either side of the Taiwan Strait. There can only be one, and China believes that can only the mainland.
A Chinese government spokeswoman reiterated on Wednesday in Beijing that China views the so-called “1992 consensus” as the bedrock of cross-strait talks….The problem the administration faces is that the Taiwanese may have other ideas. If Tsai Ing-wen is elected in spite of the administration’s warnings not to vote for her the White House may be in the worst of all worlds. They may have to defend a genuine democracy they don’t like against an authoritarian government to who they owe money. What a run of bad luck. Or maybe it just sucks to be weak.
The Chinese Nationalist Party (KMT) defines the “1992 consensus” as an agreement in which it interprets “one China” as the Republic of China on Taiwan, while Beijing defines “one China” as the People’s Republic of China.
However, US cables released by WikiLeaks on Aug. 30 show that Chinese officials and academics have a different understanding on what constitutes the consensus, with Taiwan Affairs Office Director Wang Yi (王毅) quoted in the cables as saying that the consensus means “that both sides essentially accept there is only one China.”