The Global Eye in dialogue with Peter Layton. Peter is a Visiting Fellow at the Griffith Asia Institute, a RUSI Associate Fellow, and a Fellow of the Australian Security Leaders Climate Group
How should China’s actions in the South China Sea be read in geopolitical terms?
China is demonstrating a long term commitment to capturing through coercion some 90% of the South China Sea. This is an extraordinarily ambitious objective. For example, Russia started a major war to annex the Ukraine but China’s South China Sea claim is an area five times larger. It is a major attack on the rules based order given the claim was rejected by the Permanent Court of Arbitration at The Hague in 2016.
China’s ongoing use of militia vessels, coast guard cutters, government owned ships and naval warships is a considerable long term expense but this is evidently considered essential. These activities have two aims. The first is to progressively create new ‘normals’ in the South China Sea and then build from these to having progressively more and more control.
The second is to gain the regional respect China considers it is due. China’s favoured international order is hierarchical and led by itself, as befits its size and economic heft. Importantly, this is not an empire built using military might but more of a core-periphery relationship, where lesser nations esteem the massive central state and when necessary concede to it. Such a hierarchy emerges from negotiations and disputes between the Chinese builders of the order and the assumed lesser others. This hierarchical order needs ongoing active maintenance to persist and prosper. The South China Sea operations are part of establishing and keeping the desired order in place.
The South China Sea, and the Pacific more generally, is strategic in the context of a world on the move. How should regional players, starting with Beijing, move for security purposes?
The near-term may be a dangerous time. As China tries out increasingly aggressive actions to maintain its desired international order there is a distinct possibility of a shift from non-violence to violence. This may happen deliberately but more likely by accident. Given this, it is important to develop crisis management institutions, processes and skills that are ready to use at short notice. The aim would be to prevent some incident unintentionally escalating into a major war.
China is at the moment uninterested in taking crisis management seriously. Beijing has a view that the future belongs to it as exemplified by the oft-used slogan ‘the East is rising, the West is in decline and the tide of history is flowing in China’s favour’. China believes it alone has agency and so can control what happens in any situation. This is a dangerous delusion that could see China acting erratically and unpredictably if an event suddenly went in an unexpected direction from Beijing’s anticipation.
Do you see the risk of the Israel-Hamas and Ukrainian crises welding up to the Pacific ? If so, how?
From the Indo-Pacific’s viewpoint, an important issue is how China exploits these wars. The Economist magazine in 2014 declared that ‘China… wants the respect it enjoyed in centuries past. But it does not know how to achieve or deserve it’. This remains an accurate assessment and accordingly China is viewing both wars as opportunities to gain respect from specific countries, while pulling them away from US influence. China is trying to present itself as a global peacemaker even if at the moment it is proving ineffectual.
China is obsessed with the US, constantly comparing itself to the US and seeing all issues as US related. If either the Israel-Hamas or Ukrainian wars appear to be ending in a manner that the US may gain strategic advantage from, China will try to play a spoiling role. This role may mean China being more aggressive in the Indo-Pacific including working more closely with Russia in NE Asia (including in countering UN-agreed sanctions on North Korea) and/or supporting Iranian diplomatic and military activities in the Middle East.
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