All about China, all the time
5 Jun 2016|

When Australia discusses China without mentioning China directly, it talks of the need for a ‘rules-based’ order.

In the Defence White Paper which Canberra issued in February, ‘rules’ is used 64 times—48 of these in the formulation ‘rules-based global order’.

The US version of the rules obsession is ‘principle’, as in the need for Asia to have a ‘principled future’ and a ‘principled security network’.

In his speech to the Shangri-La Dialogue in Singapore, the US Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, used the words ‘principles’ or ‘principled’ a total of 37 times.

But what happens if Asia can’t get China to engage with that principled future?

Carter’s description of the other future has China causing Asia ‘growing anxiety’, risking ‘contests of strength and will, with disastrous consequences for the region.’

The Secretary of Defense said China’s ‘expansive and unprecedented actions’ in the South China Sea ‘are isolating it, at a time when the entire region is coming together and networking. Unfortunately, if these actions continue, China could end up erecting a Great Wall of self-isolation.’

The question to Carter from one of the Chinese delegates was about why the US is placing such emphasis on the South China Sea at the expense of a US–China relationship which is ‘huge, vast, and complicated’. The Carter response:

‘What we stand for is the principle of rule of law and abiding by international law in the commons, which means freedom of navigation in the sea and the air. That is what we’re standing for. It’s not a focus on China; it’s a focus on principle.’

A fascinating conversation to have with Beijing. This isn’t about China, you understand, it’s just the principles China should follow. That should work.

The Defense Secretary trotted out a version of the security-as-oxygen metaphor (from Joe Nye):

It is said of this region, that security is like oxygen. When you have enough of it, you pay no attention to it. But when you don’t have enough, you can think of nothing else.

These days Asia can think of little else but China.

The China obsession was strikingly evident in Carter’s address. It was an unusual big-picture US speech because it was carefully structured to laser in on the one subject sucking all the security oxygen.

Usually, international speeches by US presidents or secretaries of Defense or State are a diverse buffet of tastes trying to resemble a single meal.

Such speeches touch a lot of bases, speaking to many audiences (in Washington and beyond) about America’s myriad responsibilities and challenges around the world.

Granted Carter was giving an Asia speech, but he managed to cram the rest of the world into only one paragraph that still referenced Asia. The US would counter Russia in Europe and counter Iran in the Middle East and fight ISIL, but never take its eye of Asia.

Across the whole arc of Carter’s speech, China was the subject and object, even when he wasn’t using the noun.

The eight questions to Carter afterwards were China-heavy. Five were directly on China.

Two others could lead back to China: one on India had an inevitable China subtext, while a question on Russia was turned into a response about Russia as a Pacific power and the role it can play in the Asia–Pacific.   

The one question with a definite non-China flavour was about the significance of Donald Trump. The Defense Secretary took refuge in that word ‘principle’ again—no comment on US domestic politics.

A question from CSIS’s Bonnie Glaser was about the US response if China starts dredging in Scarborough Shoal to create another great-wall-of-sand island. Carter’s response:

‘An action of that sort would be provocative and destabilising and, for China, self-isolating…there are many regional countries that are reactive to the potential for the South China Sea, for actions there to become provocative and destabilising. Many of them are therefore coming to work more strongly with us, and of course we welcome that as part of the network.’

Asia is, indeed, seeking to work with/embrace/grab the US. The simple reality is that China is the greatest advocate the US rebalance could ever have.

As Beijing pushes, the more attractive America looks. Just ask Vietnam how that works.

Some Australian footnotes: Carter referred to Australia a couple of times, for the trilateral with Japan and also with the thought that what the US now has with Australia is a global alliance.

After extolling the US–Japan alliance as the cornerstone of Asia–Pacific security, he went on:

‘Similarly, the US-Australia alliance is, more and more, a global one. As our two nations work together to uphold the freedom of navigation and overflight across the region, we’re also accelerating the defeat of ISIL together in Iraq and Syria.’

The global alliance usage is interesting and struck me as new (from the American side). Certainly, Carter didn’t use it at Shangri-La last year. The 2015 AUSMIN communique had several usages of global—facing ‘global challenges’ and the Global Coalition against ISIL. Now, it would seem, Australia has joined Japan in reaching for a global alliance with the US.

One of the gimlet-eyed Australians at Shangri-La suggested not reading too much into global alliance.

The US, he said, would find it hard to use the previous glowing language about US Marines and northern Australia.  

The fiasco of China buying the Port of Darwin lease still aches and then there’s the interminable wrestle over who should pay for Marine facilities in the Northern Territory. Far easier to go global than say anything too insincere about what’s been happening in Oz.

The final Australian note is that the 15th Shangri-La Dialogue is the first not attended by the Australian Defence Minister.

The Defence Minister, Senator Marise Payne, has her electorate office in Parramatta; her current defence obsession is protecting the Liberal vote in western Sydney.

More important to be in the electoral trenches than spending the weekend in Singapore taking the usual Oz speaking slot on the stage and doing the rounds with 20 Defence Ministers from the US, Japan, India, Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore—even France’s Defence Minister is here, and aren’t we building something big with them, too?

The first Asia Security Summit at Shangri-La without an Oz Defence Minister is explainable, but it’s a strange look.