Editors’ picks for 2021: ‘China’s actions, not Australia’s words, are the problem’

Originally published 28 April 2021.

There’s a greater likelihood of major conflict in the Indo-Pacific region now than at any time since the end of the Vietnam War.

That’s why the Australian government’s 2020 defence strategic update ended the longstanding planning assumption for the Australian Defence Force that we would have 10 years of strategic warning time to prepare for military conflict.

The Chinese government under Xi Jinping is the major driver of this stark assessment because of its creation of a People’s Liberation Army that is able to project power—and in particular because of its use of the PLA to take over disputed areas in the South China Sea and build military bases there, its use of the PLA on the India–China border, and the high tempo of its aggression in the East China Sea and in the airspace and sea around Taiwan.

These actions have been in direct contradiction with Beijing’s assurances of peaceful intent, which makes it hard to trust the words of Chinese leaders and diplomats when it comes to security.

Most infamously, in 2015 Xi assured US President Barack Obama that China would not militarise the South China Sea—and then went home and accelerated the PLA’s efforts to do just that. More recently, we’ve seen the Chinese government simply abandon its international commitment to maintaining Hong Kong’s open system of free speech and independent courts. Beijing broke its treaty with the UK, introduced a draconian national security law and followed up with arrests, prosecution and long jail terms for Hongkongers who practised political freedoms denied to China’s mainland citizens.

Xi has spoken of using force against Taiwan to unify it with mainland China. He and other senior government figures also speak about defending China’s growing ‘core interests’ by force. Related actions include authorising not just its military, but its coastguard to use lethal force wherever China claims jurisdiction.

None of the above is anything other than simple factual description of what Chinese armed forces have done and what Xi as the commander-in-chief of the PLA has said about using the military.

Reporting what Xi says and what the PLA and other Chinese armed forces do is not ‘stoking the drums of war’; it’s noticing what is happening in our region that affects our security. It is a matter of empirical fact that Chinese military incursions into Taiwanese airspace in 2021 are at record levels, multiple times the average over the previous four years. And Chinese naval activity around Taiwan has also intensified.

This military pressure is being felt in Taiwan and is the reason for various international leaders’ meetings mentioning Taiwan in their public statements.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken did so in Alaska, at the first senior-level US–China meeting following US President Joe Biden’s first phone call with Xi.

Taiwan was discussed at the March virtual meeting of the Quad leaders, and also featured in the statement of the US–Japan summit between Biden and Prime Minister Yoshihide Suga last week.

Discussion of the potential for conflict without naming the source of this conflict naturally leads to anxieties and also to claims that people are stoking war by talking.

The source of instability and tension in our region is the Chinese state under Xi and its use of the PLA. Saying this is being open about why there is tension in the Indo-Pacific.

Being able to say what the source of the problem is useful if you then want to do things to resolve the problem. A ‘country agnostic’ approach to the causes of regional insecurity is simply not credible—and distorts public debate.

Australia contributes to a powerful combination of allies and partners that can provide credible deterrence and raise the costs of military adventurism for China. But this does require unity of effort and clear-minded analysis of the issues at hand.

The government’s plan for developing Australia’s military capabilities is designed around shaping the strategic environment in ways that make military conflict less likely, and having the military power and partnerships to deter conflict.

That plan includes giving the ADF more offensive power to raise the costs of conflict for others. And it’s based on strong alliance and security partnerships, with the US, Japan, India and Australia’s other security partners in the Five Eyes, the wider Indo-Pacific region and Europe.

This isn’t about Australia acting alone.

No one power needs to face the challenge of deterring Beijing from use of military force alone; it is best done multilaterally. And before anyone contemplates the use of military force, the costs of conflict can be raised by other activities. In Taiwan’s case, that includes reintegrating it into international forums and organisations like the World Health Organization and UN bodies, reversing Beijing’s long-term political isolation of the island.

But the idea that quiet behind-the-scenes diplomacy will raise the costs of conflict in Xi’s eyes and act as a deterrent seems to have no supporting evidence from recent history. Instead, the evidence suggests that the Chinese government’s confidence that its actions won’t have consequences is increased by international silence on regional security and is reduced by international discussion and cooperation.

Xi has no doubt been encouraged by the limited international response to his takeover of Hong Kong institutions and repression of freedoms China guaranteed to retain for decades. His military activities in the South China Sea have also proceeded without tangible opposition.

But he will have noticed that Taiwan is featuring at international meetings in discussions about finding ways to support Taiwanese security and reintegrate it into the international community. These efforts are all about reducing the prospects of China using force against Taiwan’s 23 million people.

The Chinese government’s judgements about being able to use force against Taiwan with impunity are affected by this, which is why Chinese government officials react so stridently to any moves to support Taiwan. Changing those calculations is the goal of credible deterrence.