My answer is that it’s indeed troubling to see the lack of consultation and transparency from China, or the nationalist dynamics which are being stoked by the regime. Taken in context with the maritime operations in our neighbourhood and the declaration of the ADIZ, this trajectory is obviously not what Australia would like to see from its biggest trading partner.
But is it really dangerous? That means different things to different people, and I’ve no doubt that some in Tokyo or Taipei feel threatened or insecure. But given the small stakes involved in the maritime dispute, we’re not yet at the point where any perceived danger for regional stability is worth risking more.
Considered in and of themselves, these maritime disputes are of little significance. As Colby makes clear, they only matter in light of a particular construct regarding US power—the much used, and little scrutinised, concept of ‘regional order’. This is the idea that the US security umbrella in Asia has provided a global commons of trade, economic integration, and strategic assurance between nations. Australia is heavily invested in this arrangement, and if China refuses to abide by it, then we might have to be more forceful in preserving it. Put another way, if not for the way it reflects on regional trust in US power, why would anyone else but Japan and China care about the fate of the Senkakus?
But it seems to me that one of the great unexamined assumptions about the region is that bending this order will break it. The response to Hugh White’s ‘Concert of Asia‘ proposal suggested that many analysts view the current arrangement as indivisible. That’s because breaking ranks on an high-profile issue like the maritime dispute could unravel the whole arrangement by discouraging further commitments from spurned partners. This allows China to capitalise on defections while the US progressively loses trust and influence. This kind of process could lead to something dangerous, and it’s why refusing to push back over the islands can be described, in Colby’s words, as ‘giving up the military contest’. Strategic assurance needs to be provided to make sure that Chinese influence is kept from building on its own momentum.
In Colby’s view, an ‘alternative’ along these lines could be much worse, so introducing risk for China now is the best bet to hold onto the benefits of regional order. This might work as he predicts, but there are a couple of issues to consider. First, even if the regime halts its troubling behaviour, does anyone think it will not re-double its efforts to tilt the playing-field at some point in the future? After all, if Chinese strategists believe the long run favours them, there’s little reason to hope that a discrete addition in risk can solve the problem, as opposed to deferring the confrontation to a future when the balance of risk has changed again. And to keep winning at this game, the US will have to keep upping the ante.
Secondly, this kind of competition at the most expansive limits of regional order is an unsustainable proposition for the US over the long-term. Brinksmanship won’t stop Chinese military development, and will almost certainly accelerate it. The major sticking point is that it won’t cost the Chinese much to improve their strategic position, even as the prospect of a local military contest in their near region demands commensurately more spending from the US. In East Asia, as elsewhere, it’s more expensive to threaten someone’s backyard than to defend your own. To protect its regional order, the US will spend far more than China to eke out the military edge.
It’s this kind of long-run thinking that seizes China’s imagination, and why the salami-slicing tactics work so effectively: they can be adjusted because China still believes it will prevail over the long haul. If we want to see improved behaviour from China, it’s that calculus that will need to be altered. By the same token, those jittery Asian countries aren’t likely to feel comfortable with US promises until they seem sustainable.
Perhaps it’s worth exploring what concessions the US might be able to extract from its partners? This would allow for a more restrained posture which avoids unnecessary escalation. Of course it smacks of ‘appeasement’, and the Chinese might respond with expanded ambitions. But they’ll confront the same problem the US currently does in reaching beyond their natural defence zone: A2/AD would work just as well against an over-extended China as it would against an over-extended US. And if Colby’s right to cast doubt on China’s likely stability in the future, then he must acknowledge this kind of strategic fait accompli would make those constraints hurt even more if they pressed the advantage.
My major point is this: if regional powers must exercise restraint in the hope of avoiding strategic escalation, the time when the US and its partners can do so safely is now, before the prospect of conflict becomes serious. As yet, the security of most Asian countries concerned by China isn’t seriously at risk, and won’t be if they’re united in defensive solidarity with the US. There’s a strategically feasible fall-back line behind maritime assertiveness so long as they agree to it. And over the long term, this position would augment the ‘regional order’ by looking all the more dependable.
The big question is whether any kind of retreat could be sold now without much diplomatic harm? It’s hard to know, but the US does itself no favours by ignoring the possibility. Once the coercive game begins, it becomes harder to step back from the tug of expectations. War is distant enough for diplomacy to be prioritised over a further militarisation of the region, but it won’t stay this way indefinitely. The elusive factor is the perception of the Filipinos, Vietnamese, Japanese, Indonesians, Singaporeans and others. Before the US gambles with coercion, it might more profitably spend its time working the phones for something more diplomatic. And Australia should be encouraging it to do so.
David Schaefer is a sessional tutor in the School of Global, Urban and Social Studies at RMIT University. Image courtesy of Flickr user US Department of State.