23 May 2018
One of the extraordinary features of China’s rise is that the pace of change is so quick that it is possible to identify world-shifting events in real time.
Last Friday, for instance, a Chinese Xian H-6K bomber landed on a narrow airstrip on Woody Island, a disputed speck in the South China Sea.
This was the first time such a plane, which can conduct nuclear strikes, was landed in the Paracel Islands (which are also claimed by Vietnam and Taiwan). It marked the latest development in China’s reach across the seas, tilting the regional order in its favour.
For years, Canberra has described China’s intentions in the Asia-Pacific as “opaque”. But they could not be clearer: China is creating new realities – with earthmovers if necessary – and reshaping the region to suit itself.
Last week’s island landing demonstrated that Beijing’s global ambitions have, like so much else with China, grown more quickly than most observers or countries expected. This shift will in turn require an overhaul of Australia’s defence and diplomatic policies, which have been slow to adjust and have long been predicated on continued and unquestioned US dominance.
The Turnbull government has already started to change its regional outlook – its Foreign Policy White Paper in November 2017 stated, “Today, China is challenging America’s position.” These challenges are becoming more audacious, as last week’s H-6K landing showed.
China claims as much as 90 per cent of the South China Sea, an area that is rich in resources and vital to trade, and insists it will not “militarise” disputed islands and reefs. When asked about the South China Sea last year during a visit to Australia, China’s premier, Li Keqiang, said its activities on the islands were “primarily for civilian purposes”. “Even if there is a certain amount of defence equipment or facilities, it is for maintaining the freedom of navigation and overflight,” he said.
China’s insistence that it has not militarised the islands is blatantly at odds with the reality: it has been deploying anti-aircraft missiles and anti-ship missiles and electronic-jamming equipment, and landing nuclear bombers.
Its growing audacity mirrors dramatic changes in the nation’s self-image and, accordingly, its foreign policy. Former president Deng Xiaoping’s motto “hide your capacities, bide your time” has been replaced by Xi Jinping’s claim (adapting Napoleon Bonaparte’s analogy of China as a sleeping lion that, when it awakens, will shake the world): “Today, the lion has woken up. But it is peaceful, pleasant and civilised.”
The endpoint of China’s ambitions, and the extent to which it may aggressively assert its interests in the Asia-Pacific and beyond, is not yet clear. Some believe the nation is simply marking out the territory it believes will guarantee its growth and security; others are much more suspicious.
Canberra’s position is to encourage the United States to resist the challenges China is posing to the existing power balance in Asia. This is an understandable approach, given that the US-led order in Asia enabled China’s rise, as Turnbull is fond of saying. Yet it is proving increasingly misguided.
The problem for the United States is that China is increasingly confident – it no longer hides its capacities – and so US resistance only ups the stakes. Just weeks ago, the US flew B-52 bombers over the disputed islands in the South China Sea as part of a training mission. This was a blunt demonstration of the sort of resolve Canberra envisages from Washington. But it was this move – condemned by China as “provocative” – that appeared to prompt China’s landing of the H-6K, its equivalent of a B-52. The Chinese Communist Party’s official newspaper, People’s Daily, even tweeted footage of the landing.
Further advances in Beijing’s reach are inevitable: analysts expect China will soon land a combat aircraft on one of its artificial islands in the Spratly Islands (whose claimants include China, Vietnam, Taiwan, Malaysia and the Philippines).
The difficulty for Australia is that Donald Trump has shown little willingness to foster a US-led resistance in the region. Trump wants to keep China on side as he tries to reach a deal with North Korea. And his overall position has been unclear: he took a call from Taiwan’s leader but then promised to consult with Beijing before doing so again; his National Security Strategy boldly stated that China’s militarised outposts in the South China Sea threatened regional stability, but he has shown little interest in the dispute (other than to offer his skills as a mediator).
China’s next island landing is just a “provocation” away, or it may come sooner. Australia needs to consider whether it wants to adopt a position that fits this fast-changing reality – for, given this week’s events, its current approach is essentially little more than biding its time.