10 August 2022
China has responded aggressively to a visit to Taiwan by the speaker of the United States House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, by conducting several days of military exercises encircling the island. But Beijing’s missives have also been rhetorical, including several launched in Australia’s direction.
After the foreign minister, Penny Wong, issued a joint statement with her US and Japanese counterparts that China’s actions “gravely affect international peace and stability”, the Chinese embassy in Canberra claimed that Australia has “condemned the victim”. The embassy said that China’s military exercises were “justified actions to safeguard state sovereignty and territorial integrity”.
Beijing clearly believes that its national dignity has been defiled by Pelosi’s visit to Taiwan. Yet hardline nationalists within the Chinese Communist Party have also been energised by the visit as it has given them a justification to escalate their desire to absorb Taiwan – by force – into the People’s Republic of China. Some theorists believe China is currently displaying the behaviour of a “peaking power” – where a rising state becomes more aggressive as its advantageous conditions start to wane.
China’s population has begun to decline – estimated to halve by the end of the century – and its economic conditions have weakened. Meanwhile, Russia may have inadvertently clarified the serious challenge posed by authoritarian regimes to liberal democracy. All of which is creating a sense of urgency in Beijing that Taiwan needs to be taken soon, or the opportunity may pass for good.
Penny Wong and ASEAN
Last week, Penny Wong travelled to Cambodia to participate as a dialogue partner at an ASEAN foreign ministers meeting. The meeting was notable for the lack of representation of Myanmar, a member of ASEAN. Late last year, the bloc barred the country from participating in its meetings due to Myanmar’s military coup in 2021, and the lack of progress on implementing ASEAN five-point consensus, which was designed to end violence, seek diplomatic solutions to the ongoing conflict, and to allow for the provision of humanitarian assistance.
Instead, Myanmar’s military junta has escalated its violence. In her statement to the ASEAN foreign ministers, Wong expressed Australia’s “deep distress” at the recent execution of four pro-democracy protesters in the country, and stated that Australia shares ASEAN’s frustration at the junta’s disregard for the five-point consensus. Wong also highlighted the plight of Australian national Sean Turnell – an economic adviser to deposed prime minister Aung San Suu Kyi – who remains detained by the junta. She thanked ASEAN member states for their attempts to secure his release.
Wong also made the point that what is happening in Myanmar is not just a concern for the people of Myanmar but is also relevant to ASEAN. While she didn’t elaborate, the implication was enough – ASEAN’s credibility is reliant on finding a solution to the crisis in Myanmar. Although ASEAN states have spoken forcefully against the junta and taken the important step to bar its representatives from ASEAN meetings, the organisation needs to prove that it has the capability to create substantive positive outcomes to major regional problems.
US in the Pacific
The United States continued to demonstrate its renewed interest in the Pacific island countries, with Deputy Secretary of State Wendy Sherman visiting Samoa, Tonga and Solomon Islands last week. Sherman was seeking to consolidate recent commitments that the US has made in the region, including reopening its embassy in Solomon Islands – which was closed in 1993 – and establishing new embassies in Tonga and Kiribati. The White House is also requesting Congress triple the funding for development and climate resilience projects, including combating illegal fishing and investing in marine conservation, and will appoint an envoy to the Pacific Island Forum.
Sherman’s visits are also part of the consultative process the US is now engaged in to design its first national strategy in the Pacific, which will be incorporated into its broader Indo-Pacific strategy. It is obvious that Washington’s renewed investments are driven by its great-power competition with China. As Beijing has sought greater influence throughout the region, the US is now responding in a similar manner to Australia’s Pacific “step-up” policy and New Zealand’s “Pacific reset”.
The western Pacific Ocean is an increasingly contested space – as China has territorial objectives in Taiwan, the island chains that traverse the region are vital for maritime deterrence. Yet for the US to be successful in its broader goals in the Indo-Pacific, it cannot solely see Pacific island countries as hubs for a containment strategy. They should be recognised as cooperative partners with their own agency and interests that may not always directly align with those of the US.