The dominant geopolitical theme during the inaugural Crawford Australian Leadership Forum last weekend was the rise of China and the need for global institutions and regional countries to adjust to this changing reality.
China’s decades-old military modernization (including missile, nuclear, space and cyber assets) is changing the regional and global balance of power. China is the world’s new economic and geopolitical center of gravity.
The sweeping expansion of its comprehensive national power has seen an exponential increase in China’s weight in the global economy, in Asian and global power balances, and in regional and global governance institutions.
If China is able to sustain its course for another decade or two, its rise will alter the architecture of the international system in profound ways.
As an expression of its growing clout, China has advanced the concept of “a new model of great power relations” in a bipolar world.
Unfortunately this means different things to Beijing and Washington. To China it is a means of acknowledging its new coequal status and respect for its core interests; to Washington it means a formula for managing competition and gaining China’s cooperation on critical geopolitical challenges.
Not only was the U.S. “pivot” to Asia in reality a China pivot; since then Japan, Russia and Southeast Asian countries have also been reorganizing their foreign policies around the central principle of a rising China.
Mesmerized by the dizzying pace of China’s growth sustained for several decades, a surprising number of conference participants seemed to share the belief that China seeks the position of leadership in Asia and that the United States is slowly but surely being forced to cede it a position of shared strategic primacy, or risk a costly war.
The notion of a China-U.S. G-2 condominium is surreal. The world is much bigger than just these two. Asia is much bigger than China and the U.S. The idea that countries like Japan and India, among others, will meekly accept being mere consumers of a security order for Asia and the world decreed by China and the U.S. is utterly fanciful. Ain’t going to happen — not this year, not next year, not ever.
Almost the only allies China has are North Korea and Pakistan. Liabilities more than diplomatic assets, both are allies to look for when a country runs out of enemies, noted one of the American participants.
Partially reflecting the Sino-U.S. jockeying for relative influence in the region, tensions are rising in the contested East China and South China seas. China is pursuing a three-pronged strategy of building up war-fighting capabilities, calibrated shows of force and a strategy of exhaustion of rival claimants. Apparently random and sporadic acts of provocations and showdowns may fail to coerce and intimidate opponents.
But each push and probe tests retaliatory assets and calls into question the U.S. capacity, and will, to come to the aid of the beleaguered ally.
Acts of provocation, deliberately held below the threshold of open warfare, are calculated to induce strategic fatigue over time, erode regional confidence and cumulatively break the political resolve to resist.
Many of the smaller countries feeling the weight of China’s rising power, assertive territorial claims and menacing military presence have begun to consolidate and deepen ties with the U.S. to counter Beijing’s intimidatory tactics. The bigger countries also have the option of strengthening their own military capabilities and banding together against the common threat.
India’s new nationalist prime minister, Narendra Modi, is expected to boost military acquisition and modernization and upgrade infrastructure in border areas. He may also look to deepening military ties and intelligence sharing with Australia, and perhaps resurrect the mothballed quadrilateral democratic coalition of Australia, India, Japan and the U.S.
Although an abandonment of India’s traditional opposition to formal military alliances is unlikely, New Delhi could be receptive to the idea of a security consultative forum to promote a structured dialogue among the four democracies.
On Tuesday, Prime Minister Shinzo Abe’s Cabinet formally reinterpreted the war-renouncing Article 9 of Japan’s Constitution to permit military assistance to an ally under attack, subject to three conditions: The attack on the third country poses a clear danger to Japan’s survival or to the life, liberty and pursuit of happiness of its people; there is no other way of repelling the armed attack to protect Japan and its citizens; and the use of force is limited to the minimum necessary.
The previous interpretation had limited the use of military force to Japan being under direct attack.
Officials insist that Japan remains peace and defense-oriented, and will continue to seek to resolve disputes by peaceful means in according with international law.
But China and South Korea view the reinterpretation as yet another manifestation of resurgent Japanese militarism under the nationalist and history-denying Abe. Even domestic critics expressed skepticism that the conditions will serve as meaningful restraints on a future administration that wants to wage war, since only the government will be the judge of whether the conditions are met.
Washington is neutral on the merits of the China-Japan territorial dispute in the East China Sea. But the U.S.-Japan security treaty does cover all territory under Japan’s administrative control.
A continual series of incidents — shipping, military surveillance and China’s declaration of an air defense identification zone — around the Senkaku Islands will test the contention that the islands have been under steady Japanese administrative control and thereby diminish the argument for the U.S. security treaty’s coverage extending to them.
Perhaps Beijing has been lulled into a false sense of complacency in the belief that time is on its side. The U.S. will not risk a full-fledged open confrontation over relatively small and minor incidents like a Vietnamese boat sunk, a submerged reef captured or an uninhabited rocky island contested. But each probe tests the patience and resolve of the regional country and gradually increases skepticism about the reliability of the U.S. security option. Washington is in no position to challenge Beijing on every provocation, yet each provocation that goes unchallenged improves China’s leverage over its neighbors and weakens America’s standing.
Many analysts, citing uncomfortable parallels between today’s rising China and a rising Germany a century ago, fear an unwanted war resulting from grave miscalculations.
A former U.S. assistant secretary of state put the odds of an unwanted Sino-Japanese war at more than 50 percent. Another speaker noted the point about “sleepwalking” into a war is that people don’t know at the time that they are sleepwalking.
Ramesh Thakur is a professor at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University.
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