China has broken out. After countless “dragon rising” conferences and speeches…the past few weeks have seen something new: the most important shift so far in the 21st century. History in the making. China has made its move.
Over recent months, it’s been impossible for readers to avoid such talk. First, in early August, the newspaper reported that a “resurgent China is baring its teeth at the once indomitable US Pacific fleet. The certainty of US hegemony over this vast ocean, which Australians have taken for granted since World War II, is being challenged…For a country such as Australia, which would rely heavily on the US Pacific fleet to protect it against a belligerent China, the prophecies of experts such as [historian Niall] Ferguson are disturbing.” Then on 5 August came a much-discussed visit to Sydney by John Mearsheimer, the US international-relations theorist. In a speech titled “The Gathering Storm: China’s Challenge to US Power in Asia”, Mearsheimer argued that “China’s rise…is likely to lead to intense security competition between China and the United States, with considerable potential for war”:
Chinese strategists are going to pay serious attention to Australia over the years ahead, mainly because of oil…They want to be able to protect their sea-lanes that run to and from the Middle East…Therefore, China has a powerful incentive to make sure its ships can move through the two main openings that run through Indonesia. This situation almost certainly means that China will maintain a significant military presence in the waters of the northern coast of Australia and maybe even on Indonesian territory. China will for sure be deeply concerned about Australia’s power projection capabilities, and will work to make sure that they cannot be used to shut down either the Lombok or Sunda Straits or threaten China shipping in the Indian Ocean…The steps that China takes to neutralize the threat that Australia poses…will surely push Canberra to work closely with Washington to contain China.
This merely restated, in more direct language, the viewpoint of Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper, which suggested that “over the long period covered by this White Paper [i.e. before 2030], we might have to contend with major power adversaries operating in our approaches – in the most drastic circumstance, as a consequence of a wider conflict in the Asia-Pacific region.”
In such a circumstance, it is not a current defence planning assumption that Australia would be involved in such a conflict on its own…The Indian Ocean will have an increasingly strategic role to play within the ADF’s primary operational environment. This will include… growing strategic competition within the Indian Ocean, along its periphery, and through the straits leading to and from it. With these factors in mind, and with the centrality of the Indian Ocean’s maritime trade routes to the energy security of many Asian states, Defence planners will need to focus increasingly on the operating conditions and demands of this region. More than ever before, short of war, Australian defence planning will have to contemplate operational concepts for operating in the Indian Ocean region, including with regional partners with whom we share similar strategic interests.
On 24 August came a speech by the Prime Minister of Timor-Leste, opening construction of new headquarters for Dili’s new defence ministry and armed forces. The building, like many other state offices, would be funded by the PRC, and Xanana Gusmão addressed the Chinese ambassador with pointed thanks:
Words cannot express how thankful we are for this work that your country gave us, in addition to all the others. After the Palace of the Presidency of the Republic, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and the Military Residential Quarters in Metinaro, we are now privileged to be about to receive, in the name of the fraternal brotherhood that links our two Peoples, the building that will house the Ministry of Defence and the F-FDTL Headquarters. I also ask you to convey to your Government not only my personal thanks but also the appreciation of all the Timorese, who never forget who they true friends are. It was also in the name of this friendship that the People’s Republic of China has recently enabled the training of the crews of the Jaco patrol boats, which are now part of the Naval Component of our Armed Forces, in addition to having facilitated the purchase of these vessels. We are firmly committed to incrementing bilateral cooperation in the military area with friendly countries that provide us with uninterested support. Our Chinese brothers and sisters are clearly part of this group. We are aware that an eventual assistance in order to enrich the technical know-how of our military, to be generously provided by the People’s Republic of China, will not result in heavy burdens to the Timorese State. Consequently, there is nothing that would prevent us from requesting and accepting it, nor would it be legitimate for anyone to seek to constraint our options.
The digs at Canberra could hardly be missed. The next day, in “Military fears over Timor link to China”, The Australian stated that “China’s foray into what has been traditionally regarded as ‘Australia’s sphere of interest’ had set alarm bells ringing in Canberra”:
“Australia has always been edgy about great powers establishing strategic positions in the neighbourhood”, said Professor Hugh White, a former deputy secretary in the Defence Department who is now head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU. “It’s contrary to a very deep intuitive sense we have of our strategic interests. And I don’t doubt for a moment Australia will be very nervous about this,” Professor White said.
If a future US-China relationship became more competitive with the region divided into pro-US and pro-China blocs, Beijing’s strategic military presence in East Timor could pose a serious challenge for Australia, he said.
The nervous parties included the Greens leader, Bob Brown, who now entered the fray. On ABC radio, he expressed concern “that Australia has so much more to do in terms of economic relationships with places such like Fiji and Timor Leste again who are turning to look at what China has to offer.” In an opinion piece that described his party’s military and diplomatic priorities for another Murdoch paper, Brown said that “we are neglecting neighbours in need like Timor-Leste, which is, this week, exploring new defence ties with China! The Greens’ strategy is to have our defence forces personnel at home to secure our own arc of stability.”
Finally, after weeks of buildup, came an offering to Quarterly Essay by the aforementioned Professor White, “Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing.” An extract duly appeared in The Australian, in which White claimed that:
the best outcome for Australia would be for the US to relinquish primacy and share power with China and the other major powers in a Concert of Asia…based on principles of the charter of the United Nations…We should try to persuade the US that it would be in everyone’s best interests for it to relinquish primacy in Asia, but remain engaged as a member of a collective leadership; staying in Asia to balance, not to dominate.”
Greg Sheridan, the paper’s editor, immediately described White’s essay as “insane”, “remarkable”, “astonishing”, “weird”, “screwball”, “bizarre”, “ridiculous” and “the single, stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history by someone who once held a position of some responsibility in our system.” White offered a brief rejoinder, before the floor was turned over to Michael Danby, the Labor MP for Melbourne Ports, and academics Carl Ungerer and Peter Khalil, the latter Kevin Rudd’s former strategic advisor on foreign affairs and national security. These three suggested that “bowing to Beijing would be the modern equivalent of the Munich agreement”, though hastened to add that no “serious analyst equates China’s communist regime with Hitler”. (The unedited version of this piece is on Danby’s website.)
What lies behind this relentless firing of monitory flares? I’ll leave that to another post.