China’s behaviour in the South China Sea is beginning to resemble that of the imperialist great powers it once condemned.
Its fishing boats are now intruding regularly into Indonesia’s exclusive economic zone around the Natuna Island group at the southern end of the South China Sea, jeopardising relations with Southeast Asia’s largest state and directly challenging the rules-based order that Australia supports. Indonesia has enjoyed excellent relations with China, priding itself on playing the role of an honest broker on the South China Sea dispute in the mistaken belief that it has no territorial differences with China. This belief has been rudely shattered by the aggressive behaviour of encroaching Chinese fishing vessels and protecting paramilitary ships.
Those who dismiss the South China Sea dispute as a storm in teacup, or persist with the illusion that China will refrain from antagonising non-claimant states, need to think again.
Far from de-escalating, this dispute is showing all the hallmarks of becoming the most serious security problem for Southeast Asia and Australia since the Vietnam War. And it begs the question of what the incoming government will do about it now Indonesia has been drawn into the fray.
President Joko Widodo’s uncharacteristically tough response, which includes beefing up Indonesia’s maritime enforcement and military capabilities around the Natunas, could be a game changer. It will accelerate and strengthen the regional pushback against China’s aggressive strategy, complicate its regional diplomacy and cast further doubt on the merits of its political and legal case, already under challenge by the Philippines in the UN Court of Arbitration.
But why would China allow its fishing fleet and paramilitary ships to deliberately challenge Jakarta’s control over its exclusive economic zone at this sensitive time, when the Court of Arbitration is about to bring down its judgment, widely expected to favour the Philippines? Especially when China has run a furious information and diplomatic campaign to convince the world of the legitimacy of its actions in the South China Sea. Beijing has attempted to split ASEAN, to prevent the Southeast Asian organisation taking a united stance against it, and discredit the findings of the Arbitration Court by refusing to take part in the arbitration process or abide by the court’s findings.
The answer is that President Xi Jinping is determined to impose a Sino-centric order in Asia that puts China first and relegates everyone else to subordinate status. This was made abundantly clear in 2010 when China’s former foreign minister, Yang Jiechi, famously put down his ASEAN counterparts by reminding them that: “China is a big country and other countries are small countries, and that’s just a fact.”
Xi’s ultimate aim is to make China the pre-eminent power in the region, a position it has held historically except for during the so called “hundred years of national humiliation” inflicted on the country by Japan and the occupying Western powers in the century before it was reunified under Mao. First, however, China must negate the influence of the US in Asia and control the seas that carry its name and contain the oil, gas and fish it covets.
Control of the South China Sea, by occupation or asserting historical fishing rights, is the key to achieving virtually all these goals and largely explains why Beijing continues to push its claims so aggressively, even at the cost of alienating Southeast Asia.
Xi calculates that a preoccupied, lame duck President Barack Obama won’t have the stomach for a confrontation in the South China Sea. Regional opposition can be muted by carrot and stick diplomacy. In short, China is prepared to wear short-term pain for perceived long-term gain.
So far the strategy has paid off handsomely. China has not just rewritten the South China Sea rule book, it has ripped it up to the detriment of the region and the broader liberal international order that is now under sustained attack in both its European and American heartlands.
It’s hard to think of a more pressing concern for Australian defence and foreign policy. But despite rhetorical support for the rules-based order neither the Coalition, nor Labor, show any sign of grasping the full significance of the China challenge, let alone crafting an effective response.
One obvious recourse is to conduct freedom of navigation operations in the South China Sea to demonstrate that we don’t recognise China’s spurious claims to the artificial islands it has constructed and militarised there. But sentiment in both the Coalition and Labor seems to be moving against conducting FONOPs for fear of upsetting China, despite strong popular support for them. Seventy four per cent of respondents in a recent Lowy Institute poll were in favour of FONOPs.
This is a mistake because it only encourages China to continue implementing its strategy of “creeping assertiveness” and to selectively ignore established international norms.
Moreover, the emerging Sino-centric order is proving to be increasingly illiberal, coercive and intolerant, at home as well as abroad. China kidnaps bookstore owners from Hong Kong for selling books and articles critical of the leadership, arbitrarily detains its own human rights lawyers for doing what they are paid to do, and continues to strengthen the Great Firewall of media censorship ostensibly to “protect” its citizens from subversive foreign influence.
Rather than converging, the inescapable conclusion is our interests and values are diverging from those of China. If this trend continues, it will be impossible to quarantine the economic and trade relationship from the strategic. Inevitably, Australians will come to question the desirability of a partnership with a country that rejects many of our values and seems determined to advance its national interests at other’s expense.
We should learn from Indonesia’s experience. Jakarta’s softly-softly approach has demonstrably failed to deter the Chinese fishing and paramilitary fleets from repeated incursions into Indonesian waters. Accommodation must be tempered by a preparedness to stand up to China when core Australian interests are threatened, as they are in the South China Sea.