As an analyst of regional security, I spend much time absorbed with the usual suspects; nuclear proliferation, arms modernisation, territorial tensions, plus a panoply of non-state challenges from terrorism, cyber and other domains. While the divisions between state and non-state security concerns are more blurred than they used to be, our assumptions about great-power flashpoints are more or less constant. North Korea, Taiwan, the South and East China Seas exercise a steady hold on our attention. Are there potential triggers to regional conflict entirely out of this analytical comfort zone?
At last week's public event to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the ANU's Strategic and Defence Studies Centre (SDSC), the audience was asked to suggest 'black swan' events with the potential to tip the balance between peace and war in Asia in 2020.
Here's my black swan for what it's worth:
In 2019, a Southeast Asian country (I'm not being deliberately coy, there is more than one candidate) experiences a sharp economic and political crisis, following a deterioration in global conditions. The country has a sizeable, long-established ethnic Chinese minority. From 2017, it received a new wave of skilled permanent residents as managers and entrepreneurs from the People's Republic of China (PRC). This was part of a wider relocation of labour-intensive production out of China, attracted by tax-breaks and other inducements offered by a number of Southeast Asian countries competing for Chinese investment and one-belt one-road initiatives.
Many of the new arrivals are wealthy, conspicuous consumers making them easy targets for resentment in a downturn — just as Japanese citizens were across Southeast Asia in the mid-1970s. The difference in 2019 is that opportunist politicians openly play the race card in ways that had been taboo previously.
Violent attacks on ethnic Chinese communities spread to PRC expatriate communities, clustered around export processing centres along the coast. Chinese-Singaporean and Taiwanese nationals are also attacked. As police and military units are deployed disproportionately to the capital, law and order quickly breaks down in a number of regional cities.
Commercial flights out of the country are snapped up, and as violence escalates, it becomes clear that an organised evacuation of PRC nationals is necessary. Western embassies are preoccupied evacuating their citizens.
Saturation media coverage in China, reporting lurid details of racial attacks on PRC citizens, feeds a social media clamour for China's authorities to intervene and ensure their citizens' safety. Widespread calls are made to extend China's protection to ethnic Chinese 'compatriots'.
After intense diplomatic pressure, the Southeast Asian country accedes to China's request to facilitate a non-combatant evacuation operation (NEO). In addition to chartered flights from the capital to China, the order is given to dispatch a PLA Navy amphibious group from the South Sea Fleet to carry out an evacuation by sea. The PLA has conducted NEOs in the past, in the Middle East. But never on this scale. A battalion-sized force protection element consisting of Chinese marines and special forces is embarked. Military transport and refueling aircraft are sent ahead to China's installations in the Spratly islands, where PLA combat aircraft already seasonally deploy.
On arrival, Chinese military personnel, with uneasy assistance from local security personnel, establish a defensive perimeter around the port to facilitate the evacuation of Chinese expatriate workers and their families. However, as law and order degenerates elsewhere, local forces are withdrawn, leaving the Chinese contingent to handle security largely unaided. Groups of local ethnic Chinese begin arriving, appealing for protection. As the perimeter is extended, Chinese forces are involved in small-scale clashes to restore law and order. The local mood sours further. Although many evacuees are quickly taken to the main naval force offshore, the distinction between PRC citizens, their dependents and non-Chinese citizens quickly becomes blurred.
As the PLA commander in charge of the operation appeals for reinforcements in order to hold his perimeter against an increasingly hostile population, the Southeast Asian government accuses China of violating its sovereignty, issuing a 48-hour ultimatum to complete its evacuation, return non-PRC citizens and withdraw its forces. Mass demonstrations flood the capital protesting against China's 'invasion'. Nationwide violence intensifies. China's government issues a corresponding warning, demanding that Chinese people's safety be guaranteed and their property respected. Internet outages are reported at key government installations. Chinese combat aircraft begin flying sorties offshore, as a wider mobilisation of forces is detected.
This stab at a black swan is not a prediction of the future. Clearly such a turn of events would not occur within an international vacuum. But nor is it unthinkable. Unlike conventional state-on-state flashpoint scenarios, there would be no 'playbook', or mechanisms to prevent crisis escalation. Moreover, emotions on both sides would be heavily engaged. A non-combat, humanitarian intervention in such circumstances could quickly become charged with strategic overtones.
Fortunately, there has been no major outbreak of violence against any of Southeast Asia's ethnic Chinese populations since the late 1990s. Some have been effectively assimilated. Yet if tensions over the South China Sea continue, the geopolitical risks overhanging the Chinese diaspora are likely to intensify, especially if Beijing pursues a destabilising 'co-ethnic' foreign policy based on appeals to culture and kinship. Equally, Southeast Asian elites must be increasingly alert to the strategic implications of populist politicians resorting to the race card.
Photo by the author