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Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 17:54 | SYDNEY
Tuesday 22 Aug 2017 | 17:54 | SYDNEY

East/South China seas: The strategy is failing



2 April 2014 14:53

It now seems reasonable to assume that China will continue to ramp up the pressure on the disputed islands across the East and South China Seas until it owns them. The latest moves against the Philippines and Indonesia, and on over-fishing, are just the most recent steps towards eventual possession. If we wish to prevent that outcome, we need a serious rethink. Current strategies are failing.

Australia's current strategy includes encouraging the America to pivot, befriend the Japanese, do some hedging and decry Chinese assertiveness. Our underlying logic, and that of others, seems to be that by reinforcing the balance of power and so demonstrating resolve, China will realise it cannot achieve its objectives by force and thus be deterred. This is all good realist stuff, but it plays to China's strengths: global economic power and, nearer the Chinese mainland, military might.

The problem is that the Chinese are clearly not deterred. The clever use of Coastguard ships has kept the perceived level of violence down. The Chinese have generally kept the disputes bilateral, thus maximising their power against each interlocutor. Moreover, the Chinese Government often simultaneously offers economic carrots, such as free trade agreements, which deters firm responses to Chinese territorial moves.

And really, are these barren islands and coral atolls worth imperiling regional peace and global stability over? The US and its allies do have some war-fighting concepts to use in extremis, but these involve inflicting so much economic and financial pain on ourselves that the plans are effectively self-deterring.

With present strategies failing, there seem to be two alternative courses of action available.

One is to simply accept the current trendline. We could concentrate on crisis-managing the handover of the East and South China Seas from the current claimants to China. The current Philippines Island crisis is almost an example of this approach. The aim would be for change to happen in a way that is least harmful to our interests or (more Machiavellian) to exploit the change for our benefit, maybe by helping along an FTA negotiation or two!

Yet this course seems rather unappealing, so let's focus instead on not accepting the trendline and think about devising some new strategy that might limit further Chinese expansionism (note 'limit', not rollback, and that the concern is not China itself but simply countering China's tailored coercion strategy which seeks to make the East and South East China Seas her own).

Since China's strengths are in material power, which includes the ultima ratio regum, nuclear weapons, a new strategy could instead seek to play on China's sensitivities and vulnerabilities. After all, strategy should ideally seek to exploit weak points, not go head-to-head against another's strengths, as our current one does.

China is particularly sensitive to perceived interference in its internal affairs. Even meetings with the Dalai Lama by foreign governments cause angst in Beijing. The Chinese Communist Party seems to believe it is particularly vulnerable to outside intrusions in its domestic politics. Some new strategy might be able to play off such fears and create a perceived linkage between future Chinese actions over the disputed islands and external prying into Chinese domestic politics and internal matters.

There might even some helpful symmetry, in that such external meddling might then be explained as simply related to China's meddling in the domestic affairs of others through seizing their islands, fishing areas and EEZs. Such external intrusion, though, would need to be carefully targeted to be effective in managing this issue, while avoiding unintended wider consequences. A thoughtful and considered strategy, not an unfocused broad-brush approach, would be required.

Giving up the current practice of 'balancing' might be a confronting idea. Even so, simply reinforcing its failure by continuing down this path seems unappealing. The apparent lack of success of the 'balancing' strategy suggests we need some new thinking about alternatives. And if we do, our Asian neighbours and the US clearly need to be involved. This is not a path we can follow alone.

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