“The US no longer holds uncontested primacy in Asia.”
By ROWAN CALLICK
FOR the first time in two generations, elites in east Asia, the part of the world that matters most to Australia, are using the “w” word: war.
And Australia’s own military “pivot” back to the Asia-Pacific – in parallel with the US’s, as we withdraw from Afghanistan – is enmeshing us more integrally than ever into American regional command structures, alongside Japanese forces.
Sixty-seven years ago Winston Churchill described an iron curtain coming down across Europe. Does China’s declaration last week of an Air Defence Identification Zone mean that a bamboo curtain is now descending across Asia?
The rhetoric in Asia has certainly ratcheted up to Cold War levels of intensity, not only because of the associated anger over contested islands but also with the future of the Korean peninsula and of Taiwan remaining on edge.
At a conference in Beijing this week of the Council for Security Co-operation in the Asia-Pacific, China’s Vice Minister for Foreign Affairs Liu Zhenmin says: “Asia has become the biggest driving force for global economic growth.
“War is almost unthinkable. Having said that, to be frank, Asia is still faced with many security challenges. Legacies of the Second World War and the Cold War, and territorial and maritime disputes continue to affect Asian security.”
North Korean Institute for Disarmament and Peace director Jong Chol Nam said: “We’re on the brink of war. There’s now a nuclear showdown – although North Korea has made moves to create conditions for dialogue.”
Jusuf Wanandi, co-founder of Indonesia’s Centre for Strategic and International Studies, says about tensions between China and the US: “There’s a danger that while there’s no intention of going to war, unplanned things, incidents, will happen. We can’t afford that, because both sides have nuclear weapons.”
And Chinese Major-General Qian Lihua said: “We have developed a proactive military strategy, focused on winning local wars, and on maritime, space and cyber security. We won’t be the first to create an incident. We will strike only after the enemy attacks. The ADIZ is defensive in nature.”
Qian Lihua, director of the Foreign Affairs Office of the Ministry of National Defense
Within China, murmurs are even being heard that its war with Japan was not truly brought to its rightful conclusion in 1945, being only suspended for a few decades after the Americans got in the way by dropping atomic bombs and occupying the country.
If this mood darkens, Australia’s own future turns bleaker. Its economic future, and increasingly its cultural harmony, too, depend on a stable and prosperous east Asia.
The experts are divided on whether Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was right to call in the Chinese ambassador, Ma Zhaoxu, last week to complain that Beijing’s sudden declaration of an ADIZ inflames regional relations. But few, if any, deny that her action reflects a reality: that this is extraordinarily serious.
Asia has in recent times descended into antipathies that might have been felt widely before, but have been expressed only by fringe populists.
Now, though, such sentiments are being articulated publicly and volubly, by prominent citizens, for the first time since the colonial wars which ended with the American withdrawal from Vietnam.
To outsiders, the disputes triggering this surge in hostility seem almost laughably trivial: the ownership of a few uninhabited rocks, dotted between the east coast of Asia and the major island nations of the Philippines and Japan, from Brunei right up to Russia.
Why on earth, for instance, would young South Koreans – whose culture has created the self-parodying Psy’s globally celebrated Gangnam Style – commemorate the bizarre, newly concocted “Dokdo Day”?
Dokdo, today honoured with a voluble patriotism fuelled by anti-Japanese invective, with marches and demonstrations and specially written songs, is the name of a piece of otherwise uninhabited rock, on which a handful of Korean police now have the misfortune to be stationed in a tiny barracks, which is claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo.
China claims almost the entire South China Sea. The many disputes there over shoals and rocks, islets and reefs, are temporarily suspended following Beijing’s agreement at the recent East Asia Summit to participate in talks over talks, about the possibility of framing a code of conduct that while not settling rival claims, would provide a framework to prevent sudden conflicts.
Thus in the South China Sea, the Association of Southeast Asian Nations has succeeded in bringing Beijing to consider, at least, starting to negotiate resolutions. But the major dispute in the East China Sea – over the uninhabited Senkaku islands administered by Japan, but now claimed by China as the Diaoyu islands – has heated up perilously, with no arbitrator in sight except military threat.
What’s happening here?
The world has come to rely on east Asia to drive global growth. Living standards there continue to soar. The region’s corporations and brands are becoming ubiquitous.
In some ways, we are witnessing the working-out of the exuberance of such success. National pride has surged along with economic success. Revved-up government revenues have become available to develop and buy the latest military technology, and to recruit and train well-educated soldiers.
These are not features only of China’s rise, but of the simultaneous economic success of virtually the whole region, including the ASEAN 10.
History curricula and cultural artefacts – including television shows and movies – have become appropriately celebratory and patriotic.
A cold new legalism has entered the Asian sensibility, articulated in claims over minute islands, in parallel with the continuation of more traditional patterns of networks and relationships.
Everywhere, there’s anxiety about access to energy with the Asian coastal waters widely presumed, often before adequate drilling, to contain beneath them vast reserves of oil and gas.
Victor Sumsky, director of the ASEAN centre at Russia’s MGIMO University, told CSCAP that countries in principle gain security by giving away some of their sovereignty, by integrating into the global order.
But in practice “the more interdependent east Asia is becoming,” he said, “the stronger nationalism is growing in the region. It can be driven by economic success or by the lack of it, by anything”.
And how is Australia positioning itself in these perilous waters, with two thirds of its trade having to navigate the east Asian coast?
Peter Dean, the Australian National University’s strategic and defence studies director of programs, says that last year for the first time, major fleet components in the US’s biggest regular Pacific exercise – Rimpac – were commanded by non-US officers: one Australian and one Japanese.
“They need to make greater use of allies and to increase inter-operability,” Dean says. “Major operations are conducted these days in coalition.”
At the broader strategic level, there can be ramifications for the way relationships are thus progressed piece by piece, he says, “sliding into a level of co-operation you might not have consciously thought through, though that may not be the case for Canberra.”
Major-General Rick Burr, who was commander of Australia’s SAS regiment is now deputy commander of all ground forces under the US Pacific command, a leading role. And frigate HMAS Sydney has been placed within a carrier battle group of the US 7th Fleet operating out of Japan.
“So we are very supportive of US primacy in the region, on which we’re now able to focus more,” Dean says. “But this does involve an element of narrowing of options. The further you go in, the harder it is to get out – as long as it retains its foundational importance, supporting the rules-based global order under US leadership.”
To a degree, he says, it is returning to its original raison d’etre, of countering the extension of communism in the region in the form of still-communist China.
“But what are the limits of the alliance, and how far does the US want us to go?” are questions that are left floating, he says.
The accusations from Beijing that the US particularly, and its allies more broadly, are seeking to “contain” China, has a very specific Cold War meaning, he says. “And the degree of economic integration and the range of meetings, answer that. Nothing like it happened with the Soviet Union.”
Further, he says, the rise of China would not have been possible without the uncontested US primacy in Asia of the past 20 to 30 years.
“That brought peace and prosperity and room for China to grow, while for Australia, it meant that our alliance could go global. Both will be harder now the US no longer holds uncontested primacy in Asia.”
As Washington has pivoted, Dean cites a Defence official as saying Canberra has swivelled. The US marines are returning from land-based counter-insurgency to their core expeditionary role.
This is happening as, Sumisky says, “traditional security issues are back as a big theme. The answer is a return to classic international law. But international law has been watered down by systematic interventionism”, code for the US-led wars in the Middle East and Afghanistan, and for the external involvements in Libya, Syria and other conflicts.
The CSCAP conference was predictably split on whether the US alliance system provides a crucial bedrock for regional security including, for now, and as long as US conventional force capacity remains credible, holding Tokyo and Seoul back from arming themselves with nuclear weapons, an easy goal for each.
Jawhar Hassan, the chairman of Malaysia’s Institute of Strategic and International Studies, said that while these US “hub-and-spokes alliances in the region have been useful, especially for the parties concerned, I’m not sure they’re so useful for the region as a whole.
“We are more and more sharing prosperity, and this should also mean we share security. But we don’t act accordingly. Territorial disputes are the main inhibitant.”
The Southeast Asians at the conference insisted on retaining ASEAN and its spin-offs such as the ASEAN Regional Forum on security, at the centre of regional dialogue efforts. But the north Asians – where tensions are still rising, and where both economic and military power is for now considerably greater – feel it’s time to develop an arrangement of their own if war is to be averted.
Professor of international politics at Japan’s Aoyama-Gakuin University, Tsutomu Kikuchi, said: “We need an additional regional framework to address emerging issues.”
China’s Vice Minister Liu agrees: “True security in northeast Asia can only be achieved with a sub-regional security mechanism ensuring the security of all relevant countries.”
One potential vehicle is the six-party talks format set up to handle North Korea’s nuclearisation and left in abeyance over the past few years as that dilemma has appeared unresolvable. This could be refashioned to handle other regional issues, since it comprises the chief players: China as its convenor, the US, Russia, North and South Korea, and Japan.
For in east Asia, the security challenges keep shifting – and growing. Today’s ADIZ stand-off between China and Japan and South Korea, into which Canberra too has ventured, could be replicated in the South China Sea, with its plethora of disputed zones.
China’s General Qian says: “As to whether we will introduce other ADIZs over other territorial seas or not will be determined by our judgment of the international situation and of China’s security.”
But on balance the region remains unlikely to descend into war. Its leaders are for the most part still talking with each other, though for now, Japan’s Shinzo Abe seems to have been frozen out of some conversations.
There are a plethora of other conversations, including most notably those led by CSCAP.
And above all, the countries’ core common interest remains their continued economic success, in which they are enmeshed in a manner never seen before, with products such as computers or smartphones typically using components made in South Korea, Taiwan and Japan, which are then assembled in China.
The remarkable reforms announced by China’s new leadership following its recent Communist Party central committee meeting have been balanced in domestic political terms by its nationalists being “compensated” through the ADIZ.
But Liu indicates the fierce response is causing, while not a back-down – that would be unthinkable – at least an attempted hose-down.
“We hope that relevant countries will not read too much into, and not overreact to, China’s ADIZ in the East China Sea.”
And he adds for good pacific measure: “China will continue to work for the solution of hotspot issues in Asia. We will firmly push forward the denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula.”
The bamboo curtain is thus like a device in a Beijing opera. It can be pulled back up again if it gets too much in the way of the main narrative: raising living standards.