Jumat, 19 Maret 2021

Australia feels rising heat of renewed US-China Cold War - The Australian

China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office director Yang Jiechi sit across the table from the Americans in Anchorage, Alaska. Picture: AFP
China's Foreign Minister Wang Yi and Central Foreign Affairs Commission Office director Yang Jiechi sit across the table from the Americans in Anchorage, Alaska. Picture: AFP

The US-China rumble in Anchorage got off to a stark and brutal beginning. This was Cold War 2.0 laid out in all its bare essentials.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken has always been a relatively hard-headed official but generally the soul of politeness and diplomatic form. But he insisted the assembled international media stay and listen to his early exchanges with his Chinese counterparts.

If China did not abide by international norms, he said, it would create “a far more violent world”.

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The US, he said, had serious concerns about five main issues: China’s human rights abuses in Xinjiang, its suppression of democracy in Hong Kong, its aggression towards Taiwan, its continued cyber attacks and its economic coercion against US allies.

So the Americans were as good as their word — they raised Beijing’s trade hostility and bullying towards Australia as a key issue in their own relationship with China.

The Chinese didn’t like that a bit, and said that Australia, and other US allies, should speak for themselves and were guilty of doing “wrong things” in relation to China.

Yang Jiechi, the Chinese politburo member and overall boss of foreign policy (above Foreign Minister Wang Yi), was just as blunt. You Americans should watch your tone when you speak to us: “the US wants to speak to China in a condescending way from a position of strength.” But you Americans better stay out of our internal affairs — namely Hong Kong and Taiwan — or we will take strong actions.

Americans have a terrible record of human rights, especially in the treatment of your own black population, and of invading countries and slaughtering their populations. China doesn’t do that.

That’s not what I hear, Blinken replied. I’ve spoken to nearly a hundred of my counterparts around the world and what I hear is they are glad America is back and fully engaged, and I hear deep concern about China’s actions. The hallmark of the American position, Blinken said, is “our alliances and partnerships”, all of which are completely voluntary.

Blinken, backed up by US National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan, wanted to say all that to the Chinese, and he wanted the world to hear him say it.

Even the setting, Anchorage, was pure Cold War. When Washington and Moscow were at daggers drawn, they often had frosty, formal meetings in odd locations, because neither could bear the optics of being in the other’s capitals.

Anchorage, Alaska’s biggest city, is part of the US, but it’s about as far away from Washington DC as you can get, and comparably distant from Beijing.

Forget climate change, the culture wars, even COVID. They are all critically important issues but the defining question of our time is the US-China relationship and, in short, whether there is going to be a war.

Almost never in history has a military build-up on the scale undertaken by China been unused by the nation that engages in it. Just last week, the most senior US admiral raised the real likelihood of Beijing invading Taiwan within the next six years.

The six-year time frame is important, and realistic. Taiwan is belatedly starting to modernise its armed forces. The US, at last, is seized of the urgent challenge posed by China and in turn is starting to move in directions that will make Beijing’s military planning more complicated.

Beijing, meanwhile, has been furiously modernising and expanding its military forces with a single aim of being able to inflict great costs on any US forces that operate near China. Even more important, China’s President Xi Jinping has said again and again he regards retaking control of Taiwan as core business.

Xi is 67 and has abolished term limits. But even he cannot imagine he will rule forever. In six years he will be 73. If he wants to take Taiwan under his watch, he may act in the next few years.

It’s important, nonetheless, to be measured and calm. Most Western analysts do not believe Beijing will mount a full-scale invasion of Taiwan. It could be immeasurably costly for Beijing.

Taiwan, which is a perfectly fine democracy, is affluent and observes high standards of human rights and the rule of law, with a population just smaller than Australia’s. Since 1895, it has spent just four years under Beijing’s rule, from 1945 to 1949, when the Nationalist Kuomintang ruled China. It enjoys a distinctive Taiwanese culture and has no desire to be ruled by Beijing. For Taiwan to be deprived of all self-determination would be a monumental repudiation of human rights and democracy.

Beijing has been aggressive and risk-taking, increasingly so, but it has, up till now, been rational. Nonetheless, there is a long history of nations taking ultimately irrational gambles.

Beijing will try to subdue Taiwan without firing a shot, but it might be tempted to a sudden military action, even an invasion, if it thinks it can manage this without courting existential danger, or even unacceptable cost.

US Secretaryof State Antony Blinken, left, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Picture: AFP
US Secretaryof State Antony Blinken, left, and National Security Adviser Jake Sullivan. Picture: AFP

It has a de facto alliance of authoritarians with Russia and Iran. These nations would never fight to the death on behalf of China, but they are each capable at any time of causing a big regional disturbance, which would demand Washington’s attention and resources. They may well co-ordinate to help Beijing in return for future considerations.

Similarly, Beijing can point to a lot of Western irresolution. Western societies have never been more internally divided. Even way back in 1989, when Beijing’s military undertook the Tiananmen massacre of students and civilian demonstrators, in order to maintain unchallenged Communist Party rule, it suffered international sanctions and isolation really for only a very short time. And subsequently it experienced explosive economic growth.

In written evidence to the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission a few weeks ago, Peter Jennings, of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute, outlined four recent cases of Beijing taking big risks and paying virtually no price. The first was occupying and establishing so many islands in the South China Sea. It bullied the relevant Southeast Asian nations and experienced virtually no pushback from the administration of Barack Obama. The second was militarising these islands after Xi, in 2015, directly promised Obama that Beijing would never do this. The third was that there has been no significant price, beyond amorphous reputational damage, to the way Beijing mishandled and lied about its early experience of COVID. And finally, there have been the blatant trade attacks on Australia, attacking a key US ally, a G20 democracy, without any basis and, apart from the Biden administration’s recent and welcome attitude, no significant international pushback.

The Western world is teaching Beijing that it is weak and can be pushed around. That is why normally soft-spoken folks who inhabit the highest reaches of the Biden administration are now speaking in such tough tones. They are desperately trying to avoid war by convincing Beijing the consequences would be horrendous.

It has until now been extreme folly to underestimate the Americans. Nonetheless, military planners in Beijing might be tempted if they think they could achieve victory in Taiwan quickly. Then the US would have to mount a massive operation to reverse the situation. At that point, Beijing could engage in effective nuclear bluff. It is inconceivable that Beijing would launch a nuclear war over Taiwan, but nuclear weapons are predominantly a tool of bluff. If Beijing had conquered Taiwan it would put the question to the Americans — will you risk nuclear annihilation to restore a small Pacific democracy?

The most recent Pentagon study of Chinese military power — which takes the form of an annual report to congress — late last year made sobering reading.

Beijing is pursuing an integrated strategy of military/civilian fusion in which every conceivably relevant civilian capability — from infrastructure to technical co-operation with foreign universities — is used to bolster Chinese military power. China already has the largest navy in the world, 350 ships and submarines compared with 293 for the US. It also has the largest standing army in the world, while its air force is the world’s third-largest.

It is in the process of doubling its nuclear weapons arsenal (although this is much smaller than the US nuclear arsenal). It has 1250 ground-launched ballistic missiles. It has thousands of other, shorter-range missiles.

Beijing has pursued an asymmetric military strategy against the US and missiles are a classic case. It can fire its missiles mostly from its mainland and hit targets in any contest about Taiwan or other key parts of the Pacific. The US must operate at the end of a long logistics chain or at a limited number of designated bases in allied countries in the region.

Beijing is competitive in several hi-tech areas and may be just ahead in the effort to create hypersonic weapons. Nonetheless, there are a lot of hi-tech areas where the US is well ahead. The US Pacific Command has recently called for the US to develop its own arsenal of regionally based missiles to further deter China from military adventurism.

Beijing has also shaped much of the international debate about Taiwan in a way that almost prepares the world to accept it taking military action there. You hear analysts and politicians in many Western governments refer to Taiwan as a “legacy issue”, meaning it’s not to be taken as an indication of future aggression by Beijing. But let’s be quite clear. If Beijing takes Taiwan by force this is an unmitigated disaster for Australia. It overturns the entire post-World War II security order for Asia and probably for the whole world.

Its military consequences would be immense. Beijing’s military bases on Taiwan would be an existential threat to Japan. Beijing controlling Taiwan would mean it would be much more difficult, if not impossible, for the US to play its full offshore balancing role in Asia as it would not have security in any of even the second island chain out from China’s shores.

More than that, US security guarantees would be seen as worthless. Taiwan once had its own nuclear weapons program. It gave this up because it was happy to rely on the US’s extended nuclear guarantee. If that extended guarantee meant nothing, the entire US alliance system would be vastly devalued, if it didn’t crumble altogether.

More than that, while Australians may in their own minds distinguish their national legitimacy from the national legitimacy of Taiwan, that might not be the way other people see us, especially if Beijing is on a strategic roll.

If the world will not save a perfectly law-abiding democracy of 24 million people in the northern Pacific, why would it put itself out for a law-abiding democracy of 25 million in the South Pacific?

Strategic hard heads all over the region know the truth of these calculations all too well, which is why we are living through such a tense and dangerous time.

In the short term, there are three things we should do. Get as close to the Americans as we can to influence and support their strategic commitment to our region. Maximise the interoperability of our own military forces with the US so they bolster the overall allied effort in this region. And thirdly, in our own interests, we should acquire much greater independent deterrent capability and national resilience.

The two main ways we would help the Americans militarily would be through furnishing spaces and bases for the rotation of their forces in northern Australia, and through the maximum possible upgrade of our six Collins-class submarines, which would work closely with the Americans and the Japanese in any worst-case scenario.

Hopefully, none of this comes to pass. But it is important to contemplate worst-case scenarios when they pass from being impossible to merely unlikely. We are not answering these challenges with anything like sufficient urgency.

Foreign Editor


Greg Sheridan, The Australian's foreign editor, is one of the nation's most influential national security commentators, who is active across television and radio and also writes extensively on culture. He has w...

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2021-03-19 11:00:00Z

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