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China’s ADIZ and Australia’s commitment to America’s Asian order

Last week, China announced the creation of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, encompassing the disputed Senkaku Islands. The move has significantly escalated tensions…

What has the international response been to China establishing an Air Defence Identification Zone over the East China Sea? EPA/Hiroya Shimoji

Last week, China announced the creation of a new Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea, encompassing the disputed Senkaku Islands. The move has significantly escalated tensions in the region and set off debate about just why China chose to do this and what its intentions might be.

In response, the US dispatched a pair of B-52 bombers to show that it was not going to submit to China’s demands that all aircraft lodge plans in advance of flying through the zone. Japan and South Korea have followed suit with their own military planes.

Australia has, somewhat surprisingly, very publicly voiced its opposition to China’s move. Foreign minister Julie Bishop issued a short but pointed press release and called in the Chinese ambassador for a diplomatic dressing-down. These are strong steps to take, and not without risk given that China is by some measure Australia’s number one trading partner.

For some, Australia’s action is mistaken. It unnecessarily aggravates relations with China, inflames tensions in the region and risks Australia being seen as part of an effort by the US and Japan to contain China.

However, the move does have a greater strategic logic than may at first be apparent. By taking such a firm stand, Australia is sending a clear signal about its strategic interests in Asia. This follows a pattern established by prime minister Tony Abbott’s remarks that Japan is Australia’s “closest friend in Asia”, and the most recent Australia-US ministerial meeting communique. The response to the ADIZ is part of a deliberate effort to make very clear where Australia stands in relation to Asia’s international order.

For a long time, Australian politicians and officials have used the somewhat tired formulation that Australia does not have to choose between the US and China. They have also been working assiduously – and effectively – at improving relations with both of the region’s giants. But the unintended consequence of these efforts has been a degree of murkiness about just what Australia’s long-term priorities are during a period of considerable change.

The Abbott government is speaking much more clearly and directly about Australia’s strategic policy and the kind of regional setting which it prefers. At the centre of its policy is the firm belief that the region is best served by the continuation of American military predominance, sometimes called “primacy”. A stable regional balance of power organised around American pre-eminence is thought best both for Australia’s interests and the region more generally.

The region also needs clear “road rules” adhered to by all. Australia believes that these need to have their origins in international law. Asia is a congested geopolitical space and mechanisms are needed to manage the inevitable frictions that will occur. And Asia needs an open economic order that drives prosperity and binds the fates of the region’s many peoples.

Put simply, Australia believes that the region needs to continue on the path established in the mid-1970s as a result of Sino-American rapprochement.

Australia has very firmly tied itself to a vision of Asia’s future that is American-led. EPA/Dita Alangkara

The more assertive turn that Chinese foreign and defence policy has taken in recent years appears to indicate that China is no longer satisfied with these arrangements. Whether in its expansive claims in the South China Sea or in its establishment of the new ADIZ, China seems to be trying to bend and stretch an order that it feels no longer serves its interests.

America and its allies have responded firmly because of the challenge China’s actions present to arrangements that they believe are necessary for regional stability over the longer run.

Australia is of the view that the region will work best when China accepts the current order – both its military and diplomatic terms – and its interests are accommodated within that setting. The problem is, in the past, this view was less than clear. It was well-known that Australia was a strong ally of the US but there was considerable uncertainty about how it would position itself in relation to China’s long-term ambition.

In taking public umbrage at the ADIZ and acting in line with the US and Japan, Australia has nailed its strategic colours to the mast. The more direct language does have some diplomatic downside in the short term, but this is a price is worth paying. It will make the longer-term process of managing Asia’s international relations less complex.

Is Australia right to think that the continuation of an American-brokered regional order will provide the best future for itself and the region? This depends entirely on the extent to which China believes it can achieve its interests under these circumstances. Whatever path China chooses, Australia has very firmly tied itself to a vision of Asia’s future that is American-led.

In speaking plainly about this, Bishop reminds Australians that they need to begin to think hard about both the costs and benefits that such a commitment brings.

Join the conversation

11 Comments sorted by

  1. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    "...reminds Australians that they need to begin to think hard about both the costs and benefits that such a commitment brings."

    I feel there is a tendency to self-audit when in comes to this kind of public discussion in this democracy, around international relationships, especially where a country like China is ultra sensitive to criticism. It is very hard to 'think hard', or to have a long and engaging public discussion, where this is so, given that China is likely keen to view (& possible interfere with) such a public discussion. Nonetheless, we certainly need to create forums and ways to think strategically and, as Nick says to consider Australia's varying interests...

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  2. R. Ambrose Raven

    none

    Nations will naturally look to their own interests first; so should we. Whether we should take sides in any Sino-American conflict depends on whether a China-dominated strategic environment would have sufficient extra risks and challenges to justify supporting the US in a confrontation with China aimed at restraining its growing power and influence.

    War should be a last resort, not a plaything of idle warmongers. While “many fear China, seeing it as different, its world view as malign, and deeply…

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  3. Janeen Harris

    chef

    I believe that USA is not as relevant as they used to be. The Asian nations need to sort out their business without american interference. Australia, also, needs to stop dancing to the american drum. We live in the western pacific and the Asian area and we need to work with our neighbors not rely on a virtually bankrupt nation with megalomaniac tendencies that think that if there is a problem guns will fix it.

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    1. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to Janeen Harris

      In this case the United States is in step with our regional neighbours and China is the odd one out. All of the East and South China littoral states have been attempting to get China to negotiate on its long standing territorial waters claims. These claims would bring virtually all of these Seas within Chinese territory and wipe out all the Exclusive Economic Zones of the other states. The United States has given strong support to these nations for a negotiated settlement for some time. The littoral nations have welcomed this support. China has prefered unilateral action
      Indonesia has been a leader in these attempts to get a settlement but for reasons known to itself our governments seem to have ignored the process until now .

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  4. Craig Myatt

    Industrial Designer / R&D

    I find it surprising that the Chinese people tolerate what in our country would be a detestable regime. I know that we value democracy, or 'Rule by the People', and if the communist party, which is quite likely the driver of somewhat belligerent activities by the Chinese state was subject to such a rule (by the Chinese People) I think it would be far more likely China may conform to international norms of behaviour.

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    1. Tim Benham

      Student of Statistics

      In reply to Craig Myatt

      "I find it surprising that the Chinese people tolerate what in our country would be a detestable regime."

      When has China had a non-detestable regime? Devotion to brutal and arbitrary rulers is written into their cultural DNA.

      "if the communist party, which is quite likely the driver of somewhat belligerent activities by the Chinese state was subject to such a rule (by the Chinese People) I think it would be far more likely China may conform to international norms of behaviour. "

      Be careful what you wish for. Decades of nationalist indoctrination mean that the median Chinese Zhou would likely be more aggressive to China's neighbors than the CCP.

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  5. Tim Benham

    Student of Statistics

    Goodness, a Conversation author, a Latrobolite at that, eschewing a chance to bag the Abbott government!

    The author is correct: Australia would be mad to distance itself from the democracies in its region in an effort to curry favor with China. That would encourage Chinese expansionism and make war in East Asia more likely. By the standards China sets it has claims to territories of all its neighbors. Justifications that China has advanced for its territorial claims in the past include appearing on an ancient Chinese map, having Chinese sailors buried there, having been conquered by China at some point then lost, and appearing as a tributary in official imperial records (even the UK has that status).

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  6. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    When Julia Gillard agreed to the rotation of 2000 US marines through Darwin "strategic experts " panned her govt for lining up on the US side in the "pivot" toward ASia and the Pacific and away from the M East.. The "wisdom" seemed to be there was no need for Aus to be too up-front helpful with the "pivot".

    Looked at this way the US is not just defending existing strategic interests but engaging in an overt "containment" policy vs China. How this pans out given China's importance to the US currency…

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    1. ERIC KELLY

      retired

      In reply to wilma western

      I respectfully agree, Wilma. The US has no God-given right to attempt to 'contain' China and we should have no part of it. We should be 'best friends' with all our neighbours, including China. I'm at a loss to understand why some regard China as a threat when it has never threatened us and gives no indication that it wants to do anything but trade.

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  7. wilma western

    logged in via email @bigpond.com

    As for the disputed areas in the South China Sea involving some of our neighbours , there is no automatic "domino" effect following a resolution of the present argument. We've also heard about dominoes before - the word does not appear in the article but the logic is similar.

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    1. Ken Alderton

      PhD student, former CEO

      In reply to wilma western

      In this case the logic is not similar. For sometime Indonesia, Malaysia, Singapore. Brunei, Vietnam and the Philipppine have been engaged in bilateral and multilateral negotiations to sort out maritime boundaries in the South China Sea. But overaching all the negotiations has been the claim by China that the whole of the Sea is Chinese terrirtorial waters. There have been confrontations between China and Vietnam and China and the Philippines when the PRC has taken unilateral action to claim disputed Islands and shoals. The other nations and the US have been pressing for negotiation of the rival claims but so far China's negotiations have been limited to agreeing to a series of codes of conduct on selected issues.

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