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.
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.