year of the dragon
China is starting to flex its muscles in ways that have major implications for Australia and our region, writes Chris Rodley.
In November last year, an anonymous source uploaded 44 minutes of footage to video-sharing website YouTube. The leaked video – quickly taken down but later reposted by others – appeared to show a Chinese fishing trawler ramming into a Japanese coastguard vessel.
The incident in the video took place two months earlier, near the disputed Senkaku Islands, which are claimed by both China and Japan. Following the collision between the vessels, the Japanese coastguard took the Chinese boat into custody and detained its captain for questioning.
Japan’s response infuriated China, which demanded its skipper back amid anti-Japanese protests held across the country. Exports of Chinese minerals to Japan were reportedly halted while the invitations for 1000 Japanese young people to attend the Shanghai Expo were cancelled. After two weeks of pressure, Japan relented and released the Chinese captain.
The confrontation on the high seas is a prime example of the assertive new posture being taken by China in recent times, according to Professor Alan Dupont, who holds the Michael Hintze Chair of International Security and heads the University of Sydney’s Centre for International Security Studies (CISS). “The great dragon is starting to flex its muscles”, he says.
This development has major implications for local security and the world at large, and raises important strategic questions. Can China’s rise be managed in a way that avoids confrontation? And what role will Australia play in maintaining stability?
Professor Alan Dupont has worked on Australian defence and security issues for over 30 years as a strategist, policy analyst and diplomat. His current role as Chair of International Security was created in 2006 thanks to a major gift from the distinguished University of Sydney alumnus and London-based financier Michael Hintze (BSc ’75, BE (Elec) ’77).
Mr Hintze – who founded the hedge fund CQS Management and is one of Britain’s most prominent philanthropists – gave the multi-million dollar endowment in a bid to help find solutions to the security challenges facing an uncertain world.
Fast-forward to today, and Professor Dupont now oversees a large, multidisciplinary program of research spanning the full spectrum of security issues. As well as covering traditional topics like defence, he has gained a strong international profile for his work on non-traditional security issues relating to food, water and energy supplies as well as climate change.
The prospect of a clash between China and the United States is a pressing concern for Professor Dupont, who points to a number of episodes that have ratcheted up tensions between China and its neighbours. One episode followed the sinking of the South Korean navy ship Cheonan in March last year, which resulted in the deaths of 46 sailors. After a torpedo from a North Korean submarine was held to be responsible for the attack, the US planned to signal to the north that further aggression would not be tolerated by deploying an aircraft carrier into the area. But China objected vehemently to the ship being moved into the Yellow Sea, which lies between China and Korea, resulting in the US moving it to the Sea of Japan.
Another factor with the potential to increase tensions in the Western Pacific is China’s development of a more expansive ‘far sea’ defence strategy. Whereas it was once principally concerned with protecting its own waters and Taiwan, China now wants to be able to send ships not only into the South China Sea but further into the Pacific where the US has historically dominated, explains Professor Dupont. China is expected to have a formidable blue water navy, equipped with aircraft carriers, by 2030.
“This is a very important signal from the Chinese that the status quo no longer applies and they intend to assert their rights as a Pacific power as well as an Asian power,” he says. “This is tantamount to waving a red rag to the American bull. It will inevitably draw a US response.”
For its own part, the US is also becoming more assertive on the issue of China. “Up until this year they’ve been distracted by other changes – terrorism, Iraq and Afghanistan – and were relatively disengaged from Asia,” he says. But during President Barack Obama’s tour of Asia and at the 2010 Australia United States Ministerial gathering, the US signalled its intention to continue being a strong player in the region.
The growing potential for conflict between the two behemoths should be taken seriously by Australia, Professor Dupont emphasises. “Conflict between our major trading partner and major ally is the nightmare scenario for us.”
To manage the risk of conflict, he contends that we must build a new architecture for interaction between China and the US, including multilateral agreements for discussing contentious issues. More transparency is also needed, he adds, through Cold-War-style hotlines and the establishment of information protocols to share details of major naval deployments and military exercises.
In this process of risk management, Australia could play a significant role as a facilitator and bridge builder. As a friend and partner to both sides, our nation can encourage the two parties to minimise their differences and develop a more constructive relationship.“We probably have more leverage over China and the US than many think, and we also have excellent relations with South Korea and Japan.”
Professor Dupont also believes that Australian research could play an influential role in seeding ideas, including practical proposals for building trust and conflict prevention. He believes the establishment of the new China Studies Centre by the University of Sydney will contribute to this process (see Embracing the Chinese Century).
“Given our strategic focus on China as a rising power in Asia, the China Studies Centre is set to become a major research partner and a valuable resource which can only grow in importance as its expertise expands and deepens in the years ahead.”
Professor Dupont firmly believes that academics should focus on solutions as well as analysis – “this is our guiding philosophy at the University of Sydney; and no issue in international security is more important than China’s strategic future.”