Chinese strategic aims can be so blindingly obvious it would require wilful ignorance not to acknowledge them. Such is the case of China’s ambitions to turn the South China Sea into a Chinese lake.
Look at any Chinese map. Not only will it show Taiwan as part of China, it will also show the South China Sea ringed in red, extending south from the Chinese mainland almost to the coast of Brunei. This is not an ambit claim. China’s Communist rulers have stated that this is Chinese territory, and its strategic importance ranks with Tibet and Taiwan.
Other nations have claims in the South China Sea, including Vietnam, Malaysia, the Philippines, Indonesia and Taiwan. Just as the Balkans in the 19th century was known as the cockpit of Europe, the South China Sea will become a contested arena that will be the decisive test of China’s “peaceful rise”.
Beijing would object violently to this assertion. They would say, “It has nothing to do with our peaceful rise; it is our territory.”
Others would disagree, including most of the members of the Association of South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). United States Secretary of State Hillary Clinton has recently declared that maintaining freedom of the seas through the South China Sea is a national interest of the United States, the first time the US has made such a forceful statement on this issue.
Australia cannot help but be involved. Vital sea lines of communication pass through the South China Sea, and China would be in a position to choke the world’s trade. Virtually all the oil going to Asia from the Middle East passes through these waters. China could starve Japan into submission within weeks if it cut off its supplies of Middle East crude.
The main obstacle to China’s ambitions is the United States. China’s actions are throwing South East Asia and India into America’s embrace.
‘The nations of Southeast Asia are building up their militaries, buying submarines and jet fighters at a record pace and edging closer strategically to the United States as a hedge against China’s rise and its claim to all of the South China Sea,” the Washington Post reported (August 9, 2010).
The massive aircraft-carrier, the USS George Washington, is home-ported in Japan. It has more advanced aircraft than most air forces and acts as an instrument of US political and military policy in the Asian region.
Recently, it has taken part in exercises in conjunction with South Korean forces, aimed at sending a message to North Korea that the US is not to be trifled with, following North Korea’s sinking of a South Korean warship. The George Washington also hosted Vietnamese VIPs when it visited Da Nang, which just happens to be the site of a former major US base during the Vietnam War.
China can’t hope to match US sea power for decades. Currently, China aims to have three aircraft-carrier battle-groups in service, which due to necessary rotations means that at any one time it would have one carrier group at sea. Even if it achieved this, China would be hopelessly outmatched by the US.
Maintaining the hegemony of the US and its allies over the South China Sea does not depend on technology or even will – it depends on finance. The effects of the crippling financial burdens generated by Washington’s response to the global financial crisis are already showing up in defence spending. The US announced in August that US$100 billion would be cut from its defence budget over the next five years.
“I think a US more willing to be engaged in the Asia-Pacific region, is likely to welcome the steady and even increased defence spending from allies and friends,” Satu Limaye, director of the Washington-based East-West Center, told the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (Australian Financial Review, August 20, 2010.) Or, to put it in other words – spend more money on defence.
The US wants to know more about “Australia’s capacity to do more in the region”, Dr Limaye added.
The unavoidable fact is that the US has a massive national debt and its economy could be limping along for years to come. As discussed in News Weekly, unless the US can get its fiscal house in order, any American government will oversee a period of decline.
Already, China has recently overtaken Japan to become the world’s second-biggest economy. On current trends, within 15 years China’s economy will be larger than America’s. Beijing has the intention and the resources to support its policy of substantially increasing its arms spending.
Australia’s vital interests in the Asian region require us to significantly boost our defence forces.
In a political and geostrategic sense, Beijing has committed a major blunder in making an inescapable commitment to dominate the South China Sea. It has effectively united Japan, South Korea, Southeast Asia and India in opposition to its policies.
Nothing concentrates the mind more than the threat of national starvation.