Key members of the Trump administration are shaping to confront China in the South China Sea.
Last month Donald Trump tweeted: “Did China ask us if it was OK … to build a massive military complex in the middle of the South China Sea? I don’t think so!”
Trump is clearly irritated by Beijing’s behaviour, and senior members of Trump’s team are also expressing deep concerns.
China now asserts sovereignty over some 80 percent of the South China Sea, one of the world’s most strategically important waterways. This stretch of water to Australia’s north carries more than half of the world’s merchant tonnage and serves as an important transit route for the militaries of the US and many of its allies and friends. China now operates by far the largest military, coastguard and maritime militia presence in this region.
During the past five years Beijing has dredged up several new islands in the South China Sea and built significant military-related facilities on 12 islands.
Three of these new islands, towards the middle of the South China Sea, now possess 10,000-foot (about 3000 metres) airfields capable of handling Boeing 747s. Hardened revetments to house 24 fighter-bomber aircraft are nearing completion on each of these islands, together with extensive maintenance and storage facilities for fuel and other supplies. Aircraft operating from these new facilities could range as far as the Andaman Sea, northern Australia and Guam.
Port facilities have also been built, capable of refuelling and replenishing significant numbers of naval, coastguard and maritime militia vessels.
Last July any doubts that China’s actions were serious breaches of international law were removed when the UN’s Law of the Sea Permanent Court of Arbitration concluded unanimously that there was no legal basis for China’s claim of “historic rights” to these sea areas and artificial islands.
In efforts to hose down Western reactions, Beijing has been conducting active political warfare campaigns in Australia and other allied countries for some years.
These Chinese operations have included: the acquisition of local media enterprises as well as the courting of key decision-makers, journalists and academics through fully paid visits to China; the contribution of substantial funds to political parties; the establishment of pro-Beijing associations of many types, including Confucius Institutes in universities; the regular insertion of Chinese-produced supplements in metropolitan newspapers; and the organisation of periodic “patriotic” demonstrations, concerts and other events by Chinese embassies, consulates and other pro-Beijing entities.
Cyber and intelligence operations have been used to reinforce key messages, recruit Chinese intelligence agents and “agents of influence”, and to intimidate, coerce and deter allied counter-actions.
When confronted by China’s territorial expansion in the South China Sea, allied leaders have responded by repeating a standard mantra: we have a strong interest in free sea and air passage, we have no national claims to territories in the area and we call on all parties to exercise restraint and resolve competing claims in accordance with international law.
In token support of these interests, allied ships and aircraft have periodically transited the region. This response has failed to deter Beijing’s territorial expansion and Trump is likely to consider more robust options.
Exactly how the new administration will move to counter China remains unclear. Initially, some tough talking and a display of allied military might are likely.
There is, however, scope for a more innovative strategy. Just because Beijing has focused its most assertive actions in the South China and East China seas in recent years using various forms of military, coastguard, maritime militia and political warfare assets, it does not mean the US and its allies should counter in like manner and in the same theatre. To the contrary, the best way to convince the leadership in Beijing to moderate its behaviour will probably be to apply pressure against the Chinese leadership’s weaknesses, wherever they are apparent.
Candidate measures might include actions to challenge Beijing’s interests in other theatres. Steps could be taken to publicise the endemic corruption in the Chinese Communist Party and Beijing’s appalling track record of abusing human rights. Measures might be considered to complicate Chinese financial operations and economic performance. The US and its allies could also place new limits on the international movements of Chinese citizens.
The core aims would be to underline to the leadership in Beijing the costs of aberrant international behaviour and encourage greater caution.
Some Australians would prefer the allies to turn a blind eye to Beijing’s expansionism, but the implications of sitting pat would be profound.
It would effectively cede sovereignty over almost all of the South China Sea to China. It would also mean acquiescing to Beijing’s serious breaches of international law.
Even more troubling, doing nothing would risk emboldening China to launch more serious, acquisitive operations in coming years.
Continued allied timidity would also trigger a recalibration of security approaches by almost all allied and friendly states in the Western Pacific and many beyond.
Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte’s shifting security allegiance would likely be just the start of a broader regional shift into Beijing’s orbit.
The incoming Trump administration looks likely to confront Beijing’s expansionism. It will expect Australia to be an innovative and active contributor.
Ross Babbage is a former senior Defence official and CEO of Strategic Forum. This article summarises some points from his recent report: Countering China’s Adventurism in the South China Sea.