Chapter 1: China’s Foreign Policy Aggressiveness

This chapter analyses the ‘aggressive turn’ in Chinese foreign policy during the 2010–2011 period, including examples and sometimes competing explanations. It also surveys international reactions to shifts in Chinese policy, including a backlash from other countries in Asia. While most of these seem keen to maintain quidistance between China and the United States, the sharp and public debate that China’s foreign policy provoked in Australia illustrates the policy dilemmas that an increasingly assertive China will inevitably generate.

Map and timeline of incidents between Chinese and Philippine vessels in the South China Sea in late 2011 and early 2012. Source: the nationalist and military affairs website (aka ‘Ironblood Forum’)

The most puzzling and perturbing aspect of Chinese foreign policy during the 2010- 2011 period was its growing aggressiveness. Over the previous decade, Beijing had made considerable diplomatic inroads in Asia. This was particularly evident in Southeast Asia, where some analysts went so far as to suggest that China was carving out a ‘sphere of influence’ through its kinder, more nuanced ‘new’ diplomatic approach. A flurry of books and articles emerged pointing to the growth in Chinese ‘soft power’. Yet within a relatively short period of time, all of this work appears to have been undone. Scholarly and journalistic accounts alike now rarely refer to Beijing’s ‘softer side’, pointing instead to the dangers of an ‘assertive China’ and to an emerging Cold War between Beijing and Washington.

Peaceful Rise and Peaceful Development (heping jueqi 和平崛起; heping fazhan 和平发展)
Zheng Bijian, the former Vice-president of the Central Party School, is often given the credit for popularizing the term ‘peaceful rise’. Speaking at the 2003 Bo’ao Forum for Asia, a forum for world leaders modelled on the Davos event and held in China’s Hainan province, Zheng said China should be: ‘integrated into economic globalization yet not overly reliant on foreign countries; achieve modernization not through military expansion like Western powers did, or through industrialization at the cost of damaging the environment.’ Zheng further noted that China should make a bigger contribution to the development of all humanity (paraphrasing a line from Mao Zedong).

The phrase ‘peaceful rise’ soon found favor with China’s leaders and became common in official speeches, until it was later modified into a more politically sensitive ‘peaceful development’ – ‘development’ apparently a more benevolent and less aggressive sounding word than ‘rise’.

A previous use of the word ‘peaceful’ to describe changing China – the ‘peaceful evolution’ strategy of John Foster Dulles – was firmly rejected by Mao Zedong in Hangzhou in 1959 and again by Deng Xiaoping following 4 June 1989. Both claimed that ‘peaceful evolution’ was part of a US-led global conspiracy to see communism replaced by a liberal, bicameral democracy that would inevitably turn China into a mere economic vassaldom of the West.

China’s Assertive Turn

The rise of any great power tends to generate apprehension and a heightened sense of instability in the international community. By the mid-1990s, such fears were already beginning to intensify with respect to China. This was reflected by the emergence of a cottage industry of writings discussing the ‘hegemon on the horizon’ and the prospect of a ‘coming conflict with China’. The so-called ‘China threat’ of the 1990s was multi-faceted, stemming from a variety of disparate concerns including Beijing’s human rights practices, its growing economic power and military might, and its exercise of the latter with respect to a number of security flashpoints such as disputed territories in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait.

On the surface at least, by the late 1990s China had gone a long way toward alleviating these concerns. Beijing introduced a ‘new security concept’ which sought to dispel the adversarial mentality that was a dominant feature of the Cold War paradigm that had held sway from the 1950s until the late 1980s. At the same time, the People’s Republic of China became increasingly engaged with multilateral organizations – particularly in the Asia-Pacific region – where previously it had harboured deep suspicions regarding the underlying motivations of such groupings. China’s diplomacy became increasingly nuanced and sophisticated, as demonstrated most visibly in the astuteness of its diplomatic appointments. In the early 2000s, China introduced foreign policy concepts formulated in terms of a ‘peaceful rise’ and ‘peaceful development’, reinforcing the sense that benign intentions underpinned China’s (re)emergence on the world stage.

Even as recently as 2008-2009, against the backdrop of Sino-US cooperation in the context of the emerging global financial crisis, optimism surrounding the rise of China allowed eminent American figures such as Zbigniew Brzezinski and Henry Kissinger to entertain the prospect of a ‘G2’ arrangement between the world’s two dominant powers – the US and China – to address the world’s most pressing security challenges. By late January 2010, however, this sense of optimism was rapidly evaporating. Reacting to the decision of the Obama administration to approve the sale of Black Hawk helicopters and PAC-3 missiles to Taiwan – a relatively inconsequential package in practical and historical terms – the Chinese suspended military exchanges with the US and threatened to impose sanctions against American companies involved in arms sales to Taiwan.

Beijing’s opposition to US arms sales to Taiwan was not unexpected (and neither surprising nor unprecedented). Chinese policy-makers have criticized previous announcements, such as in April 2001 when the new George W. Bush administration pledged that America would do ‘whatever it took’ to help Taiwan defend itself in the event of an attack from the mainland and the following day unveiled an arguably more provocative package. Yet, most analysts concur that Beijing’s January 2010 response was far more strident. In the following months, this rhetorical bellicosity extended to a range of other issues that have long dogged Sino-US relations. These include extensive hacking of the Internet company Google that allegedly originated in Chinese universities and the valuation of the Chinese currency, the Renminbi. Then, following US President Barack Obama’s meeting with the Dalai Lama in late February 2010, an editorial in the official People’s Daily asserted that: ‘a significant fact he can never change is that the Tibet issue is China’s internal affair and a powerful China has become a significant force in the world political structure.’ While China had long rebuked foreign leaders for meeting with the Dalai Lama, a man they regarded not as the head of a government-in-exile, but rather as a traitor and a dangerous ‘splittist’, the tenor of the official response to the February meeting contained a new warning.

The Fishing Vessel Incident, September 2010
The Nanjing Massacre Controversy, February 2012

Sino-Japanese relations have experienced periods of tension since imperial Japan’s colonization of large parts of China from the early twentieth-century and particularly as a result of what China calls the ‘Anti-Japanese War’ (7 July 1937 – 2 September 1945). After the fall of the Republican Chinese capital of Nanjing on 13 December 1937, some 300,000 people are said to have been killed in a frenzy of mass murder and rape carried out by Japanese troops: the ‘Nanjing Massacre’.

Both Japanese and Chinese scholars and officials have long accused the other side of falsifying history: China blames Japan for not apologizing sincerely enough for war atrocities, while some in Japan argue that Chinese governments have always exaggerated the death toll in Nanjing. The depiction of the war in Japanese highschool textbooks has been a focus of contention since the 1980s. Over the years, visits by senior Japanese politicians to the Yasukuni Shrine, a memorial to Japan’s war dead in Tokyo that houses the remains of soldiers and military figures whom China (and other countries) consider war criminals, have provoked Chinese sensitivities. Former Prime Minister Koizumi Junichiro’s decision to make an annual pilgrimage to the shrine during his tenure from 2001 to 2006 sparked outrage in the Chinese media, anti-Japanese demonstrations in Beijing and Shanghai, and inspired some of the earliest outpourings of online nationalist rage from what are now called China’s ‘angry youth’ (fen qing 愤青).

In September 2010, a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese Coast Guard vessel collided in disputed waters. The Japanese Coast Guard detained the trawler’s captain. A Japanese court ruled that he had broken maritime laws and was liable for damage to the Japanese patrol vessel. The Chinese government denounced the detention as illegal and suspended high-level diplomatic exchanges with Japan. Small-scale anti-Japanese protests broke out in various Chinese cities. After seventeen days in Japanese custody the captain was released. He returned to China on a chartered plane sent by Beijing and welcomed home in the media as a hero.

In February 2012, Kawamura Takashi, the mayor of Nagoya, made a comment in which he denied that the Nanjing Massacre had taken place. As a result, the Nanjing authorities suspended its city’s sister-city relations with Nagoya and there was another outburst of patriotic fury on the Chinese Internet and in the media.

China has become equally assertive in other key bilateral relationships, especially in the case of Japan. Indeed, perhaps the clearest example of the new tenor of Beijing’s foreign policy occurred in September 2010, when a Chinese fishing vessel collided with a Japanese Coast Guard vessel, leading Tokyo to detain the captain of the offending boat. The incident provoked anti-Japanese demonstrations in China – and vice versa – while Beijing responded by demanding the captain’s immediate release and allegedly blocking the export of rare earth metals (an abundance of which are mined in China) to Japan. Even following the captain’s release Beijing continued to demand compensation from Tokyo.

A Xinhua News Agency rendering of an imaginary future development on Yongxing Island 永兴岛 (also known as Woody Island and Đao Phú Lâm) in the South China Sea.
Source: Xinhua News Agency

China’s ‘assertive turn’ also manifested itself with respect to two of the region’s major flashpoints. On the Korean Peninsula, Beijing’s responses to North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean Navy corvette Cheonan in March 2010 and shelling of Yeonpyeong Island in November of the same year sharply departed from the spirit of Sino-American cooperation on security issues on the Korean Peninsula from 2003-2010. Following the sinking of the Cheonan, Beijing waited more than a month before offering condolences to Seoul. The delay generated widespread resentment amongst the South Korean public. Beijing also stymied efforts to resolve either the Cheonan or the Yeonpyeong Island crises through the agency of the United Nations and doggedly refused to criticize Pyongyang’s provocations. Chinese policymakers vociferously protested US carrier deployments to the region in the aftermath of the two crises, insisting that US-South Korea military exercises should not be held in the Yellow Sea. Washington and Seoul chose to ignore Beijing’s objections and the exercises went ahead, largely without incident.

China’s greater stridency was even more apparent with respect to the South China Sea. A key ‘tipping point’ came when, in March 2009, five Chinese vessels performed aggressive manoeuvres against a US surveillance ship – the USNS Impeccable – in the waters of the South China Sea. Washington had previously remained largely neutral with respect to South China Sea issues, but this incident piqued its interest and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton subsequently referred to the matter as being of US ‘national interest’ at a July 2010 gathering of the ASEAN Regional Forum (ARF). The Chinese Foreign Minister responded by conveying Beijing’s strong opposition to any efforts to ‘internationalise’ the issue. Subsequently, China’s approach to the South China Sea has become more assertive not only in word but also in deed. It has conducted an increasing number and range of military exercises – both naval and air – there and added to its maritime patrols in the region, something that has led to a rise in the number of clashes with Philippine and Vietnamese vessels.

Beijing’s claims with respect to the South China Sea has strained what had become increasingly friendly and close ties with many if not most governments in Southeast Asia. At the November 2011 meeting of the ASEAN-led East Asia Summit (EAS) in Indonesia, ASEAN leaders (with strong US backing) insisted that this issue be placed on the agenda over Beijing’s objections. Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao was forced to discuss the South China Sea and broader related questions of maritime security with seventeen other Asian leaders.

Western analysts tend to attribute the increasingly strident nature of Beijing’s diplomacy to the growth in Chinese economic and strategic weight and the sense of national hubris that this has instilled. For scholars such as the ‘realist’ John Mearsheimer, Chinese assertiveness is largely unsurprising: rising powers generally seek to gain power at the expense of others to further their ultimate goal of becoming the dominant actor in the international system. This explanation also notes that China’s growing foreign policy assertiveness since 2010 coincides with a perception that US power is in decline. This perception stems from America’s role in the global financial crisis as well as its protracted military commitments in Iraq and Afghanistan. These wars have proven costly, both financially and in terms of their impact upon international perceptions of the US. Some commentators suggest that under such circumstances any accommodatory gestures on the part of the US toward a rising China are interpreted by Beijing as an indication of incipient Western weakness. Concomitant perceptions of Japanese decline – the other historical great power of East Asia – further reinforce this sense of Chinese hubris.

A second line of reasoning – one more popular amongst Chinese analysts – explains Beijing’s newfound assertiveness as a direct response to external pressure and provocations. This line of argument posits that, rather than throwing its growing economic and strategic weight around, China is merely ‘pushing back’ against a succession of US actions such as the January 2010 US arms sales to Taiwan, Obama’s decision to meet with the Dalai Lama in February 2010, Washington’s overt expressions of support for Google and continuing American pressure on China to revalue its currency. Reflecting this school of thought, a February 2010 article carried in the government-run English-language China Daily observed that: ‘looking at each of Obama’s decisions at face value, his policies do not differ from those of his predecessors. But his timing – one blow quickly followed by another – has infuriated China’s leaders. The importance of saving face in Chinese culture is well known.’

A third school of thinking attributes China’s ‘assertive turn’ to the influence of domestic politics. There are several variations on this theme. One suggests that Chinese assertiveness is a temporary phenomenon that reflects the jostling for power among elites in the lead up to the 2012-2013 leadership transition. According to this view, Beijing’s behavior with regard to its foreign policy posture is cyclical in nature and will likely be modulated once the leadership transition has been completed. A second variation, however, characterizes China’s stance as reflecting a ‘secular shift’ in Beijing’s foreign policy approach. This shift is seen to stem from the increased number of bureaucratic actors in the Chinese foreign policy process – some of whom benefit directly from tensions in the US-China relationship and through the maintenance of close ties with pariah states such as Iran and North Korea. It also owes something to the proliferation of Internet and other media platforms by which Chinese citizens can criticize their leadership on nationalist grounds. China’s leaders are sensitive to the prospect described by Thomas Christensen wherein ‘nationalist pundits and bloggers in China find allies in high places’ to push mutually compatible agendas.

China and North Korea

In 1950, 500,000 Chinese troops marched into the Korean Peninsula as a ‘volunteer army’ fighting in support of the communist-led Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (DPRK) against the forces of the Republic of Korea and their American allies. Three years of fighting led to a stalemate and split the peninsula in two.

A decade after the cessation of overt hostilities (no peace accord has ever been signed), on 11 July 1961 China and the DPRK signed the Sino-North Korean Mutual Aid and Cooperation Friendship Treaty. The agreement announced mutual exchanges in trade and defence, among other areas; it has subsequently been renewed every twenty years. The current treaty is valid until 11 July 2021.

Trade with China has become essential for the North Korean economy, and China is known as one of the regime’s only substantial friends. Yet Beijing has limited influence over the North Korean leadership and there is increasing evidence that China is tiring of the North’s erratic behavior, particularly regarding their drive for nuclear weapons, not to mention their dynastic politics.

China’s growing assertiveness has major benefits for Washington. As Carl Thayer observes, for example, ‘recent Chinese military assertiveness in the Western Pacific and the South China Sea provides a stimulus for stepped up US-Vietnam military cooperation. Both countries share an interest in preventing China or any other country from dominating seaborne trade routes and enforcing territorial claims through coercion.’ It has given a similar boost to US cooperation with a number of other countries including Australia, India, Indonesia, Japan, the Philippines and South Korea, and the Obama administration has made a conscious effort to re-engage with this part of the world, particularly the Southeast Asian sub-region.

Yet it would be a mistake to jump to the conclusion that many of these Asian governments are abandoning altogether their relatively longstanding ‘hedging’ strategies of maintaining a degree of diplomatic and policy equidistance between the US and China and gravitating unequivocally into America’s orbit. In the case of India, although some American analysts advocate deepening strategic ties between Washington and New Delhi in a way that would be of similar geopolitical significance to the normalization of US-China relations during the 1970s, India continues to exhibit a strong preference for strategic independence in foreign relations. Reflecting this, a headline carried on the front page of the influential Hindustan Times in November 2011 read: ‘Assertive India Takes on China, US in Global Game’. The article discussed ongoing tensions between China and India over the latter’s oil and gas exploration efforts in the South China Sea, while highlighting a recent meeting between the Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and the Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao in which the two leaders pledged to develop ‘the best of relations’ and agreed that the ’21st century belongs to Asia’.

China and Myanmar

In the last decade, China has invested heavily in Myanmar and provided some political support for what has until recently long been a pariah regime. China has bought Burmese oil and is considering developing a deep-water port on its coast that could service the trans-shipment of goods to Yunnan and elsewhere in south-western China. Burma, as it then called itself was the first non-communist country to recognize the People’s Republic of China, establishing diplomatic ties with Beijing in 1950. Trade between the two countries is now worth over US$1.4 billion per annum.

During the 1950s and 60s, Burma remained neutral in regard to matters concerning China. During the Cultural Revolution period (1964-78) relations soured when Chinese communities were expelled from Burma.

Relations improved when Deng Xiaoping came to power and withdrew support for the Communist Party of Burma. Cross-border trading soon opened and military support from China poured in. In 1988, after the government brutally crushed pro-democracy protests, the international community turned away from Burma, giving Chinese influence free rein.

In September 2011, following popular protests by Burmese, work was halted on a Chinesefunded dam construction project at Myitsone. Since then, the release of the opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi from house arrest, elections, and thawing relations with Washington have contributed to changing the dynamics of Myanmar’s relationship with China.

Other Asian governments have also equivocated in the face of China’s foreign policy stance. South Korea is fond of metaphorically characterizing itself as a ‘shrimp between two whales’. It has made it clear that it does not want to be dragged into a conflict involving the US and China. While South Korea’s alliance with the US has strengthened since the election of President Lee Myung-bak in December 2007, Seoul has also initiated an annual South Korea-China-Japan trilateral summit which, significantly, excludes the US. South Korea also held its first ‘strategic defence dialogue’ with China in July 2011, during which Beijing and Seoul pledged to deepen their bilateral military exchanges and cooperation, not only in relation to Korean Peninsula security issues but also in the areas of peacekeeping, disaster relief, humanitarian aid and anti-piracy.

Tanks on Jianguomen Avenue on their way to join the military parade marking the sixtieth anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China, 1 October 2009.
Photo: Jeremy Goldkorn

Yet questions are being raised as to the sustainability of such equidistant postures over the medium-to-longer term, particularly during an era where China is becoming increasingly assertive, and in an atmosphere of heightened tensions between Beijing and Washington. As Robert Kaplan noted in an oft-cited article about growing tensions over the South China Sea: ‘Asia cannot continue to change economically without changing politically and strategically; a Chinese economic behemoth naturally will not be content with American military primacy in Asia.’ Kaplan was referring specifically to a heated Australian foreign policy debate regarding appropriate responses to the rise of an increasingly powerful and assertive China. This debate has attracted a somewhat disproportionate level of international attention given Australia’s relatively small size. As Brad Glosserman has observed, the Australian debate: ‘deserve[s] more attention for this discussion is or will be taking place in capitals throughout the region, although there is little chance it will be as public or as sharp. Australia is the canary in the Asian security coal mine.’

Australia’s China Debate: a warning to the world?

Australia itself has been a focus of China’s foreign policy assertiveness. Australia’s most intense experience of this occurred in 2009 – a year that then-Australian Ambassador to China Geoff Raby characterized as the ‘annus horribilis of Sino-Australian relations’. Beijing’s response to the Australian Defence White Paper of May 2009, for instance, was reportedly one of ‘fury’: a senior Australian defence official and the lead author of the document, Mike Pezzullo, was reportedly told by Chinese officials to water down its references to China or ‘suffer the consequences’. Two months later, China lambasted the Australian government for ignoring pressure from Beijing and granting a visa to the Uyghur human rights advocate Rebiya Kadeer so that she could attend the Melbourne International Film Festival. More recently, responding to Obama’s November 2011 announcement while on a visit to Australia that up to 2,500 US marines would be deployed to Darwin, for instance, an article carried in the semi-official Global Times indicated that governments lining up alongside the US would suffer economic reprisals. Reports also appeared in the Australian media suggesting that Beijing had ‘demanded’ answers to its concerns related to the planned deployment of marines and associated military equipment in Darwin.

Australia and China

The interests of great powers will be most closely engaged in Asia and the Pacific. In the absence of a conscious effort on the part of all, ours could become a more strategically contested region. We can assert that both Australia and China will maintain an ongoing interest in stability, and that political cooperation will serve the needs of both countries. Unlike other aspects of the relationship, political relations and international cooperation are areas that are most clearly dominated by the two governments. In the international political arena the extent and nature of cooperation between Australia and China will be determined on a political level. Overall, both governments are highly likely to continue to seek to develop a deeper, sustainable and increasingly mature relationship. But on occasion different views and different interests will come into sharp contrast.

—from Australia and China: A Report on the Australia-China Bilateral Relationship, co-written by the Australian Centre on China in the World and The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations, Canberra: CIW, ANU, 2012, p.46.

Australia’s own ‘China debate’ was sparked in September 2010 by the publication of Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing, a Quarterly Essay written by the Australian academic and former senior defence official Hugh White, discussing how Australia should respond – diplomatically and strategically – to the rise of China. White began the essay with the observation that the US-led security order that Australia had enjoyed for the better part of four decades was challenged by China’s rise. He argued that any new order that replaces it will be a far more contested and potentially far less peaceful one. China will seek increased influence commensurate with its growing power, an outcome that the US will seek to prevent because it would involve treating China as an equal. White made the case that most Australians were oblivious to this looming challenge, mistakenly believing that Canberra can continue to enjoy the luxury of not having to choose between its leading trading partner (China) and its leading strategic ally (the US). White advocates that Australian policy-makers should abandon this sense of complacency and initiate a diplomatic campaign designed to persuade Beijing and Washington to construct a great power ‘Concert of Asia’ that would also include India and Japan and that would be modelled upon the Concert of Europe of the nineteenth century.

White’s essay provoked a visceral reaction from some quarters. The Australian newspaper’s foreign policy editor Greg Sheridan described it as the ‘stupidest strategic document ever prepared in Australian history.’ Much of the criticism directed at White’s important contribution was not quite so polemical, however, and can be divided into four basic arguments:

  • that White had overestimated the sustainability of China’s growing power through underestimating the significant raft of domestic challenges which Beijing must deal with at the same time;
  • that White had erroneously underestimated the durability of US primacy in the Asia-Pacific and that his predictions of American decline were exaggerated;
  • that White had overlooked the role that other regional powers – namely India, Japan, South Korea and Vietnam – can play in countering China’s growing power and, hence, in constituting regional order; and, finally,
  • that White’s policy prescriptions were unduly Euro-centric in nature and thus of dubious application to the highly variegated and diverse Asian region.

Australia’s ‘China debate’ was given further impetus in early 2011 when Ross Babbage of the Kokoda Foundation launched his confrontational report Australia’s Strategic Edge in 2030. Babbage started from the premise that Canberra ought to respond to the challenge of China’s rise by adopting a strategy focused on the direct defence of Australia. Such a strategy would mimic elements of China’s ‘asymmetric warfare’ approach by developing the capacity to offset and deter China’s capacity to operate in Australia’s air and maritime approaches. Babbage argued that Australia could achieve such an outcome by acquiring capabilities – including nuclear-powered submarines, arsenal ships armed with cruise missiles, and special forces designed for long range missions – that would provide Canberra with the capacity to metaphorically ‘rip an arm off’ China in the case of conflict. Babbage ultimately conceded that conflict between the US and China is not inevitable, however, and for this reason he also advocated that Canberra should continue to engage strongly and positively with China and its neighbours.

China and India

China and India are the two most populous and rapidly developing nations on the planet. They share a strong relationship, but there is mutual distrust and many points of contention.

Border disputes that were the cause of a war in 1962 as well as border skirmishes in 1967 and 1987 remain unresolved. The possibility of further conflict still exists since China lays claim to areas of Indian territory, although increased trade has strengthened relations. China’s strong ties with and support of India’s rival, Pakistan, are another sore point.

India has not recognized China’s status as a market economy. China’s rise has led to talk of a ‘China threat’ from some Indian officials and widespread and negative discussion of China in the Indian media and Internet. Indian nationalist sentiment is strong, and news stories are often sensationalized to cast China in an unfavourable light. India, by contrast, rarely inspires lively discussion on the Chinese Internet or in the media, although prejudices regarding India are common.

Power Shift

As its power approaches America’s, we can be sure that Beijing will not settle for less than a place among equals in a collective leadership for Asia. It would rather risk greater disorder than accept that it has no more influence than it was accorded in 1972. The question, then, is whether the other great powers are prepared to concede that much. In particular, will America be prepared to sit down with China as an equal?

—from Hugh White, Power Shift: Australia’s Future between Washington and Beijing, Quarterly Essay 39, 2010, p.24.

As with White, Babbage’s paper has been subjected to four different lines of criticism:

  • that it is unduly provocative and risky. It could even prompt a nuclear- armed China to take pre-emptive action against Australia;
  • that Babbage severely overestimates the strength of a Chinese military that possesses equipment vastly inferior to that of the US, and that has yet to be tested in modern conflict. It will likely remain unable to project its power over vast distances for some time yet;
  • that Babbage grossly overestimates the damage that Australia – a socalled ‘middle power’ at best – could inflict upon a great power such as China; and, finally,
  • that Babbage overestimates the financial capacity of Canberra to fund his preferred policy prescriptions, not least in an environment where an ageing population and degrading infrastructure will likely place increasing strains upon the Australian defence budget.

Three features of Australia’s ongoing ‘China debate’ seem particularly worth mentioning in terms of their broader international relevance. The first is the extent to which Australian perceptions of China’s rise have entered the public consciousness and the degree to which they have shifted during the 2010-2011 period. Prior to the release of White’s essay, the issues were being debated but largely in academic and government circles. That has now changed and China’s rise is being discussed more broadly. Segments of the Australian population are gradually developing a more nuanced understanding of its ramifications.

A propaganda billboard in Baoji city, Shaanxi province. The slogan reads: ‘The people build the people’s air defences; the people’s air defences are for the people’.
Photo: Geremie R. Barmé

Recent polling suggests that while continuing to offer strong support for the American alliance a growing number of Australians realize that this strategic relationship could compromise their country’s all important trading relationship with China. A substantial seventy-four percent of the Australian public feels that Australia should not become involved on the side of America in any future conflict over Taiwan. Contrary to earlier characterizations of the region’s future as a Pax Americana and an ‘Asia- Pacific Century’, Australian politicians have begun employing such alternative descriptors as a Pax Pacifica and the ‘Asian Century’. Consistent with this, subjects normally regarded as articles of faith in Australian foreign policy – such as the US alliance and Australia’s middle power status – are now also openly discussed and debated, often provoking quite passionate reactions. As the former Australian Foreign Minister Gareth Evans has observed, these are ‘uncomfortable’ topics for Australians to talk about. That such a perceptual shift could occur relatively swiftly in a ‘hard case’ such as Australia – a country steadfastly wedded over a long period of time to its alliance with the United States – suggests the likelihood of similar deviations occurring elsewhere as the practical ramifications of China’s rise come into sharper relief.

The South China Sea

The South China Sea channels a third of the world’s shipping and is rich with islands, fisheries, oil and gas deposits. It is also one the most disputed areas in Southeast Asia and has the most potential for armed conflict.

China, Taiwan, Vietnam, the Philippines, Indonesia, Malaysia and Brunei have made overlapping territorial claims to these waters, as well as to some of the islands and rocky outcrops in them such as the Paracels and the Spratly Islands. Small naval confrontations and skirmishes between official vessels and fishing boats of various nations are common.

In late 2011 and early 2012, US President Obama was widely interpreted to have made an ‘Asian pivot’, referring to his government’s renewed emphasis on the Asia Pacific and military and diplomatic ties with Vietnam and other south-east Asian countries.

Second, the debate has attracted considerable attention beyond Australia’s shores, particularly in China and the US. As noted previously, prominent American analysts such as Kaplan and Glosserman, for instance, have each made explicit mention of White’s Quarterly Essay in their work. I was also particularly struck when visiting Beijing in November 2010 by the degree of familiarity exhibited by Chinese scholars and policy analysts – and even students – with the arguments advanced in White’s ‘Power Shift’ thesis. Less comforting was the fact that many of these scholars and analysts appeared to rely heavily on the Australian media and blog sites such as The Interpreter, produced by the Sydney-based Lowy Institute for International Policy, as the primary and in many cases the only sources of information regarding Australian perspectives on China’s rise. One certainly does wonder and worry about how Beijing interprets it when an individual as prominent as Babbage – who served as one of three experts on the external review panel for Australia’s 2009 Defence White Paper – is quoted in these outlets proposing that Australia should develop ‘the capability to stir serious internal disruptions and even revolts in the event that the Chinese leadership threatened Australia’s vital interests.’

Finally, the lack of engagement thus far by Chinese Studies and other regional specialists in Australia’s ‘China debate’ has been one of its most disappointing and worrying features. The one notable exception here is an excellent paper written by Scott Dewar, an advisor to former Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who wrote under the auspices of the Australian Centre on China in the World (CIW) while on a six-month secondment at The Australian National University. Dewar concluded his paper by saying:

Since the end of the Cold War, Australians have had little or no reason to consider great power politics. America has been pre-eminent. Systemic financial instability and terrorism have been a focus of international cooperation. The situation has now changed. The recent threats to our national wellbeing have not evaporated, but they are now part of a complex strategic landscape that includes great power politics focused on our region.

Hugh White is right to ask how we will deal with this new situation. The great power politics that will take place in our region over the next two decades will be a crucial determinant of our future. We need to engage with the great powers to ensure that our interests are registered. But it is not in our interest to be the proposers of a radical shift in the geopolitics of our region. In the short term it would not work; in the long term it could well backfire.

What we need is a nuanced and incremental approach to our foreign policy that adapts our settings to changing circumstances and does not overly constrain our ability to respond to future events. To support the development of such a policy approach, a deep debate about the future of our region is essential. White’s essay has made a provocative contribution to start that process. This paper, too, aims to join that discussion.

US Marines in Darwin

During his first visit to Australia in November 2011, US President Barack Obama and his Australian counterpart Prime Minister Julia Gillard formally announced an enhancement of USAustralia defence cooperation. The centrepiece would be the deployment on a rotational basis of US marines to the northern Australian city of Darwin. There would also be increased US Air Force access to bases in northern Australia and US Navy access to a Royal Australian Navy base (HMAS Stirling) in Perth, Western Australia. The deployment of US marines to Darwin commenced in April 2012, with the arrival of approximately 200 US personnel. It is envisaged that this figure will grow to 2,500 within the next five to six years. During their six-month rotation, US marines will spend two to three months based in Darwin and the remainder in cooperative engagement with US security partners in the Asia-Pacific region.

In May 2012, Chinese officials expressed their displeasure with what they categorized as a ‘Cold War era’ strategic move by the US and Australia to Bob Carr, the Australian Foreign Minister, during his first official visit to the Chinese capital.

During a visit to Beijing by the Australian Defence Minister, Stephen Smith, in early June 2012, the Chinese authorities questioned whether Australia was trying to have a ‘a foot on two boats’ (jiao ta liang tiao chuan 脚踏两条船) when it came to its relations with China and the US.

Beyond Dewar’s important contribution, however, most if not all of Australia’s leading China specialists are working either in government or at universities, and it seems fair to conclude that neither setting produces the strongest of professional incentives to engage in public debate. Hence, while the absence of area studies specialists (that is those with an expertise in the study of Asia and the Pacific) from Australia’s China debate is understandable, it is also unfortunate and potentially somewhat risky. For if the failure of International Relations scholars and strategic analysts to predict the ending of the Cold War taught us anything, it is of the importance of being able to open up the ‘black box’ of foreign policy-making processes – as Graham Allison famously put it in his classic study of the Cuban Missile crisis – to understand the domestic drivers that invariably condition these processes. Fine as the strategic analysts currently engaged in Australia’s China debate unquestionably are, they each – unlike Chinese Studies specialists – have a tendency to still largely treat China as a unitary actor. They thus tend to underestimate – whether consciously or inadvertently – the centrally important influence of domestic politics, social change and cultural perceptions in framing and shaping Chinese foreign policy. Looking forward to 2013, finding ways to better encourage China scholars everywhere to engage in the debate – bringing to it much-needed texture and nuance – is a major and absolutely critical challenge. Outside the US, this is not something which is thus far occurring as systematically as it could and should be, though the present volume as well as the CIW-CICIR (Australian Centre on China in the World and The China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations) Australia and China, A Joint Report on the Bilateral Relationship, launched in Beijing in February 2012, are both contributions along these lines.


By 2012, there were some early signs of moderation in China’s foreign policy approach. Beijing’s response to the Obama administration’s September 2011 announcement that the US would upgrade Taiwan’s fleet of F-16 A/B fighters was relatively muted, for example. Chinese and American policy- makers also reportedly consulted closely in their responses to the death of North Korean leader Kim Jong-Il in December 2011, which had the potential to destabilize the Korean Peninsula. Modest diplomatic inroads were also made regarding the South China Sea, including the agreement in July 2011 between China and ASEAN on a set of guidelines for implementing the 2002 Declaration of Conduct of Parties in the South China Sea and a separate October 2011 agreement between China and Vietnam on principles for settling maritime disputes.

Front page of The Global Times, 13 April 2012, with a headline reading ‘Philippine warship backs down from South Sea conflict’.
Source: Global Times

An optimistic analysis of these developments suggests that Chinese policy-makers, having recognized the negative impact of the strident rhetoric of recent years, and the damage that Beijing’s assertive turn has done to China’s international image, have been seeking to repair that damage. An alternative interpretation posits that Chinese foreign policy is more conducive to positive change when confronted with strength and resolve, rather than with weakness, and that the shifts now occurring in Beijing’s foreign policy posture are a product of the resolute and unified approach of the international community in the face of China’s growing assertiveness. A third, more cautious interpretation suggests that it is far too early to say what these apparent shifts in Chinese foreign policy portend and that they can only be viewed as tactical at best. According to this latter perspective, firm conclusions cannot be drawn on the future trajectory of Chinese foreign policy until after the 2012-2013 leadership transition.

The 2010 to mid 2012 period has been an intriguing one so far as Chinese foreign policy is concerned. The dramatic manner in which Beijing has essentially undone the impressive diplomatic gains it had made in Asia over the space of a decade is most puzzling. Repairing that damage and regaining lost ground through winning back the trust of regional governments is likely to take a considerable amount of time. If such moderation does not ultimately eventuate, however, the Australian policy debate which has played out during the 2010-2012 period offers useful and important insights into the tensions and dilemmas that an increasingly assertive China is likely to pose for policy-makers everywhere.