2016 White Paper: China’s choice?

The 2016 White Paper: China’s choice?

Article by Zac Rogers, PhD Candidate Flinders University

In his testimony before Congress in February, commander of U.S. Pacific Command Adm. Harry Harris stated “I believe China seeks hegemony in East Asia.” Let’s just pause on that sentence for a moment. Quick textbook definition of a hegemon: Not only the strongest player in the game, but also able to control the rules of the game. The bottom line of power in international relations is still the state’s capacity to apply force. Military power by no means exhausts the state’s capacity to influence events, but it remains the indispensable backstop. And East Asia is a predominantly maritime domain. So hegemony in East Asia means gaining and maintaining physical command of the seas. To do that, militaries seek what’s termed ‘sea-control’: The ability to not only deny the maritime space to an adversary, but also to be able to use that space safely itself. Think of a bubble of security that includes the air, the sub-surface, and the surface with a diameter of several hundred kilometres. As you might imagine, sea-control is almost never black and white, and in peacetime, knowing who has it is a matter of calculating not only capacity, but also intent.

Harris’ statement carries particular significance in light of a remarkably consistent post-war American strategy. US strategy is based on the promotion of an open and flourishing global economy, because the American lead in high-end manufacturing and innovation requires markets. Protecting that system requires a Navy with global reach, augmented by air and ground forces. American’s have always worried about the potential for one of Eurasia’s giants to ascend to the level of regional hegemon, and mess with this strategy. Commanding control via the sea of Eurasia’s eastern, south-western and western flanks has been post-war US strategy 101. Think of the San Francisco treaties with Japan, the US presence in the Persian Gulf, and NATO respectively. Geography, via the Arctic, the Himalayas, and the jungles of Southeast Asia, do the rest. Such fears of a rising Eurasian giant also have a political basis. A centralised command economy, backed by a police state, has certain inherent advantages over an open democracy, or so the argument goes. So for the US, to compete as one among these peers would not suffice. Only a healthy margin of overmatch would do.

Harris’ unequivocal statement about Chinese intentions in East Asia is significant, not only because of his seniority, but also because it has been the subject of increasing debate over the last seven or eight years. Just what are Beijing’s intentions? What does China really want? For Australia, too, no question matters more. We made a statement of our own with the release of the 2016 Defence White Paper. Back in 2014, General David Hurley described Australia’s strategic circumstances as that of an organism whose vital organs exist outside its body. It is an apt analogy. Hurley was referring to Australia’s massive economic dependence on overseas trade, and the vulnerability not only of the sea lines of communication that carry that trade, but of the trade itself. The ADF has long courted the capacity to protect these vital organs, and the new White Paper is another significant step in this direction. In 12 new subs, the AWDs, LHDs, and JSFs, it invests in the instruments with which the ADF can influence the contest for sea-control, and its ability to conduct amphibious warfare. 15 P-8 Poseidons and 7 Tritons by late 2020s are a step-up in the ADF’s capacity to reconnoitre the Indo-Pacific expanses as well.

Of course, as Hugh White has argued, this emerging force posture is too small to compete on its own in the widening anti-access environs to Australia’s northwest. They make little sense as an investment in expeditionary capabilities unless those capabilities are seen as adjunct to the wider sea-control capacities of US forces. Australia is essentially betting that should we be required to operate in non-permissive environments above a certain level, help would be readily at hand. Here’s the thing: The US sees it in largely the same way. Strategic uncertainty of China’s intentions has seen the Indo-Pacific region go from a strategic backwater to top-centre from the US perspective. The White Paper’s assertion that ‘a strong and deep alliance is at the core of Australia’s security’ should not be taken as a platitude. Australia has cast itself not only as willing, but as an increasingly capable strategic partner of the United States, able to connect its interests in a ‘rules-based global order’ with the means to pursue them in a way that some in Washington may envy.

‘Hedging’ was never what Australia was doing. Economic interests are subordinate to security interests, period. States can and do hedge in economic affairs because they can. Australia joining the AIIB is a case in point. It’s just that states will defer any outright declaration of such facts, hoping to have their cake and eat it too, for as long as possible.  China’s recent moves in the South China Sea are only an embellishment on what has long concerned Australia’s security community. And the debate about Beijing’s intentions has been overtaken by events. Adm. Harris just said it more plainly than most. With the 2016 White Paper, ‘The China Choice’ has been firmly re-cast by the Australian government as China’s choice.

Disclaimer:  this is the view of the author and Flinders University does not take responsibility for the accuracy or completeness of the material and does not accept responsibility for, or endorse the contact or condition of, any linked website. 

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