Is Asia going to war? That’s the question LaTrobe University put to a panel of China experts on Wednesday. Their answer was unanimous. And disturbing.
Chairman Xi Jinping’s ambitions are obvious.
He’s using all means short of war to assert territorial control over regions as diverse as the Himalayas, the South and East China Seas, and Taiwan.
He’s pushing limits. He’s breaching norms. He’s taking risks.
Now neighbouring nations are starting to push back.
Japan and India have begun to co-ordinate their military activities. The Philippines has reversed its decision to end its alliance with the United States. Vietnam has welcomed US Navy visits to its ports.
Now European countries are reviving long-neglected friendships by sending warships on extended tours through the region.
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“So is war likely? Where is it likely? And who will it involve, and what can be done to mitigate the situation?” Matt Smith of La Trobe Asia asked the panel.
“I don’t think it’s this year. But I think definitely within the next six to seven years,” replied Dr Oriana Skylar Mastro of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, Stanford University.
Guy Boekenstein, Northern Australia Fellow of the Asia Society, said an armed clash was likely: “I don’t think we’re likely to see a full-scale kind of traditional war within the next five to 10 years. But I think (there) is the potential for a strategic miscalculation”.
“We’re not on the precipice of great-power conflict in the way that we were in 1914. But we’re a lot closer to that than we were,” concluded Professor Nick Bisley, Dean of the School of Humanities and Social Sciences, La Trobe University.
Clear and present danger
China’s advancing on all fronts. Territorially. Economically. Diplomatically.
But it has priorities.
“A lot of people have argued that the Chinese prefer grey zone, coercion, political warfare, all that type of stuff. And I completely agree – except with Taiwan” said Dr Mastro. “You’re not going to get full political control of Taiwan through those methods”.
And Chairman Xi has pinned his legacy to the island’s fate.
“Xi Jinping has been clear. He wants this issue resolved. The only way to resolve it is to get Chinese boots on the ground, in Taiwan.”
Professor Bisley agrees.
“Xi Jinping has made a very public and very clear signal that says ‘Taiwan is not a problem that will be passed down to the next generation’. Now, of course, he doesn’t have term limits. He’ll be there for a long while. We don’t know what the exact time frame is. But there does seem to be one.”
Taiwan has become the target of China’s increasingly intense military posturing. Large flights of combat aircraft have been probing its airspace. Warships have been circling its territory.
Such a concentration of hardware is dangerous, says Mr Boekenstein.
“There’s been long, long pent strategic competition in the region now for quite a while,” he said. “We’re suddenly seeing an increase in military activity. And, you know, I think that can only lead to something. At some point, something will give somewhere – whether on purpose or by accident.”
Will to fight
“The United States 100 per cent is going to fight this war,” Dr Mastro said. “in my view, the United States is absolutely going to respond.”
She was responding to regional fears that Washington’s increasingly insular attitudes would see it abandon its long-held alliances and agreements.
“One of the main reasons China might actually go for this (Taiwan) landing is because they think that they could win,” she said. “And not just that they could win if the United States does not intervene, that is obviously guaranteed, but that they could win even if the United States intervenes.”
That’s not because China is stronger than the US. It’s because it’s closer to Taiwan.
“It’s possible that China can move before the United States even has the time to respond.
“My big question is, what does it mean for the region if the United States tries and fails? I think that’s even worse.”
“America’s absolutely going to back Taiwan for a whole range of reasons,” agreed Professor Bisley, “Not the least of which is if America doesn’t back Taiwan, which other of its allies and partners around the world isn’t it going to back? It’d be a serious credibility issue.”
Mr Boekenstein says Australia would almost certainly be part of any coalition responding to China’s aggression.
“If we look realistically at the Australian Defence Force and our ability to project power or defend Australia independently, you know, we shouldn’t be kidding ourselves,” he said. “We’ve got a very small but very capable military. But alliances and partnerships will always fundamentally underpin our defence and security.”
Dodging a bullet
War isn’t inevitable, even if it is increasingly likely. And the panel agreed things could be done to reduce the odds.
All involve improving our understanding of and engagement with Asia.
“(Australia) should be a bit more vocal and work collaboratively with our Japanese, Korean, Vietnamese and Philippine partners and allies and say, ‘hey, these are these things that are in our shared interest that we can do together,” Professor Bisley said. “Middle-power coalitions can work out standards and rules, and a whole range of different procedures, which are the lubricant that makes the complex machinery of the regional order work.”
The same, he says, applies to China.
“We tend to focus on the few – a very significant but small number – things where interests clash. But not the other very large number of shared interests in which collective action is needed.”
Meanwhile, Mr Boekenstein says Australia needs to keep doing what it does well – make friends and influence people.
That strengthens deterrence.
“We can offer our larger, stronger allies – the US, but also the Japanese, the South Koreans, Singaporeans and others – a high-quality training and exercising location. That’s incredibly important for building interoperability between our respective militaries. They’re building a common understanding, learning from each other, and, you know, really showing the region that this kind of support exists”.
But mostly, Professor Bisley says, there is the need to open lines of communication with Beijing.
“There’s always the analogy that, during the Cold War, there were all these elaborate mechanisms to ensure that around the world where Soviet American interests clash, they didn’t unleash World War III or nuclear apocalypse. We have very little of that now. And I think that’s, that’s part of the reason why things are so unsettled at this point in time.”
Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel