Malcolm Turnbull raises South China Sea dispute
Malcolm Turnbull urges the Chinese leadership to settle territorial claims peacefully and lawfully. Courtesy ABC News 24.
The world's two greatest powers are competing for military dominance of the western Pacific Ocean and the contest is about to intensify. The US and China are each jockeying for advantage as they anticipate a quickening in a struggle that "has the potential to escalate into one of the deadliest conflicts of our time, if not history", according to Malaysia's Defence Minister, Hishammuddin Hussein.
An important ruling from the International Court of Justice in the Hague is expected in the weeks ahead. It will rule on a claim by a US ally, the Philippines, to sovereignty over reefs that are also claimed by China. Most experts expect the ruling, due by the end of June, will favour the Philippines. Beijing has warned it will not recognise the court's jurisdiction.
The South China Morning Post reported on Monday that, if the court ruled against it, Beijing would accelerate plans to build an artificial island around one of the reefs at the heart of the dispute, Scarborough Shoal. The shoal is 230kilometres from the Philippines coast and 1020kilometres from China's.
Illustration: Simon Letch
China recently put fighter jets and surface-to-air missiles on another island a few hundred kilometres away, Woody Island. The President of China Xi Jinping is reported to be planning to travel there soon.
The US Defence Secretary Ash Carter cancelled a visit to China, but two weeks ago went to India and the Philippines to conclude base-sharing and other agreements to strengthen co-operation out of shared worry over China.
The US position is the same as Australia's: it takes no sides over the disputed territories but urges the claimants to settle the argument through negotiation, not force.
In the same week, the top Chinese military officer, General Fan Changlong, made a visit to the Spratly Islands, also subject to rival claims by China, Vietnam, Malaysia, Brunei and the Philippines. China has built artificial islands, runways, lighthouses and ports there, despite the objections of all the other claimants.
Then, last week, in another unmistakeable sign of hardening Chinese determination, Xi made his first public appearance in military uniform and formally claimed the title of commander in chief of China's war-fighting headquarters.
What is Xi doing? What does China hope to achieve? And where is this dispute heading? An eminent Chinese expert, Dr Shi Yinghong, provides answers.
Xi has declared the pursuit of "China's Dream", a national resurgence after centuries of foreign domination. Shi, a professor of international relations at Renmin University in Beijing, says there are three international implications. First, Xi wants China to be acknowledged as a superpower equal to the US. Second, he wants China to become the co-manager of global affairs with the US, a Group of Two for world governance. Third, "China must be the preponderant power in the Western Pacific and have some advantage over the US", he told me. Shi's definition of Chinese aims supports that of the commander of the US Pacific Fleet, Admiral Harry Harris, who says China seeks "hegemony in East Asia".
Shi, who has been an adviser to the State Council, China's cabinet, for the past five years, says this will be "based on an arms build up and the strategic ability to go tit-for-tat with the US and to force the US finally to recognise Chinese preponderance" in China's claimed sphere.
"China," Shi explains, "must be number one in diplomatic influence and economic clout and maybe in [military] force. It wants to prevent the US military's freedom of navigation eventually, and gradually squeeze Vietnam, the Philippines and all the others out of the South China Sea." This is precisely what the region's governments fear.
Xi is a decisive leader, says Shi, who "shows that he has guts – he's not afraid of confrontation".
"He wants the support of the people and the support of the military and he wants to win glory. He believes in China's historical greatness." In this, Shi says, the president is at one with the Chinese public: "Xi is China. Chinese citizens are more nationalistic and triumphalist than ever before. In this sense, Xi represents the people."
China's claim to about 90 per cent of the South China Sea is based on "land left by our ancestors – it is sovereign and sacred and Xi's policy is not to concede even one inch".
Harvard's Ross Terrill describes today's China as an empire that "appropriates an imperial idea of China, reinventing a 2500-year-old autocracy to control its population and hector non-Chinese neighbouring peoples".
Yet Shi says there is an important qualification to Xi's ambition. Xi wants regional preponderance "without a major war".
The truth of this is illustrated by China's decision to halt advances on territory claimed by Japan in their recent territorial clash. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe reinterpreted Japan's constitution, rearmed its military, reaffirmed its US alliance and prepared for full-scale war to stop China. Faced with imminent, major war, Beijing relented.
But in the South China Sea, there is no such resistance, not yet, at least. Shi describes Barack Obama's responses so far as "minimalist". The risk that the US faces is "it will lose, step by step".
China's risk? "It will make substantial gains and finally may mobilise US society and other middle powers to say 'enough is enough'," particularly if there is a more assertive US president after November.
In the past few centuries, no new great power has managed to arise without going to war with an existing one over clashing spheres of influence. We will see if humanity has learnt anything.
Peter Hartcher is international editor.