Australian Books

Flexing China’s muscles

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

17 November 2018

9:00 AM

We live in interesting times. And, according to Taylor, a respected academic from the Australian National University specialising in geopolitics, in a particularly interesting place. He believes that the major conflicts of the next decade are likely to be in Asia, and in this comprehensive, considered book he looks at four areas of particular tension: the Korean peninsula, the East China Sea, the South China Sea, and Taiwan.

A problem with writing a book like this is that it can be overtaken by events. This has happened, to some extent, in his analysis of the Korean situation. Writing shortly after the Singapore Summit between Trump and Kim, Taylor – after taking a walk through North Korea’s long history of making deals only to break them – was not optimistic about the opportunities for further progress. But as it turns out things have been going fairly well since then, on both the denuclearisation issue and better relations between South Korea and North Korea.

Yes, it has been slower than commentators in the Western media would like, but there is progress nevertheless. One important symbolic move: both South Korea and North Korea have begun to dig up mines from the DMZ. There has also been a series of meetings between military and civilian officials, family reunions, and sporting events. And the number of missile tests and nuclear explosions has been zero. The atmosphere in Seoul (from where this reviewer is writing) has moved from jaded wariness to (cautious) optimism. Of course, it could all collapse very quickly, but Taylor might be more pessimistic than events have warranted.

Taylor believes that Trump would like to withdraw, or radically scale down, the US commitment to South Korea. It would be a very Trumpian gesture: declare a victory and bring the boys home. Taylor counsels against such a move and, in fact, argues against anything that looks like an American withdrawal from Asia. This is especially important in his examination of the other hotspots, where China is flexing its growing political and military muscles.

China and Japan have an ongoing dispute over ownership of a clutch of uninhabited islands in the East China Sea: the Diaoyu to Beijing and the Senkaku to Tokyo. China and Japan have fought each other several times throughout history, and Taylor believes that the nationalist fervour festering in both countries could easily explode, driving governments into a conflict that could easily escalate. At the moment the two sides are mainly just glaring at each other but a new claim could change that, with the US inevitably drawn in on the Japanese side.

Disputed islands are also at the heart of the South China Sea dispute. China claims the whole area and has been building military facilities wherever possible, despite claims from other countries in the area. China shows no sign of even wanting to discuss the issue: for Beijing there is simply nothing to discuss. The US has conducted a series of freedom-of-navigation exercises in the area to show that it does not accept China’s claim, although America’s hand was weakened when Barack Obama effectively accepted China’s claim to the Scarborough Shoal, also claimed by the Philippines.

Taylor doubts that China can be dislodged, although he points out that the area is so large that claims of control are somewhat moot. But China’s claim of sovereignty should be continually contested, and he calls upon the Australian government to conduct naval exercises in the area to underline the point.

Taylor sees Taiwan as the most dangerous of the flashpoints. Beijing’s rhetoric on the issue has stepped up a notch in the past few years, even as Taiwan looks increasingly towards a future of true independence. The two have been engaged in cyber-warfare (perhaps with government backing, perhaps not) for years, and Beijing is doing everything possible to ensure the diplomatic isolation of Taiwan. But taking the island by military means would not be easy: Taiwan’s military has hi-tech weaponry and, most likely, would receive backing from the US.

Taylor notes that Trump has moved to strengthen ties with Taiwan, mainly through symbolic gestures. He does not know whether this is part of a strategy or due to Trump’s tendency to make things up as he goes along, but either way it has meant that China, for the first time in a long while, has had to respond to Western actions rather than simply bulldozing all before it.

It is not clear what China would do if Taiwan unilaterally declared independence. Certainly, there would be howls of outrage and dark threats. But would there be anything more? A regional shooting war would punch a major hole in China’s game plan of dominance of Asia through economic clout. So perhaps China would do nothing but stamp its feet in an extended tantrum. Taylor is not sure, and no-one really wants to find out.

These flashpoints have very different characteristics but a common thread is the role of the US. There is an argument that says that American involvement in Asia has been the basis of stability even as China has risen. Is the US willing to continue, and even expand, its role? The current mood in Washington is, apparently, to do so, both to support longstanding allies and to contain China as a matter of principle.

But the days of countries sheltering under the American umbrella are passing, says Taylor. There needs to be a greater contribution from Asian countries (and Australia), in the form of increased military spending as well as political commitment. Avoiding open conflict is not going to be easy but it is going to require energy, imagination, and courage.

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