Once you understand the pattern of behaviour by the People’s Republic of China, you will see it in operation everywhere. This is fertile ground for war.
You can take it to the bank China was the “sophisticated state-based actor” fingered by Scott Morrison for cyber spying against many Australian institutions. Russia and North Korea have the cyber skills but only China has the capacity at volume and the interest to want to drill into the offices of premiers, political parties, businesses and the rest.
The Prime Minister repeated at his press conference on Friday “this is part of the new world we live in”. He is referring to a pattern of Chinese Communist Party behaviour that has emerged during Xi Jinping’s leadership.
Beijing’s global policy of bully, brinkmanship and backdown is driving the Indo-Pacific closer to conflict. Xi is locked into this risky course because a U-turn now would be a major defeat for him and could lead to his political demise. Beijing knows that we know it is our biggest cyber threat. The ramping up of cyber attacks on Australian institutions is a form of bullying, adding yet more pressure to Chinese threats of export bans, student and tourist boycotts.
The brinkmanship is designed to see how much cyber pressure China can pile on to Australia before we metaphorically tap the mat. Beijing wants compliant behaviour. If we take the punishment without complaining, more pressure will be added.
Chinese backdown happens when countries push back against their assertive behaviour. I read Morrison’s cyber announcement as a way of saying to Beijing: “We know it’s you and we’ll publicly name and shame you if you don’t ease up.”
Once you understand the pattern of behaviour by the People’s Republic you will see it in operation everywhere. The problem is that Xi’s “wolf warrior” instincts have eliminated all trust in any engagement with Beijing. In the absence of trust there is no dialogue and in the absence of dialogue no ability to know when or how to step back from the military brink. This is fertile ground for war.
Last week, in one of the worst clashes since the 1962 border war, 20 Indian and an undisclosed number of Chinese People’s Liberation Army soldiers were killed in the Galwan Valley on the disputed Himalayan border between the two countries.
The New York Times speculated that Xi “probably did not intend to ignite a clash”. I disagree. Xi and Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi have met 18 times since 2014 and the border dispute has been a constant focus. Under Xi the PLA doesn’t extemporise. Last week’s battle follows the pattern of pushing the limits of regional tolerance, boosting Chinese popular enthusiasm for military adventurism and yielding only when it becomes obvious the other side will push back.
There will be senior Chinese figures quietly worrying that a campaign of global assertion is doing the Communist Party damage. For Xi, it seems that building a good relationship with Modi is a lot less important than harnessing popular nationalist sentiment behind what he frequently describes in speeches as a “struggle” with external powers wanting to stop China’s “great national rejuvenation”. By definition, a struggle needs an enemy. Xi’s leadership style is increasingly cast in ways that push China to pick fights with other states.
There could well be further clashes over the India-China line of control and there will certainly be a heavier and more sustained military presence in the area, but my assessment is that it’s unlikely to generate larger-scale fighting. The terrain is immensely difficult for combat manoeuvres.
The areas that present greater risk for larger-scale conflict is the South China Sea and, farther north, Taiwan and the East China Sea.
At the end of last month respected Hong Kong newspaper the South China Morning Post reported a PLA “source” briefing that Beijing was readying to announce an air defence identification zone over much of the South China Sea, including the disputed Pratas, Paracel and Spratly island chains.
ADIZs are used to control the movement of aircraft through sovereign airspace. The significance of a Chinese declaration is that it asserts sovereign control over international waters and areas where there are multiple claims of sovereignty.
When an ADIZ is declared, military and civilian aircraft will have to assess the risk of flying through what is typically very heavily trafficked airspace. Will they accept the risk of being targeted by the HQ-9B long-range surface-to-air missiles China deployed to the Spratly Islands in May 2018? These weapons have a range of 160 nautical miles.
At a Perth business conference in November 2017, I warned about the risk of a Chinese ADIZ effectively being used to shut down air and maritime traffic through the South China Sea. At the same event Julie Bishop, the foreign minister at the time, dismissed that worry on the basis that having built its air bases in the South China Sea, Beijing had made its diplomatic point and wouldn’t use them. In my view this misreads Chinese intent.
The PLA is the instrument of Xi’s strategic plans. It has built the bases, sited the weapons and sensors, and exercised with ships and combat aircraft to show it can control the South China Sea.
Let’s imagine a scenario: On Wednesday, November 4, the day after the US presidential election, China announces an ADIZ over the South China Sea and closes the region to air and sea traffic for the rest of the year. What would happen? It may not be clear who will be elected president. Will the US mount a full-scale military deployment to the region? Would Australia? Would Qantas fly through, mindful of those HQ-9B missiles?
By the time a regional diplomatic response had been co-ordinated — forget the possibility that it could be negotiated ahead of time — Beijing will have shown what it calls “routine and normalised military operations”. The brinkmanship could work, and reversing it would be bloody and uncertain.
Through last month and into this month, PLA fighter jets have continued a high tempo of incursions into Taiwanese airspace. According to the Global Times: “Normalised sorties will let the Taiwan secessionists understand the power gap between the Chinese mainland and the island, as they will find themselves struggling to deal with frequent PLA operations.”
This is the context in which a large deployment of Australian naval vessels left Sydney on Tuesday for military exercises with the US around Guam and at the annual Rim of the Pacific exercise off Hawaii. These manoeuvres will be far from routine. They need to show enough resolve from the democracies to persuade Xi his brinkmanship requires another backdown.
All this makes US Secretary of State Mike Pompeo’s six-hour meeting last Thursday in Hawaii with his Chinese counterpart, Yang Jiechi, highly consequential. A few days earlier the People’s Daily editorial flayed Pompeo for “his addiction to lying and cheating”, then Yang requested a no-media meeting. These contacts happen when the pace and direction of strategic events start to worry senior leaders. We should see this as a sign that the region is moving at breakneck speed towards the brink of conflict. Can Xi afford to blink? Can we?
Peter Jennings is executive director of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute and a former deputy secretary for strategy in the Defence Department.