With the G20 summit recently concluded in Hangzhou, China is looking stronger and more important than ever. Indeed, since the Global Financial Crisis of 2009, the Chinese economy has grown at a steady clip of no less than 7% per year , though it must be noted that much of China's growth has been built on unsustainable credit and stimulus. With its new found strength, China is becoming increasingly assertive and arrogant-witness the deliberate snubbing of Barack Obama at the Hangzhou summit. As the West continues to struggle with myriad problems from the never-ending refugee crisis in Europe, to the after-effects of the Global Financial Crisis, China is becoming ever more aggressive.
One good example of this is China's continued push towards dominance of the South China Sea. Over the past few years China has harassed and bullied smaller ASEAN nations, particularly the Philippines and Vietnam. Despite reaching an agreement with the United States and the Philippines to withdraw from Scarborough Shoal in 2012, China subsequently reneged on this agreement. China continually harasses and bullies Filipino fishermen operating in waters far removed from the Chinese mainland, whilst rejecting the Permanent Court of Arbitration's ruling in July that its expansive claims to the South China Sea have no basis. China has even sent ships as far south as the Natuna Islands just north of Indonesia, as it claims that part of those waters fall within its nine-dash line.
China's actions are those of a state not happy with its current borders (though it must be noted that its land borders have been largely settled with its neighbours). Indeed it is possible that China may seek to declare an Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) over the entire South China Sea. This has huge implications not only for global trade (USD $5.3 trillion of trade sails through there annually) but for Australia's trade as well. Our prosperity is largely dependent upon us being able to sail through international waters and should this be impeded then the costs to trade would soar as longer shipping routes and higher insurance rates would be incurred.
Not only would the potential costs to trade soar, but if China is successful in gobbling up the South China Sea then other countries may very well try to claim sovereignty over other open bodies of water as well-Iran could declare the same over the Straits of Hormuz. What is at stake here is in fact Hugo Grotius' concept of Mare Liberum-freedom of the seas, a key pillar of international law that countries may sail their ships freely throughout non-territorial waterways.
In trying to counter China, ASEAN has shown itself to be indecisive and ineffective as China has been able to buy off Laos and Cambodia and hence water down any ASEAN statements and initiatives directed against it. How ought Australia respond to this challenge?
One way is to restart the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue -which was an informal meeting of India, Japan, the United States and Australia initiated in 2007 by Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. This dialogue was paralleled by unprecedented military exercises-Exercise Malabar off the Japanese island of Okinawa.
This Dialogue was disbanded following Kevin Rudd's decision to withdraw Australia in 2008. There are however a number of very good reasons for restarting it. Firstly since Xi Jinping's ascension to China's presidency, China's foreign policy posture has become much more aggressive. Instead of following Deng Xiaoping's maxim of 'biding one's time' the Chinese Communist Party is becoming increasingly nationalistic and assertive. In August China sent a huge fishing fleet of 230 boats escorted by its coast guard into Japanese territorial waters off the disputed Diaoyu/Senkaku islands and despite repeated protests from the Japanese government failed to leave.
Furthermore, unlike ASEAN, the four countries of the Dialogue are all democracies and each has a strong interest in maintaining the global status quo. Militarily and economically all four countries are also immensely stronger than ASEAN and hence much harder for China to bully. Whilst China would undoubtedly be riled at such a move, given its own opaque intentions Australia ought not to worry about China's feelings. Indeed, China has not shown itself to be a particularly helpful partner in dealing with North Korea's dangerous behaviour-China is opposed to more sanctions against Pyongyang and helps to prop up Kim Jong Un's awful regime by providing more than 70 percent of its total trade volume. China is undoubtedly afraid of an imploding North Korea potentially sending millions of refugees into its north-east, but this does not detract from the fact that its support of North Korea is ultimately endangering global peace and security. Given that China puts its own strategic interests first, so too should Australia.
The restarting of the Dialogue would also be a strategically prudent move as China has recently been conducting joint operations in the South China Sea with Russia which have also involved 'island seizures'. Additionally China's actions have belied its message of 'peaceful rise' and China has precipitated an arms race in the region-military spending throughout Asia has increased dramatically in response to China's rise.
Finally, it should be noted that dictatorships are inherently unstable, dangerous and untrustworthy. Greater dialogue, unity and military co-operation amongst the four members of the former Quadrilateral Security Dialogue is needed in sending a stronger message to China that its bullying of smaller countries and seizure of territory is unacceptable.
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