ASIA: by Jeffry Babb News Weekly
Australia has role in great power contest
, March 26, 2005
China sees Australia as a weak link in the emerging great power competition in East Asia between China on one side and the US and its allies on the other.
China is an emerging superpower. Japan and the US have a long-standing treaty relationship, which is the bedrock of the region's military balance.
On March 8 this year, China urged Australia to keep Taiwan out of its long-standing ANZUS treaty relationship with the US.
"We believe these military alliances should not exceed the bilateral nature," Beijing's Foreign Ministry spokesman Liu Jianchou told a press briefing.
Liu refused to confirm that China has asked Australia to review the ANZUS treaty, but made clear that ANZUS should not be used to interfere with China's plans to unify with Taiwan. China claims self-ruled Taiwan as part of its territory and has pledged to attack if the island declares formal independence.
China's National People's Congress - the Chinese rubber-stamp parliament - has authorised the use of "non-peaceful means" if other means to unify mainland China and Taiwan prove futile.
Japan has been stepping out of its passive role and becoming more assertive in the Asian security scene. In November last year, it chased a Chinese Han-class submarine out of its waters and put under government protection a lighthouse built by nationalist militants in the disputed Diaoyutai Islands. These islands are claimed by both China and Japan, and are sitting on massive fields of gas and possibly oil.
Japanese diplomats have been advocating closer relations between Taiwan and Japan, with a number of high-profile visits both ways confirming that Japan and Taiwan are boosting their security links.
Russia also has a role to play in the great power competition. The Eurasian power is the main weapons supplier to China and is also a major energy player. However, it displeased Beijing by routing a new oil pipeline for Siberian crude through to the Sea of Japan, rather than to China. Both China and Japan are energy-poor and are the world's major oil importers after the US.
Signs have emerged of a thaw between Japan and Russia, and as this year marks both the 100th anniversary of the Japanese victory in the 1905 Russo-Japanese war and the 60th anniversary of the end of World War II, it is a time fraught with difficult memories for the East Asian region.
Japan's constitution forbids it from using war as an instrument of policy, but its "self-defence" forces command one of the world's most significant arms budgets. The US will encourage the Japanese government to loosen the leash, but it must be wary about the impact this would have on the Asian region, which still has unpleasant memories about the last time Japan asserted itself militarily.
Australia has a delicate balancing act. On the one hand, China is a booming market for Australian exports, while, on the other, the US has been the guarantor of Australia's security since the end of World War II. China has appeared on the scene quickly, with a decade of double-digit defence spending boosting its armaments.
China is continually probing its perimeter for weaknesses and has obviously identified Australia as a potential weak link. The Chinese legislation to pursue unification by non-peaceful means if necessary, ratchets up tension in the region and seems to undo the recent thaw in relations between Taiwan and China.
The direct flights from China to Taiwan over the Chinese New Year in February were a sign that progress is possible. The economic relationship between Taiwan and the mainland is growing ever closer, but Beijing is drawing a line between what it sees as "economic relations" and "political links".
The US is growing impatient with Taiwan. Taiwan's opposition-controlled legislature is dragging its feet on passing a budget for a multi-billion dollar arms package from the US, which is mainly focused on anti-submarine warfare. The main opposition party, the Kuomintang, is being grossly irresponsible, but this may be overcome by a second opposition party, led by former presidential candidate James Soong, reaching a détente with President Chen.
The US has signalled that Taiwan - which in the past it has regarded as a strategic asset - may now, without a substantial rearming, become a strategic liability.
In all, the US will expect its allies to contribute more to containing Beijing's military ambitions. China sees Taiwan as a part of it territory and their unification would break down the US lines of communication and further isolate Japan.
So far, the emerging strategic competition can't be called a new Cold War, but the military realignment is sure to exacerbate China's imagined fears of "encirclement".
Taking over Taiwan, and putting it out of the equation, is a long-term strategic objective that Beijing will achieve by force if necessary.