As tensions in Asia-Pacific increase, the Chinese government has published a white paper on its military strategy in the region which hails a significant shift in doctrine. The Chinese People’s Liberation Army is set to expand its theatre of operations with the air force and navy assuming a new, offensive role. These revelations have heightened fears that the region is being hastened towards a major military incident.
According to the white paper, Beijing will now utilise its naval and air forces to ‘project power’ beyond the country’s borders so as to defend its ‘maritime possessions’. Many of these territories lie in the Spratly Islands chain, the rights to which are hotly contested between nations such as China, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The prospect of Beijing confronting these countries raises the possibility that the United States might be dragged into a diplomatic standoff as it is treaty-bound to defend the interests of allies such as Taiwan and the Philippines.
In recent weeks, confrontations between the Chinese and American militaries have escalated. In late May a US patrol aircraft overflew Chinese-occupied territory in the region, ignoring repeated warnings from the People’s Liberation Army. This incident prompted the Global Times newspaper, widely seen as the mouthpiece of the Chinese Communist Party, to declare that war with the United States may be ‘inevitable’.
Although it is possible to dismiss these claims as rhetoric, (the document admits that: ‘the forces for world peace are on the rise [so] in the foreseeable future, a world war is unlikely and the international situation is expected to remain generally peaceful’), the paper will have a profound effect upon the stability and security of East Asia. China’s neighbours are already fearful and suspicious of Beijing’s regional ambitions. The fact that regional defence spending is anticipated to reach a high of $52 billion by 2020 (much of which will be driven into naval procurement), is a marker of this.
However, as many of these states are significantly smaller than China, it is unlikely that their newly expanded armed forces will do much to deter Beijing. Consequently, governments will have to rely upon cooperation with external powers to redress the balance of power. The only nation with the military forces and economic interests to allow such entrenchment is the United States.
As recently as April 2014, the Philippines and the USA signed an ‘Enhanced Defence Cooperation Agreement’ which gives Washington a free hand to preposition military forces on Philippine sovereign territory. The construction of artificial islands by the People’s Liberation Army in the South China Sea subsequently prompted Manilla’s defence minster to call for an even ‘stronger commitment’ on the part of the United States. There is also speculation that the Vietnamese government will seek similar arrangements on account of its historically fraught relations with Beijing. Hanoi has also engaged in dialogue aimed at encouraging defence cooperation with neighbouring countries that have convergent interests.
Japan’s response to a newly assertive China could have the most profound impact on regional security, however. After defeat in the Second World War, Japan was forbidden from maintaining armed forces for any purpose other than self-defence. Over the past decade Tokyo has attempted to dodge the clauses of Japan’s postwar constitution which enforce this, justifying, in the view of Beijing, the call for a more pro-active defence policy. The Japanese government has watched the growth of Chinese power with alarm, prompting Prime Minister Shinzō Abe to propose legislation that would allow Japan to intervene in conflicts on behalf of its allies. In addition, Tokyo signed a defence pact with Indonesia this March and has strengthened its security ties with nations such as Vietnam and the Philippines. It is likely that this course of action will antagonise an already suspicious Chinese government further.
The long-term consequences of China’s defence white paper will undoubtedly unveil themselves throughout the coming years. It seems likely that Beijing’s actions will make a multilateral approach to conflict resolution increasingly difficult. As China flexes its formidable military muscles, it follows that other states will resort to traditional ‘balance of power’ politics in an attempt to guarantee their regional interests and sovereign integrity.