While much of the speculation about the potential for future conflict between China and the United States and its allies is focused on Taiwan and its surrounds, increasing Chinese antagonism in the South China Sea begs the question, which one is more dangerous?
There is no escaping that the western Pacific and north Asia, in particular, are a hotbed of geopolitical and strategic competition.
At the core of this is Beijing’s increasing belligerence and acts of hostility towards regional neighbours ranging from established powers like Japan and South Korea to emerging powers including India, Indonesia, the Philippines, Vietnam and, of course, the ever-present threat of potential conflagration over Taiwan.
The potential battlegrounds in the region are as diverse as the competing and often historic territorial, economic, cultural, ethnic and religious differences, adding further complexity to the modern geopolitical and strategic competition.
Whether it is the Himalayas, the northern jungles of Vietnam and southern Hainan, or, as is increasingly likely, the waters of the Taiwan Strait or the highly contested South China Sea, the potential for miscalculation and open conflict is only increasing.
But for many nations, including Australia and the United States, which act, in varying degrees, as “offshore” balancing powers, the region has only become more dangerous and fraught with risk of disastrous miscalculation and the potential for a regional conflict spiralling out of control into a possible global conflict.
This role has often brought Australia and the United States into direct contact with the People’s Liberation Army and its various branches as Beijing has sought to assert and reinforce its claims over the region.
While much of the emphasis has been rightfully focused on Taiwan and the potential for a Chinese invasion of the island democracy, particularly as the United States faces increasingly contested and competing global requests for support to maintain the post-Second World War order, increasing hostilities in the South China Sea beg the question, which is more dangerous?
The Taiwan question
It is no secret that the People’s Republic of China has long coveted the “reunification” of the mainland with what it deems as a “break away” and rebel province, repeatedly threatening forcible efforts to claim the island.
Since becoming China’s President in 2013, Xi Jinping has sought to rapidly expand the People’s Liberation Army and its subordinate branches and its capabilities across the spectrum of potential operations, with an emphasis on minimising the traditional advantages held by the United States and its allies should they attempt to prevent a mainland invasion.
At the core of this has been the heavy development and fielding of increasingly advanced, integrated webs of anti-access/area-denial or A2AD networks of advanced anti-ship ballistic and cruise missiles, coupled with an increasingly capable air force, the world’s largest navy, including a growing number of aircraft carrier battlegroups and a rapidly modernising army.
All of this has been backed up by increasing emphasis on next-generation capabilities, including a growing strategic nuclear force expected to field approximately 1,000 warheads by the mid-2030s, artificial intelligence-enabled weapons systems, cyber, electronic warfare, anti-space capabilities all designed to cripple the United States and its allies efforts to defend Taiwan’s democracy.
Beijing’s increasing verbose rhetoric and action has only gained further traction following the highly publicised visit of former US House speaker Nancy Pelosi to the island in mid-2022, which saw an increased number of drills conducted by the People’s Liberation Army-Navy and People’s Liberation Army Air Force, often involving incursions into Taiwan’s Air Identification Defence Zone (AIDZ) only serving to increase the likelihood of potential conflict.
Indeed, at the time, Beijing’s Foreign Ministry spokesperson Zhao Lijian had said the visit would challenge China’s “red line” and would be met with “resolute countermeasures”, with Lijian adding at the time: “The US must bear all consequences arising thereof.”
Yet, for all the tension over Taiwan, it could be argued that it is this generation’s Berlin, with both sides instinctively understanding the ramifications of potential miscalculation or accident that could ultimately result in a nuclear exchange.
Where that same understanding doesn’t exist, however, is in the South China Sea.
‘China’s territorial sea’
The South China Sea is one of the most lucrative yet highly contested waterways in the world, with US$5 trillion worth of maritime trade passes annually and as yet unexploited oil, liquid natural gas and other resource deposits, including fisheries, all attractive and highly prized sources of competition between the neighbouring states.
For Beijing, the South China Sea and a growing network of highly fortified and militarised man-made islands, despite repeated denials by Beijing, serves as a potent extension of the rising superpower’s (A2/AD) system as a buffer for expanding China’s designs for south-east Asia.
This isn’t the only part of Beijing’s pursuit of regional supremacy and hegemony, with the Chinese Coast Guard, People’s Liberation Army-Navy and People’s Liberation Army-Air Force actively engaging in highly confrontational antics across the South China Sea.
Recent unprovoked “attacks” and bullying tactics targeting both military units and civilians from the Philippines, Vietnam and Indonesia have only served to highlight Beijing’s commitment to locking down the South China Sea.
These efforts recently reached fever pitch for Australia when the CNC Ningbo, a Chinese guided-missile destroyer, engaged its active sonar systems to “ping” Australian Navy divers in the water, clearing fishing nets from the propellors of HMAS Toowoomba while on a regional engagement deployment in support of United Nations Security Council sanctions against North Korea.
PRC Defense Ministry spokesman Wu Qian said the Australian claims are “completely untrue” and the country has lodged formal representations with the Australian side.
“We urge the Australian side to respect the facts, stop making reckless and irresponsible accusations against China, do more to build up mutual trust between the two sides, and create a positive atmosphere for the sound development of relations between the two countries and two militaries,” he said.
In contrast, Australian Prime Minister Anthony Albanese said the entire incident is “regrettable”, and the government has put very strong objections, very clearly and directly, to China via appropriate channels.
“This was dangerous; it was unsafe and unprofessional from the Chinese forces,” he said during a televised interview on 20 November.
“Our major concern, of course, is always for the safety of our Australian Defence Force personnel … and in this case, one person suffered an injury as a result of the actions of China.”
Yet, with an increasing number of potential adversaries operating in the South China Sea, the likelihood of miscalculation and incidents only becomes increasingly likely, particularly as tempers and emotions flare.
The potential for greater miscalculation and direct confrontation only grows as more nations get involved without the “strategic” guardrails that similar circumstances in Taiwan have.
Again, this begs the question, which one is more dangerous and has the greater potential to spiral out of control in the event of further hostilities between Beijing and regional neighbours, or external powers like Australia or the United States, is it Taiwan or the South China Sea?
Any potential conflict over Taiwan or the South China Sea, whether directly or indirectly involving the United States, will have dramatic and potentially disastrous implications for Australia’s economic and strategic security in the Indo-Pacific, necessitating a comprehensive rethink about the way Australia conducts itself and faces the challenges in the region.
In this era of renewed competition between autarchy and democracy, this is a conversation that needs to be had in the open with the Australian people, as ultimately, they will be called upon to help implement it, to consent to the direction, and to defend it should diplomacy fail.
Dr Ross Babbage of the Centre for Strategic Budgetary Assessments told Defence Connect: “I think what we’ve got to show what’s the vision for Australia, you know, what can we achieve and what you know if we go on the trajectory we are on at the moment. I’ll tell you what, you know, a lot of people, a lot more people in a decade’s time are likely to be either in really dumb jobs or maybe not have jobs at all, and in the society be a lot weaker and will be a lot less prosperous.
“So what we want to say is, look, there’s plenty of scope for doing more and smarter things, encouraging investment to do that, and then there will be some very, very interesting additional jobs and opportunities, a lot of high tech, and so on, I can tell you that, you know, talking to foreign investors, they’re quite keen on principle to work here, and do a lot more here and provide a lot more good jobs for Australians.”
This requires a greater degree of transparency and a culture of collaboration between the nation’s strategic policymakers and elected officials and the constituents they represent and serve – equally, this approach will need to entice the Australian public to once again invest in and believe in the future direction of the nation.
Source : DefenceConnect