Sarah Lucinsky is an Officer in the Royal Australian Navy and is a postgraduate at Charles Sturt University. She sometimes tweets from @LouSeaLu and has previously edited for JUR Press and presented at Asia-Pacific Week at Australian National University. Divergent Options’ content does not contain information of an official nature nor does the content represent the official position of any government, any organization, or any group.
National Security Situation: Chinese activities in its disputed peripheries amidst the COVID-19 pandemic are increasing and anti-Chinese sentiment is growing. This increase and growth pose risk to nations on China’s periphery.
Date Originally Written: July 15, 2020.
Date Originally Published: September 16, 2020.
Author and / or Article Point of View: The author believes that analysing an array of counter-factual scenarios and alternative futures through collegiate debate is valuable when tackling security issues.
Background: China’s stated desire for ‘One China’ involves a forcible reunification of Hong Kong and Taiwan, but since the 1996 Taiwan Strait Crisis this goal has been approached gradually by focussing on methods below the threshold of war. This is largely due to China’s desire to retain a level of world power credibility and consequently avoid widespread international backlash that risks dividing the Chinese Communist Party (CCP).
Recently, anti-Chinese sentiment has been rising mostly due to COVID-19, but also due to growing awareness of China’s controversial territorial expansionism in the South and East China Seas (S/ECS). Simultaneously, Indo-Pacific militaries have progressively focussed on countering China’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) in these disputed areas. These two factors risk eroding China’s fear of international backlash that has historically prevented it from executing decisive military actions.
Significance: If China continues to face the current international backlash and counter-PLA military activity in proximity to its claimed territories, two concurrent issues will arise. Firstly, China will perceive that its sovereignty is being directly threatened by foreign militaries. Secondly, China will no longer believe there is value in exercising restraint in its disputed areas in order to protect its international image, as its image has been eroded anyway. This could lead to a more expansionist and offensively postured China. The introduction of China’s new national security laws in Hong Kong is quite possibly an example of how international perceptions now matter less to China under the current, evolving context.
Option #1: Nations on China’s periphery form paramilitaries that conduct activities below the threshold of war, separate from conventional military forces. The paramilitaries operate with the express aim of countering the PLA’s coercive tactics in disputed areas of national interest.
Risk: As China’s own paramilitary forces operate throughout the S/ECS, other nations introducing their own paramilitaries jeopardise their legal advantage achieved through the 2016 Permanent Court of Arbitration’s ruling against China. China may then use the new paramilitary forces as a justification for bolstered militarisation of outposts and concentration of conventional forces. A greater concentration of forces in the vicinity of disputed areas increases the risk for paramilitary engagements such as freedom of manoeuvre and ramming incidents.
Gain: S/ECS claimant states can more effectively address the threat of the PLA’s coercive tactics near their territories whilst also retaining a level of political deniability. Asymmetric platforms and tactics can level the playing field, enabling smaller nations to more effectively defend their territory and increase their deterrence ability, similar to Iran’s success with the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps Navy. Additional paramilitaries equal additional, stealthier threats for China to identify, track and respond to. China will not be able to démarche nations with emergent paramilitary forces without highlighting their own.
Option #2: Indo-Pacific nations establish bilateral military exercises and political summits with China that are widely covered by local media to improve regional perceptions of China.
Risk: China may perceive this proactive attempt to bolster relationships as appeasement or worse, agreement with their territorial claims and coercive activities in S/ECS. Moreover, there is little scope to control or influence how these bilateral exercises and summits will be framed in Chinese state media. Even if this approach succeeds from the Chinese side, pro-China publicity may not gain traction in the host country due to trending national issues such as COVID-19 and territorial disputes. In a worst-case scenario this option may be counter-productive and lead to public outrage, protests or boycott attempts of China/Chinese goods. In turn, media coverage of the public’s negative response would also be reported on in China and undermine any successes achieved there.
Gain: Pro-China sentiment may draw China back into the soft-power game of international engagement. This could reignite China’s desire to protect their international image and thus refrain from conducting decisive military actions like forcibly reunifying Taiwan. Further, sustained bilateral engagement will improve political relationships and develop mutual understanding, reducing the likelihood of misjudgement or miscalculation at the strategic and tactical levels. A tertiary gain is Indo-Pacific nations would gain intimate exposure to PLA personnel, platforms and operational art that could provide advantages in a future conflict scenario. Sometimes one must put the rifle down to really pick the rifle up.
Option #3: The United States deepens its ties with Russia, creating a new modus vivendi, working towards a future alliance that alienates China.
Risk: A U.S.-Russia alliance would require the two nations to find common ground on Crimea, Iran and North Korea, all of which are incredibly unlikely without significant costs from either side. A close relationship with Russia has higher risks for the U.S. as it would directly challenge much of U.S. recent history and ideology, alienate North Atlantic Treaty Organization members and breed distrust amongst the five eyes community. Further, closer ties with Russia may include additional Russian scrutiny that could result in political interference, cyber and information warfare operations as well as increased Russian avenues for intelligence collection.
Gain: Whilst this option would carry a significant ideological cost for America, a U.S.-Russia alliance would combine the lethality of two military superpowers, a significant deterrent if both parties could agree on its use in a counter-China context. Even without reaching alliance status, closer U.S.-Russia relations that incorporates military engagement would still create an effect that China would need to consider as a significant factor prior to any attempts at decisive military action.
Other Comments: None.
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