The ANZUS treaty and increasing security ties with Japan could see Australia join a conflict over disputed East China Sea islands, write Nick Bisley and Brendan Taylor.
The East China Sea has fast become one of Asia's most dangerous security flashpoints.
The Japanese defense ministry reports that in the first half of this year it has had to scramble jets more than 230 times in response to Chinese incursion into its airspace. Chinese and Japanese military aircraft have been flying dangerously close over these waters in recent months, sparking fears of a major international crisis should they collide.
Military planners in Beijing have reportedly been drawing up plans for a 'short, sharp war' designed to seize a set of disputed islands (known as the Senkakus in Japanese and the Diaoyu in Chinese) from Tokyo. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is the first sitting American President to publicly confirm that US alliance commitments to Japan extend to these islands. History suggests that Australia would almost certainly follow its American ally into an East China Sea emergency.
Hopes are high that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe will have a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the forthcoming APEC summit in Beijing. It will be the first time that the leaders of China and Japan have met in more than two years. And it is hoped that this will help hose down tensions in the East China Sea.
If it occurs, the meeting would be a welcome development. But expectations for the putative Xi-Abe summit should be kept in check. China-Japan animosities run deep and the future of this relationship hinges on far more than a handshake and warm platitudes. Recent polling reveals that 93 per cent of the Japanese public have an 'unfavorable' view of China, while more than 50 per cent of the Chinese populace see military conflict with Japan as inevitable.
The East China Sea is of particular interest to Australia as it has more at stake in the conflict than any other regional power outside the principal protagonists.
China, Japan and the US are Australia's three most important trading partners. Conflict in the East China Sea puts Australian economic interests squarely in the firing line.
Australia's alliance with the US further increases the stakes. Canberra has committed itself militarily every time America has asked for support. Forget the legalities of the ambiguous alliance treaty signed between Australia and the United States in 1951. If conflict erupted in ways that brought an expectation from Washington that Australia should be involved, staying on the sidelines would not be an option.
Complicating Australia’s case has been the development of a uniquely close relationship to Japan. While both sides of politics have long supported deeper security ties to Tokyo, these have been decisively ramped up by the Abbott government. The Canberra-Tokyo link is today described by policy elites, both in and around government in Japan, as a quasi-alliance. With Japan poised to supply Australia with submarines in the future, these ties are being ever more tightly bound.
So what can Australia do to manage circumstances that are very much of its own making?
While much of the debate about Australia's alignments focuses on risks of entrapment in conflicts that might otherwise have been avoided, one must not overlook the opportunities that these relationships create. Security ties with Washington and Tokyo give Canberra an ability to shape its destiny. Canberra can help inform the choices its partners make as well as manage the expectations they might have. One should not overstate this, but equally, to overlook the capacity to influence how Japan and the US handle this flashpoint is to miss an important policy option.
Australia can also work alongside others in the region to develop crisis management mechanisms. Given how febrile the region has become, processes must be established that can allow for de-escalation in the case of accidental clashes. Australia's good standing with Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, alongside its recognised record of creative and effective diplomacy, can help develop accepted means to ensure that increasingly frequent clashes around the disputed islands do not spiral out of control.
Perhaps the greatest asset Australia can bring to bear in the case of an escalation is to ensure it has the maximum possible freedom of policy manoeuvre. Australia has to manage the economic links it has with China, the expectations of its alliance with the US and deepening ties to Japan. To do so most effectively it needs to ensure it has a wide range of policy options.
Closing down possible courses of action through careless diplomacy or overheated rhetoric will only harm Australia’s interests.
Nick Bisley is Executive Director of LaTrobe Asia and Brendan Taylor is Head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre, ANU College of Asia and the Pacific. They are the authors of ‘Conflict in the East China Sea: Would ANZUS Apply?’ a collaborative report between the UTS Australia-China Relations Institute (ACRI), La Trobe and ANU launched Monday.
A version of this article was also published in The Australian [paywall].