China’s preoccupation with its past humiliation by foreign powers didn’t start with the communists: a public holiday, National Humiliation Day, was instituted by the Nationalists in 1927. Similarly, Chinese irredentism isn’t just a recent phenomenon. Chinese primary school textbooks from 1938 have a map of China that extends well beyond its current borders in all directions. Now the map in Chinese passports includes the South China Sea as Chinese territory, as well as parts of India on its northern border.
The current situation is that China is in the process of completing bases on seven artificial islands in the South China Sea. Three of those bases will have 3,000-metre airstrips with attendant taxiways and aprons. Most of the bases include flak towers. Similarly, most of the bases have ramps up to the first level of their forts, probably so that mobile radars get some elevation and have a greater range.
China claims all of the islands and reefs of the South China Sea and about 90% of that sea’s area as sovereign Chinese territory. In practice that will mean non-Chinese ships and aircraft will have to ask for Chinese permission to cross. Non-Chinese military ships and aircraft will not be allowed at all. Enforcement of the Chinese claim will mean that China will remove the Vietnamese, Filipino and Malaysian bases from the South China Sea, killing Vietnamese, Filipinos and Malaysians in the process. Everyone in the region understands that this is what is going to happen if China isn’t stopped.
In the East China Sea, China claims the Senkaku Islands, and Chinese academics have put forward a case that China is also the rightful owner of the Ryuku chain right up to Kyushu. China has built a ten-pad expeditionary helicopter base in the Nanji Islands for the attack on the Senkakus as well as an airbase on a ridge on the mainland.
All these things were in train before President Xi assumed power in 2013. What Xi did was to make war inevitable by ramping up the nationalist rhetoric. He has burnt his bridges. China can’t back down now without losing face and risk de-legitimising of Communist Party rule of China. For there not to be a war requires the nations of Southeast Asia to withdraw from their bases in the South China Sea when directed to do so and accept subjugation by the Chinese hegemon. Most likely they will put up some resistance, especially Vietnam.
There is at least one party which will come to the aid of the Southeast Asian nations at this point. That is Japan. Japan realises that once China has subjugated the countries on the periphery of the South China Sea, it will be next on China’s agenda. Japan is far better off fighting China in concert with the Southeast Asians than alone. That is why Prime Minister Abe pushed through the change to the Japanese constitution that allows Japan to come to the aid of another party. The other party in this case will be the Philippines with which Japan has concluded basing arrangements. Japan is too proud to accept subjugation by China. China can’t back down. It therefore follows that war is inevitable.
The party that hasn’t been mentioned so far is the United States, which at the moment is preparing to send a fleet close by China’s artificial islands in the South China Sea. By doing so before the bases are completed and fully operational, the US is signalling that it considers the Chinese claims are not legitimate.
Under Barack Obama, the US is just too flaky to be relied upon. Washington has stated that the Senkaku Islands are covered by its defence treaty with Japan, but does not recognise any country’s claims in the South China Sea. That will be too late for Japan which cannot risk being left high and dry by Obama. Japan has much to fear, as we all do, but will likely prevail against China simply by running a blockade of Chinese shipping. In its desperation, China is likely to threaten Japan with nuclear attack. That’s when the future gets murky. Up until that point, everything is fairly clear.
The long run of peace due to the post-World War II nuclear standoff between the United States and the Soviet Union is over. Australia is ill-prepared for what is coming. Apart from a miniscule army, we have only a fraction of the tanks, artillery and war stocks that we need. We import 90% of our transport fuels, and half of that from refineries in the region in which this war will be fought. It is a parlous position to be in, due to neglect and great stupidity.
David Archibald is the author of Australia’s Defence (Connor Court 2015).