Australian prime minister Albanese isn’t the only one talking about the need for ‘guardrails’ in our region to manage and reduce the risk of conflict. This idea has been put forward by US President Biden and senior members of his Administration like Secretary of State Antony Blinken and Pentagon chief Lloyd Austin – and Australia’s ambassador to Washington, Kevin Rudd.
The only problem with the idea is that Beijing just isn’t interested, seeing any external constraint on its actions as an effort at frustrating and containing China’s rise. It may even be worse than that, with Xi Jinping and his acolytes seeing US and others’ calls for guardrails as admissions that Beijing’s current approach is working, with the obvious reaction in Beijing being ‘why stop now?’.
What exactly are these guardrails? Mr Albanese told his audience in Singapore that they are ‘simple, practical structures to prevent a worse case scenario’ and ‘an essential precondition for this is, of course, dialogue’. He explained that to work, this required ‘reliable and open channels of communication between the governments of the US and the PRC’, adding that guardrails are ‘not entirely sufficient,’ the region also needed ‘a set of rules that serve all of us who use the road’.
Unfortunately, we were given a practical lesson in the central flaw to this approach to dealing with Beijing by the combination of Chinese Defence Minster Li’s speech and a PLA navy warship’s dangerous manoeuvring.
China’s Defence Minister, PLA General Li said Beijing’s ‘purpose is to promote peace, stability and security of our region’ and told his audience that the Chinese state wants ‘a new path to security, featuring dialogue over confrontation, partnership over alliances, and a win-win over this zero sum’. He repeated some more boilerplate CCP language, saying ‘China firmly supports ASEAN centrality and its strategic autonomy. We are committed to promoting cooperative, collective and common security in our region on the basis of mutual respect. Second, fairness and justice should transcend the law of the jungle. All countries, big or small, strong or weak, rich or poor, are equal members of the international community.’
At the same time, however a People’s Liberation Army Navy warship was cutting across the bow of a US destroyer travelling with a Canadian frigate through the international waterway between Taiwan and China, creating the real risk of collision and creation of a military crisis.
Not only was the US destroyer conducting a transit passage through an international waterway (not Chinese territory) but the dangerous behaviour of the Chinese warship contravened the regulations preventing collisions at sea that China has signed up to.
As the Philippines’ Jay Tristan Tarriela pointed out to General Li, he ‘mentioned China wants to promote dialogue over confrontation. So my question is about the apparent disconnect between China’s words and actions related to its maritime interaction with the Philippines and perhaps with others in the region. For example, when President Marcos and President Xi met in Beijing, they agreed to manage differences through peaceful means and to promote freedom of navigation, and overflight above South China Sea and reached consensus on the powerful resolution of disputes on the basis of the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.
But, Filipino fishermen (who) were simply fishing in Philippines exclusive economic zone, were harassed and driven away by China Coast Guard, in violation of international law. The following month, your Coast Guard directed a military grade laser into the Philippines Coast Guard vessel inside the Philippines exclusive economic zone under the United Nations Convention of the Law of the Sea.
So while China is stoking dialogue, China’s actions show confrontation.’
Mr Tarriela’s question and observations were echoed by others throughout the forum, because these Chinese actions are just the latest examples in a now very consistent trail of behaviour.
Guardrails that have their foundation in frank and open dialogue are doomed to be empty gestures while Beijing tells us it seeks peace but acts aggressively and dangerously, is committed to conventions and treaties it is busily breaking, and is comfortable denying reality in the dialogues it holds with others. This is deliberate policy from Beijing.
Where do we go from here? One implication from the General Li’s demonstration of Beijing’s approach is that re-establishing dialogue with Chinese government representatives, including Xi Jinping, is of less value than we would like it to be. So, policy makers and ministers can be less anxious about whether ministerial and prime ministerial contacts happen with Beijing. Instead, ministers and policy makers need to be more anxious about what to do, other than smiling and organising the next dialogue, when their Chinese counterparts say things which they know not to be true.
The other primary implication is a deeper one for policy and decision making. It requires us to shift from the government’s overemphasis on diplomacy and dialogue as the primary way of managing China’s use of power in our region. Instead we must recognise that Australia has to pull its weight – and more – in working with partners and allies to have the credible military means to deter Beijing from beginning a conflict. Failing to spend what is required on defence doesn’t meet this test.
US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin’s speech demonstrated how a positive approach to deterrence through stronger military capacity and increasing practical military cooperation with partners and allies can be a powerful way of showing Beijing that the costs of conflict are rising. Japan, South Korea and the Philippines are active partners of the US here.
As we see with a Canadian frigate accompanying the US warship through the Taiwan Straits, Canadian policymakers understand that a much more powerful deterrent message is sent to Beijing when the US is not lonely in asserting such international rights.
That’s something we and other partners and allies must take to heart. True multilateral deterrence requires practical multilateral presence in dangerous places. And the danger to any one nation is reduced by having company. Deterrence also involves conveying a determination to use military force if deterrence fails, as it did in Ukraine.
Australia has become reluctant to talk about the role that hard power now must play in a world where two major powers – Russia and China – are breaking rules they have signed up to and using words of peace while engaged in aggression.
Guardrails and dialogue only work when everyone involved sees these rails as having value to them and when the participants speak with credibility because their actions are consistent with their words.
That’s not the world we are living in.
This article was first published by Sky Digital on 7 June 2023.