Last week it was reported that an Australian warship had, in early July, closely followed a Chinese guided-missile destroyer, a nuclear-powered attack submarine, and several military aircraft as it was traveling through the East China Sea. was.
The incident follows a collision on 26 May, when an Australian maritime surveillance aircraft was dangerously intercepted by a Chinese fighter over the South China Sea.
Reportedly, the Chinese fighter plane treacherously close to the Australian aircraft, issuing flares, before cutting its way out and dropping the husk (a cloud of aluminum fiber used as a decoy against radar). Flew.
While there are good reasons not to exaggerate these events, the bad news is that these incidents are almost certain to continue. When they do occur, it is important to place them in their wider historical and geopolitical context and not sensationalize them – we should not make them look like we are on the brink of war.
Good news: 3 reasons to panic
There are three reasons for not exaggerating the importance of these events.
First, the seas in Asia are among the busiest in the world. Warships from different navies are constantly operating in close proximity to each other and most of these interactions are professional and even courteous. This includes most encounters with the Chinese Navy.
A second and related point is that both the Chinese and Australian navies have increased significantly in size over the past decade. More ships means more days at sea, which means more opportunities for navies to come into contact.
Most of these encounters are innocuous. For example, in our research on Australia’s naval diplomacy, the Macquarie University team examined reports that a Chinese ship visited Fiji aboard the HMAS Adelaide.
However, the reality was that the Chinese ship was semi-permanently deployed as a satellite relay in the South Pacific and regularly came in and out of Suva (the capital of Fiji) for supplies. It was nothing more than a chance run-in.
Third, although collisions are not common, they are also far from unprecedented. During the Cold War, the warships of the United States and the Soviet Union frequently feuded. Some forward deployments occurred without some contact with opposing forces, which may have involved overflights, shadowing or dangerous maneuvers.
In fact, potentially dangerous negotiations were common enough that in 1972 the Americans and Soviets signed the Events at Sea (INCSEA) Agreement. The agreement spelled out “rules of the road.” The superpowers also committed to an annual meeting between their senior naval officers, with the responsibility of hosting alternately between them.
The agreement did not end events at sea, but it did create a mechanism for both sides to vent their frustrations, voice their opposition, and work constructively on a solution. Since the meetings were between top professional naval officers from both countries, there was a high level of mutual respect and a genuine effort to make the sea a safe place for their sailors.
Read more: Japan signals ‘sense of crisis’ on Taiwan – so it worries about China’s military objectives
Bad news: these incidents will continue
The US attempted to reiterate its Soviet agreement with China. In 1998, the US and China agreed to the Military Maritime Consultative Agreement, which replicated several successful parts of the Soviet agreement, including an annual meeting between their admirals to discuss events.
The challenge, however, is that the geopolitical background of the US-China agreement is quite different from that of its Cold War antecedents. During the Cold War, tensions at sea rose and fell just as they did on land. However, the areas in which the Soviets attempted to assert their claims (such as the Sea of Okhotsk and the Barents Sea) were isolated and icy and generally insignificant to all except the Soviet Union. The Americans sometimes indulged in intelligence gathering, freedom of navigation operations, or simply to outwit their adversaries – but overall both sides understood the game.
In contrast, China claims exclusive coastal territorial sovereignty over large parts of the South China Sea, the Taiwan Strait and the East China Sea. These are among the most geopolitically important and busiest waterways in the world.
Beijing’s options for convincing regional states to recognize its claims are limited, especially as foreign navies continue to cross these waters, defying China’s sovereignty declarations.
Read more: Friday essay: what should Australia do if escalating US-China rivalry leads to ‘worst war ever’?
Beijing Has Few Options
Politically, China may attempt horse-trading, such that if you accept our claims on the South China Sea we will treat you as a custodian of the South Pacific. Or use economic and diplomatic coercion.
In the case of Australia, neither of these strategies are likely to succeed as they will undermine our relationship with the US, and there is a fear that China will back down in the future.
This leaves tactical deterrence. In explaining how detention works, American economist Thomas Schelling used the analogy of two people in a row boat, where one begins dangerously “shaking the boat” until the other does all the rowing. Till then it is threatened with tip. The danger is shared equally between them, but the boat rocker is counting on the other to retreat because their appetite for risk is low.
Collisions in the air and at sea are risky for both the perpetrator and the target. For example, on 1 April 2001, a Chinese fighter collided with a US signals intelligence aircraft. The American plane was forced to make an emergency landing on Hainan Island, while the Chinese plane crashed and the pilot was killed.
What China is counting on is that Australia is not as risk tolerant as they are. He hopes Australia will blink first. However, Australia has shown no signs that it will stop deployment to the region. In fact, on 26 May, the plane that was threatened and damaged by the straw was one of two Australian planes flying from the Philippines at that time. The Australians were not deterred and the second plane appears to have taken off from the same airspace on 27 May, 30 May and 2 June when the incident took place.
As China and Australia have little choice but to continue with what they are doing, these developments are likely to continue.
However, when they do occur, it is important that they are not taken out of their historical and operational contexts.