Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea

Just before Christmas, I published a piece in The Interpreter (Lowy Institute) arguing that most of the claims made by the contending parties in the South China Sea are myths designed to promote the interests of nationalists and militarists in a variety of countries, including Australia. Final paras

The mutual sabre-rattling associated with South China Sea mythology is beneficial to a variety of actors in the United States, China and elsewhere. The military-industrial complex, against which President Eisenhower warned 60 years ago, is powerful in every country, and always seeks to promote preparation for large-scale war as well as the routine use of military power for political and commercial ends. Nationalist politicians promote territorial claims of all kinds, and exaggerate their importance. And both Chinese and Taiwanese governments have good reasons to keep the idea of an invasion of Taiwan alive.

Unfortunately, these myths are not harmless. The possibility that the United States and China will somehow blunder into war is ever-present. And if such a war broke out, Australia would have a choice of bad options: either a disastrous war with its biggest trading partner or a breach with its most important ally. Rather than joining the alarmist chorus, the government should be seeking to reduce tensions.

The week before Christmas is traditionally a time to publish for those who want to avoid attention, so my timing wasn’t ideal. But in the New Year there has been a bit more interest. I was interviewed by CNBC Asia and Radio Free Asia, and there have been a few republications/

13 thoughts on “Myths that stir trouble in the South China Sea

  1. Used to write a paper about that nonsense as a BA student. Got my only c- and it was a good paper, at least better than most i got an A for. It just also dared to say pretty much that, while the Prof absolutly wanted to hear some realist stuff (without makeing it the official assignment of course).

  2. It’s a pity Mao didn’t have a decent navy back in the day. He could have chased the Kuomintang out of Taiwan and saved the region 70 years of tension and drama. The sensible course for Australia and the USA and everyone else is to allow the Chinese to finally conclude their civil war without our interference, so obviously that option won’t even get considered.

  3. “Rare joint statement from Russia, China, Britain, US and France says ‘nuclear war cannot be won” – ABC News.

    “We affirm that a nuclear war cannot be won and must never be fought. As nuclear use would have far-reaching consequences, we also affirm that nuclear weapons — for as long as they continue to exist — should serve defensive purposes, deter aggression and prevent war. “We believe strongly that the further spread of such weapons must be prevented.” – Joint Statement.

    This is a welcome bit of realism, as far as it goes.

    As I have said elsewhere, I believe China could defeat Taiwan in a one on one invasion. In this I disagree with J.Q. I also disagree with J.Q,’s assumption that he knows what China has and does not have in terms of offensive and invasion hardware and military capacity to defeat Taiwan. However, I believe any victory of China over Taiwan would be a Pyrrhic Victory and cost China enormously in multiple ways. China would lose a lot of troops and militrary hardware. Taiwan would be devastated and prizes like the microchips manufactruing capacity most likely blown sky high. Trade would be greatly disrupted. The QUAD, NATO and many of their allies would rapidly reduce trade and ties with China. China would be the pariah of the world. Russia might stick with them.

    Also. don’t write of China’s total amphibious capacity and its move to civilian/military amphibious interoperability. The Chinese think outside the box and exert state power over civilian sectors in ways which could tend to make orthodox Western prognostications myopic.

    But as I said. Taking Taiwan would be the mother of all Pyrrhic Victories. The Chinese are probably too smart to try it to soon… but then neoliberal Western politicians and their military- industrial complexes don’t have the monopoly on rank stupidity.

  4. kenalovell said “finally conclude their civil war without our interference,”.

    By that logic kenalovell, I assume you agree first nations Australian people will complete the retaking of Australia.

    How long does “we do / don’t want to be part of country x’ last for?

  5. Both Taipei and Beijing agree there is only one China, so your question makes no sense.

  6. Ikonoklast @4. By the end, the author pretty much concedes that it isn’t really feasible, and notes the solution that Taiwan has already adopted – lots of anti-ship missiles

  7. Here’s a serious analysis from the U.S. Naval War College. The title “Chinese Ferry Tales” gives a hint of the conclusion “as of 2021, China’s merchant fleet is unable to provide the amphibious landing capabilities or the maritime logistics in austere or challenging environments necessary to have a significant impact in an amphibious landing operation on Taiwan.”

  8. Kenalovel is being cute. The Taiwanese claim over the mainland is a constitutional but not a current fact. Taiwan can only remove this claim by a referendum which is cannot do – to admit that China is not one country would invite a mainland attack. What he is really saying is that he couldn’t give a damn about the 23.5 million Taiwanese who by a vast majority (over 90%) do not want integration with the mainland. Why would they? A highly prosperous democratic society does not seek to be squashed by an aggressive totalitarian monster.

  9. Spare us your sudden compassion for the victims of aggression, Harry. You were happy to cheer on our participation in America’s disastrous military adventures in Afghanistan and the Middle East, despite their massive toll of death and immiseration to the local inhabitants. Now you apparently want us to get involved in a whole new conflict that would make the killing fields of Iraq look like trivial.

  10. kenalovell, Too much illogic and irrelevancy there to be bothered sorting out a response. But you did use the weasel word “apparently” to soften the final masterpiece of illogic that I support a holocaust because I don’t support a mainland takeover of Taiwan. In fact I agree with John Quiggin that a mainland invasion is unlikely so the issue is moot. But I do believe that a free and democratic Taiwan is preferable to integration with the mainland.

  11. John,

    You might be right. I can’t pretend to in-depth knowledge in these matters. I do note however that;

    1. The report you linked to ends as follows:

    “Despite these seemingly negative critiques of PLA amphibious landing capabilities in general, and
    over-the-shore, “dockless” logistics capabilities in particular, it would be a mistake to underestimate
    the ingenuity and tenacity of the PLA. An evaluation of these 2020 and 2021 exercises should be
    considered in the context of a Chinese approach to problem solving rather than a Western opinion
    about how amphibious logistics should be done. The PLA’s reserve merchant fleet probably does not
    currently have the capabilities and capacities to support a disciplined, effective, and efficient
    amphibious operation with over-the-shore logistics in support of a Taiwan invasion. However,
    efficiency is not necessarily a prerequisite for success, especially for the PLA.

    Clearly, the PLA has started to work through what may be required to support an invasion of Taiwan
    and how exactly that will be done. The Chinese Communist Party can leverage a national
    mobilization of maritime shipping on a massive scale and the PLA clearly intends to exploit that
    capability. Such a mobilization of civilian shipping to support cross-strait operations may be very
    high risk and could involve extremely high losses. However, there is a certain “quality in quantity.”
    There are few challenges related to efficiency and attrition that the Chinese military could not simply
    address with overwhelming mass and a tolerance for loss. Future exercises like those explored in this
    report merit close scrutiny to provide indications of the trajectory of PLA amphibious and logistics

    2.The Pentagon themselves report losing war games (plural) of China vs. Taiwan and USA. One assumes these are Taiwan theatre and non-nuclear conflicts. (Because everyone loses a nuclear conflict).

    But there are so many factors to consider. I doubt China would widen the conflict initially to the whole Indo-Pacific theater and against mostly American assets just to take Taiwan. That immediately risks WW3. Taiwan may be worth a lot to China but it’s scarcely worth WW3.

    The site Warisboring envisages further scenarios to an immediate mass amphibious invasion or starting a huge Indo-Pacific war. These are;

    A. “Naval blockade. China could starve out Taiwan, which imports much of its food and fuel. Beijing could compel ships to stop in mainland ports for inspection. Or, the Chinese Communist Party could declare the waters around Taiwan to be live-fire training zones, discouraging ships from entering, just as it did in 1995. “China today probably could not enforce a full military blockade,” the Pentagon concludes. “However, its ability to do so will improve significantly over the next five to 10 years.””

    B. “Limited force. China could unleash cyber-warfare or raids by Special Operations Forces “against Taiwan’s political, military and economic infrastructure to induce fear in Taiwan and degrade the populace’s confidence in the Taiwan leadership.””

    C. “Air and missile attacks. “China could use missile attacks and precision strikes against air defense systems, including air bases, radar sites, missiles, space assets and communications facilities to degrade Taiwan’s defenses, neutralize Taiwan’s leadership, or break the Taiwan people’s will to fight.””

    These could be used in any combination and as long-term lead ups to invasion. But one can think of all kinds of objections to them as well. I imagine Taiwan’s facilities are hardened and in mountains etc. China’s proximity seaboard may be be much more vulnerable to return missiles for example.

    China should just keep playing the long game, IMO, if I was a dispassionate adviser. The West is destroying itself (COVID-19 as the final crisis of capitalism). Why should China lift a finger? It can just wait.

    “Never interrupt the enemy when he is making a mistake.” – Napoleon (attributed).

  12. “A seaborne invasion of Taiwan would be massively more difficult than the D-Day landings.”

    If it’s about fighting that past war again, try on Singapore.

    Ipso facto “China has made no serious effort to prepare for such an invasion.” against “..hundreds of truck-mounted anti-ship missiles that could not be neutralised by preliminary bombardment.”

    But drones and ‘smarts’? Cyber? Psyop? Air drop? Fifth column? Saboteurs? A poverty-phobic and panicking public pressing political pirouettes? Many more ways to skin a cat, and with time enough.

    Australia _as we know it_ won’t have any choice before becoming a scarred battle ground if it comes to yet another west Pacific US imperial war. US warpigs out now!

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