By Geoff Raby
The just concluded Shangri-la Dialogue in Singapore continued the familiar pattern of its meetings by contributing to ramping up shrill commentary over the latest "grave threat" to regional security. These nearly always involve China: for several years it was Taiwan, then the Diaoyu/Senkaku islands between China and Japan and, on and off for years, China's assertive behaviour in the South China Seas. The latter was the stand-out issue for the most recent meeting.
Once again the media seized on the chance to present the issues starkly in terms of a rising China challenging the US in the region. Weaker regional states highlighted their vulnerabilities in the face of China in order to shore up US engagement.
As usual, various defence ministers used tough language, feeding a continuous loop of reportage and commentary in the more hawkish media outlets in China and the US and its allies. The perception was of an imminent crisis, which, of course, is good for the conference business.
If the South China Sea issue did not exist it would have to be invented. It serves everyone's interests, without really threatening anyone's. It keeps nationalist political sentiments stoked and assists governments to distract attention from domestic political challenges to national security concerns.
To be sure, the risk of an accident is real and needs to be taken seriously. At the same time, it is important not to lose sight of the track record of the US and China in skilfully managing accidents, such as in 2001 when a US spy plane was forced to land on Hainan Island after a mid-air collision with a Chinese People's Liberation Army (PLA) plane, which resulted in the Chinese pilot's death. Over the years, many reported and unreported incidents have occurred without leading to conflict. While it is important not to be complacent about the risks, equally these should not be exaggerated.
China's more assertive diplomacy in this region since about 2007 is something of a puzzle. Commentators have variously suggested it is a manifestation of internal political struggles, as contenders seek to enlist the PLA while demonstrating their nationalist credentials, or rogue behaviour by the PLA and China's increasingly well-resourced Coast Guard.
China's official line is that it is responding to provocative actions by other claimant states, which include having built permanent structures on rocks and shoals.
Recent activity re-ignites US debate
The difficulty for China, however, is the more it seeks to assert its claims in the South China Sea, the more harm it does to its much more important long-term strategic objective of balancing US influence and – ultimately one day – power in the region. Close regional neighbours naturally look to the US to balance China in the region the more China behaves assertively.
The latest round of Chinese activity in the South China Sea has re-ignited debate in Washington, with the China "hawks" demanding tough action by the US, not least to keep pressure on President Barack Obama over foreign policy – widely seen as a major vulnerability for this administration. US Defence Secretary Ashton Carter was responding to this with his statements at Shangri-la, and the G7 has just released a statement that pointedly condemns "land reclamation" in the South China Sea.
Last year, China could readily remove [China National Offshore Oil Corporation]'s oil drilling platform following violent demonstrations in Vietnam against Chinese companies operating there. The land reclamations will stay, of course. It will then be a matter of what China does with them.
Australia, together with regional neighbours in ASEAN, should privately and in regional and multilateral forums, exert as much pressure as possible on China to do what it says it will do and that is to use them for peaceful purposes. Australia should also continue to caution China against establishing an air identification zone, making clear that it would have to be ignored by all its east-Asian neighbours and the US.
Whatever the mix of domestic pressures behind China's recent behaviour in the South China Sea, testing the limits to US commitment to the region is an important strategic consideration, despite the short-term cost to relations with its near neighbours. It is a cornerstone of Australia's foreign and security policy, as it is for many of our regional neighbours, that the US remains heavily engaged in the region. Australia needs to keep emphasising this to China, while avoiding trying to play itself directly into these disputes or taking sides.
China obviously does not want conflict in the region and it seeks to involve ASEAN members in Xi Jinping's Maritime Silk Road policy. While Xi's foreign policy has been more muscular than his predecessors', as he has quietly ditched Deng Xiaoping's policy of "hide your brightness, bide your time", Xi's foreign policy thus far has also been characterised by flexibility.
It may well be China's strategy to engage eventually with ASEAN, including even as a group rather than individually, in negotiations over joint management and use of the resources of the area. If that were the case, then China's behaviour can be seen as intended to increase the weight and legitimacy of its claims in the area. Bringing about a negotiated means of managing all the disputed claims will be greatly assisted if issues are kept in perspective, China's actions not exaggerated and sharp language in public avoided.
Geoff Raby is Chairman and CEO of Geoff Raby & Associates and a former Australian Ambassador to China.
This article first appeared in the Australian Financial Review: