Envoy in troubled waters

The East China Sea has fast become one of Asia's most dangerous security flashpoints. The Japanese defence ministry reports that in the first half of this year it has had to scramble jets over  230 times in response to Chinese incursion into its airspace.

Chinese and Japanese military aircraft have been flying dangerously close over these waters in recent months, sparking fears of a major international crisis should they collide.

Military planners in Beijing reportedly have been drawing up plans for a "short, sharp war" designed to seize disputed islands (known as the Senkakus in Japan and the Diaoyu in China) from Tokyo. Meanwhile, Barack Obama is the first sitting president to publicly confirm that US alliance commitments to Japan extend to these islands. History suggests that Australia almost certainly would follow its US ally into an East China Sea contingency.

Hopes are high that Chinese President Xi Jinping and his Japanese counterpart Shinzo Abe will have a bilateral meeting on the sidelines of the Asia-Pacific Economic Co-operation forum summit in Beijing, the first time the leaders of China and Japan will have met in more than two years. It is hoped this will help hose down tensions in the East China Sea.If it occurs, the meeting would be a welcome development. But expectations for a Xi-Abe summit should be kept in check. China-Japan animosities run deep and the future of this relationship hinges on far more than a handshake.Recent polling reveals that 93 per cent of the Japanese public have an "unfavourable" view of China,while more than 50 per cent of Chinese see military conflict with Japan as inevitable.

The East China Sea is of particular interest to Australia as it has more at stake in the conflict than any other regional power outside the principal protagonists. China, Japan and the US are Australia's three most important trading partners. Conflict in the East China Sea puts Australian economic interests squarely in the firing line. Australia's alliance with the US further increases the stakes.Canberra has committed itself militarily every time the US has asked for support. Forget the legalities of the ambiguous alliance treaty signed between Australia and the US in 1951.

If conflict erupted in ways that brought an expectation from Washington that Australia should be involved, staying on the sidelines would not be an option.Complicating Australia's case has been the development of a uniquely close relationship to Japan. While both sides of politics have long supported deeper security ties to Tokyo, these have been ramped up decisively by the Abbott government.The Canberra-Tokyo link is described by policy elites, both in and around government in Japan, as a quasialliance. With Japan poised to supply Australia with submarines in the future, these ties are being bound ever more tightly.

So what can Australia do to manage circumstances that are very much of its own making?While much of the debate about Australia's alignments focuses on risks of entrapment in conflicts that otherwise might have been avoided, one must not overlook the opportunities that these  relationships create. Security ties with Tokyo and Washington give Canberra an ability to shape its destiny. Canberra can help inform the choices its partners make as well as manage the expectations they might have. One should not overstate this but, equally, to overlook the capacity to influence how Japan and the US handle this flashpoint is to miss an important policy option.

Australia can also work alongside others in the region to develop crisis management mechanisms. Given how febrile the region has become, processes must be established that can allow for de-escalation in the case of accidental clashes. Australia's good standing with Beijing, Tokyo and Washington, alongside its recognised record of creative and effective diplomacy, can help develop
accepted means to ensure that increasingly frequent clashes around the disputed islands do not spiral out of control.Perhaps the greatest asset Australia can bring to bear in the case of an escalation is to ensure it has the maximum possible freedom of policy manoeuvre. Australia has to manage its economic links with China, the expectations of its alliance with the US and deepening  ties to Japan. To do so most effectively it needs to ensure it has a wide range of policy options. Closing down possible courses of action through careless diplomacy or overheated rhetoric will only harm Australia's interests.

This article first appeared in The Australian On Tuesday November 4th

La Trobe Asia executive director Professor Nick Bisley and Brendan Taylor, head of the Strategic and DefenceStudies Centre, ANU, are the authors of Conflict in the East China Sea: Would ANZUS Apply?

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