China’s PLA Navy conducted live fire drills in the East China Sea Thursday, pouring further fuel on the geopolitical fire in Asia. According to a Reuters report citing state-run Chinese news agency Xinhua, “the training involved more than 100 ships, dozens of aircraft, information warfare units as well the firing of close to 100 missiles.” The drills, the third of their kind since June, won’t be taken well by Tokyo, whose territorial dispute with Beijing over the remote Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands is among the region’s most bitter conflict.
Though the sides never came anywhere near an ultimate agreement on the countervailing claims, in the last year China sharply deescalated in the East China Sea after long ramming Japanese ships and generally making life difficult for the country in the waters around the islands. Beijing had chosen instead to focus its expansionist efforts on the South China Sea, where counterclaimants like Vietnam, Brunei, and the Philippines aren’t quite so strong. But whatever informal rule was keeping Beijing quiet in the East China Sea may have lost its force, and there are increasing signs that China, roiled though it is by wobbly markets, will not be holding back in its fights with Japan.
Capping off the East China Sea drills, for example, is Wednesday’s announcement of the first ever joint China-Russia amphibious exercises, which took place on Russia’s Pacific coast to the north of Japan. The two countries landed roughly 400 troops on a beachhead, in a mock assault that is sure both to make Taiwan even more nervous than usual about the prospect of a Chinese invasion and to rankle Tokyo, which is locked in yet another territorial dispute near where the drills took place, this one with Russia over the Kuril Islands.
All in all, the week’s news doesn’t exactly paint a pretty picture of a harmonious future for Asia, and China’s foes as well as its friends are acting accordingly. One big sign of the times: Australia’s Defense Minister Kevin Andrews has announced a new military strategy that will see much closer military cooperation with the U.S. in Asia.
Andrews, previewing an official white paper set to be released later in 2015, said that “…competing claims for territory and natural resources in the South China Sea will continue to be a source of tension in the region. Combined with growth in military capability, this backdrop therefore has the potential to destabilize the region and threaten Australia’s interests.” Closer military ties with the U.S., Andrews continued, will make sure that his country “can both defend Australia’s interests and work together with the United States in combined operations wherever our interests are engaged.” The white paper will reportedly call for spending billions more on advanced weaponry, much of it to be bought from the United States.
This is a big deal, given longstanding Australian diplomatic norms. Australia has needed to balance between China and the U.S., and historically it has had a political aversion to hosting the American military. The anti-China coalition, increasingly drawing together, just got a powerful new member.