Conflict in the East China Sea: Would ANZUS Apply?

Nick Bisley and Brendan Taylor

The following article is an extract from the Australia China Research Institute (ACRI) publication Conflict in the East China Sea: Would ANZUS apply?, launched on Monday 3 November at the Australian Centre on China in the World.

Despite the moderated tone in Sino-Japanese relations prior to the November 2014 APEC Leaders’ Meeting in Beijing, the dangers of conflict in Australia’s Near North remain. This paper outlines three different scenarios for a potential conflict in the East China Sea and the dilemmas facing Australia as a member of the long-standing Australia, New Zealand, United States Security Treaty (ANZUS or ANZUS Treaty):

  • A Chinese-led Air Defence Identification Zone (ADIZ) enforcement scenario;
  • An accidental military clash scenario; and,
  • A non-state actor generated scenario.

We are grateful to the authors and to Bob Carr, director of ACRI, for permission to reproduce this material. Nick Bisley is Executive Director of La Trobe Asia and  Professor of International Relations at LaTrobe University. Brendan Taylor heads the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at The Australian National University. The full paper can be downloaded here.—The Editors


Chinese navy drill in the East China Sea (image source: People's Daily user forum

Chinese navy drill in the East China Sea (image source: People’s Daily user forum)

As the three scenarios highlight, tensions in the region are high. Conflict, while not inevitable, is a very real prospect and, under circumstances that are historically grounded and thus entirely plausible, Australia risks being drawn into an escalation cycle. Given Australia’s complex interests in the region, and in particular its important economic ties to all the protagonists, managing these risks is a vital task.

The scenarios have shed light on the different ways in which conflict may develop, from misunderstanding signals to poor communication, from overconfidence to plain bad luck, the triggers of conflict are many. But equally the scenarios have sought to emphasize that conflict will emerge not because of a single accident or incident, but due to the build-up of pressure, rivalry and fear and cycles of escalation which develop a logic of their own.

The stakes for Australia in an East China Sea conflict are real and relate both to specific circumstances – as in the case of the second scenario where Australian military assets are caught up in the clash – as well as to the broader interests of its allies and the stability of the region as whole. But how would the clashes detailed in the previous chapter draw Australia into the logic of conflict? What dilemmas does Australia face because of its alliance relationship?

At least five factors will determine the likelihood of Australia being drawn into a conflict in the East China Sea.

Who Initiates?

Of particular significance are the precise circumstances under which conflict originates and escalates. One of the reasons why Australian policymakers have traditionally tended not to address more broad-brush hypothetical scenarios involving conflict – Ministers Downer and Johnston being notable exceptions to this convention – is that definitive judgments are often difficult, if not impossible, in the absence of detailed information about just how conflict would unfold. The fact that China has arguably acted as the aggressor in the second scenario, for instance, may make the probability of Australian intervention even more likely than in the third scenario, where a case can be made that Japan was the more heavy-handed of the protagonists and thereby responsible for provoking the ensuing crisis. Often, of course, the precise circumstances around the eruption of conflict are murky with each side apportioning blame, as occurs in the first scenario. However, in those situations where there is a clear instigator of conflict that factor is likely to have considerable impact upon an Australian decision to become involved.

How Does the US Respond?

The greatest factor determining whether or not Australia became actively engaged in any dispute (apart of course from its own decision to do so) would derive from the way the US reacted to events. In each of these scenarios, a narrow reading of ANZUS would not oblige Australia to intervene militarily as none involves an ‘armed attack’ on a signatory. Although there is a remote chance that the second scenario, the accident leading to a loss of US life on board a ship, could be construed as an attack it would require significant diplomatic stretching for that to occur.[1] But it is the broader purpose of the treaty itself and the way in which the relationship has been increasingly understood that will likely bring the alliance into play. The extent to which it does will be contingent on how the US chooses to respond.

The US has made clear that it would do a great deal to avoid a conflict with China and this has been a relatively constant policy position since the mid-1990s, if not earlier. Under the Obama presidency caution about the use of force has been the order of the day. As the second and third scenarios intimated, however, domestic politics in the US has a strong bearing on foreign policy and one cannot be certain that the current administration’s cautious approach continue in the future. An important variable therefore relates to the ways in which domestic political considerations are likely to influence America’s calculus. If a presidential administration comes to power based on a platform of restoring America’s global standing then the prospects of conflict would go up. Although it would not necessarily follow that pressure would be placed on Australia to become involved in a commensurate manner.

A second and related factor that will be crucial to determining how the US would respond to a conflict scenario situation would be the extent to which it believed that its credibility was seriously threatened if it were not to become involved. For the US, a country with a remarkable number of alliance commitments around the world, the question of its credibility is extremely significant. Following President Obama’s April 2014 statement affirming America’s understanding that the disputed islands are covered by the US-Japan security treaty,[2] the prospects that the US might well use force in each of the scenarios is real. Precisely what form that would take is difficult to ascertain but one can be confident that the US would do what it could to reduce the prospects of outright conflict with China. It is our view that the risk of conflict escalating is higher with the first two scenarios.

For Australia, a key alliance dilemma will come when the US begins to take steps in the event that conflict occurs. As an ally Australia will have the opportunity to help shape the US response, limited though that ability will be. One of the abiding purposes of ANZUS has been to increase the ability of Australians to influence key strategic decisions in the region. If Australia were to exercise this opportunity, however, it would also increase the expectation that Australia would become involved if the crisis deteriorated.

Perhaps the primary tactical decision for the US to make in relation to any East China Sea contingency is whether it would opt to develop a broad international coalition in response or whether it would maintain a narrow operational focus. Given the importance of China to the economies of many states around the world, establishing a multinational approach would not be straightforward. The international response to the initial creation of China’s ADIZ is instructive here. The US, Japan and Australia singled out China as the destabilizing force. Others such as Britain and the EU, however, took a more cautious line of not apportioning blame while encouraging the peaceful resolution of disputes. It is likely that the US will try to bring as many flags as possible together in support of its actions, particularly if they involve a military component. Yet the difficulty it will face in this task will mean that the diplomatic pressure on Australia to support the US and Japan in their actions, both diplomatically and militarily, will be considerable.

Does Japan Request Assistance?

Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has conducted a remarkable number of foreign forays since his late 2012 return to the leadership.[3] The new energy in Japanese foreign policy is driven by many factors, but a key component is to build political capital in support of Japan in its jockeying with China for regional and global influence. In all three scenarios, Japan is likely to use some of that capital to try to isolate China diplomatically and to enhance its own position. Australia would be among the first to whom Japan would turn for such support. For Canberra, the kind of dilemma it faces will depend on what Japan seeks. If, under these scenarios, the request is only for diplomatic support, then the risks for Australia are minimal. Although China has responded with some public dressing down of Australia, to date the relationship has not suffered in any substantive sense from the strengthening diplomatic links between Tokyo and Canberra.

A key question is whether Japan would formally request, even privately, some kind of military contribution from Australia. The nature of the defence and security relationship that has developed between Australia and Japan since the early 1990s, and particularly over the past decade or so, means that the likelihood of this occurring has increased markedly. Moreover, a further intensification of this relationship in future will only heighten Tokyo’s expectations of Australian support and potentially deepen Canberra’s East China Sea entrapment dilemmas. This would be particularly so were Tokyo to acquire the means for exerting leverage over Canberra, as some commentators have argued could potentially occur were Australia to develop any form of technological dependency as a result of acquiring its future submarines from Japan.[4]

What Costs can China Impose?

Australia’s approach to conflict in the East China Sea will be shaped not just by the choices and pressures of Japan and the US but also by pressure exerted by China and the actions Beijing takes in response to Washington and Tokyo. As Chinese wealth has grown over recent years, Beijing has increasingly employed economic levers under conditions of crisis to achieve foreign and strategic policy goals. In the aftermath of the September 2010 collision between a Chinese fishing trawler and a Japanese coast guard vessel, for instance, Tokyo reported that Beijing had blocked the export of rare earth elements to Japan.[5] Some Australian analysts have argued that China’s capacity to use of economic levers has often proven counterproductive and that Australia’s vulnerability to such coercion from its largest trading partner is limited at present.[6] While that may be so, as China’s economy continues to grow and as its capacity to employ economic leverage potentially improves over time, it cannot be assumed that Australian decisions perceived as counter-productive to Chinese interests in any future East China Sea contingency will not be cost free.

Part of the reason analysts argue that China’s economic leverage over Australia has been limited to date is that such moves would have negative consequences to the Chinese economy. There are two sectors in which China could have a serious influence but which would have little domestic economic consequence for the PRC: tourism and foreign students. Here China could dole out a fair amount of economic pain to Australia by, for example, labelling it an unfit place for travel. As China becomes more important for the Australian tourism industry this risk will only increase. While an Australian government could well opt to bear such costs, Beijing’s responses to conflict in the East China Sea will generate additional alliance dilemmas for Canberra to contemplate.

How much Freedom of Maneuver will Canberra Have?

The direct involvement of Australian nationals in any contingency would have a profound effect upon the latitude that Canberra has in responding to any conflict situation. This was recently demonstrated in the aftermath of the MH-17 air disaster, where the significant loss of Australian life necessitated that Canberra respond robustly and assume a leading role as part of the international diplomatic response.[7] The same would almost certainly be true in the case of scenario two – particularly with ADF personnel caught up in the crisis – and possibly even in scenario three, where an Australian national (and government employee) is involved. The influence of social media could further limit Canberra’s freedom of maneuver in such situations, particularly if images of Australians suffering or evening dying are broadcast to the wider world.

It is conceivable that Canberra could seek to maximize its freedom of maneuver in any crisis scenario by claiming that maintaining a sense of distance and independence could allow it to play an ‘honest broker’ role in managing and possibly even finding a solution to the crisis at some later point. However, this line of argument is unlikely to carry much water with a United States that is calling upon its allies to engage in more equal defence burden-sharing and that has not been shy over recent years of quietly accusing Canberra of free-riding upon their longstanding alliance relationship. At the same time, however, the statements and positions that Australian policymakers adopt in advance of any conflict will also condition how much freedom of maneuver Canberra has if and when crisis strikes. Hardline diplomatic stances such as the Australian government’s response to China’s November 2013 ADIZ declaration, for instance, while arguably designed to deter further such steps and to garner respect from Beijing, may ultimately make it much harder for Canberra to credibly do anything other than to side with the US and Japan in the event of an East China Sea conflict.



[1] The understanding of an armed attack entails deliberate coercive use of force against the Parties with some substance, that is not a skirmish or harassment. While it is understood to include not just territories but military assets based in the region, an accident of this kind would not normally fall under this definition. However, as Starke points out the vagueness of the expression ‘has suited the parties, because it draws no firm line and leaves the potential aggressor guessing, and at the same time provides some arena of discretion for the country call upon to come to assistance of its attached ally.’ Starke, The ANZUS Treaty Alliance, p.123.

[2] Adam Taylor, ‘103 Words that Tie the U.S. Military to Barren Rocks in the East China Sea’, Washington Post, 24 April 2014.

[3] Ankit Panda, ‘Shinzo Abe Has Visited a Quarter of the World’s Countries in 20 Months: Why?’, The Diplomat, 11 September 2014.

[4] Hugh White, ‘Japan Submarine Option Odds-On Favourite’, Sydney Morning Herald, 16 September 2014.

[5] Keith Bradsher, ‘Amid Tension, China Blocks Vital Exports to Japan’, The New York Times, 22 September 2010.

[6] See, for example, James Reilly, ‘China’s Economic Statecraft: Turning Wealth into Power’, Analysis, Lowy Institute for International Policy, November 2013.

[7] Paul Kelly, ‘Purer View of character on Display as Politics Laid Aside’, The Australian, 26 July 2014.