The American scholar John Mearsheimer recently delivered a lecture at the University of Sydney. He spoke primarily about the rise of China and the implications of that rise for Australia. Because Mearsheimer is a traditional realist, in the international relations theory meaning of that term, he naturally told his audience to expect a great power rivalry between the United States and China at some point at least twenty years from now. In Mearsheimer’s view, Indonesia is an important venue in that contest– so important, that he suggests we could even see a PRC military presence on Indonesian soil in the years after 2030. He explains his thinking below:
China’s dependence on imported oil, which is already substantial, is going to increase markedly over the next few decades. Much of that imported oil will come out of the Middle East and most of it will be transported to China by ship. For all the talk about moving oil by pipelines and railroads through Burma and Pakistan, the fact is that maritime transport is a much easier and cheaper option. The Chinese, of course, know this and it is one reason why they are planning to build a blue water navy. They want to be able to protect their sea-lanes that run to and from the Middle East.
China, however, faces a major geographical problem in securing those sea-lanes, which has significant implications for Australia. Specifically, there are three major water passages that connect the South China Sea and the Indian Ocean. Otherwise, various Southeast Asian countries separate those two large bodies of water. That means China must have access to at least one of those passages at all times if it hopes to be able to control its sea-lanes to and from the oil-rich Middle East.
Chinese ships can go through the Straits of Malacca, which are surrounded by Indonesia, Malaysia, and Singapore, or they can go further south and traverse either the Lombok Strait or the Sunda Strait, both of which cut through Indonesia, and both of which bring you out into the open waters of the Indian Ocean just to the northwest of Australia. China, however, is not likely to be able to get through the Straits of Malacca in a conflict with the United States, because Singapore, which is closely allied with Washington, sits astride that passageway. This is what Chinese strategists call “the Malacca dilemma.” Therefore, China has a powerful incentive to make sure its ships can move through the two main openings that run through Indonesia.
This situation almost certainly means that China will maintain a significant military presence in the waters off the northern coast of Australia and maybe even on Indonesian territory. China will for sure be deeply concerned about Australia’s power projection capabilities, and will work to make sure that they cannot be used to shut down either the Lombok or Sunda Straits or threaten China shipping in the Indian Ocean.
I should mention that I don’t subscribe to the traditional realist school of international relations theory for a variety of reasons I will not get into on this blog. In this particular case, I think Mearsheimer’s conclusions are both overdetermined by geography and insufficiently aware of it– he neglects to mention the grave difficulty that the merchant marine has in navigating both the Lombok and Sunda Straits due to their dangerous current patterns and shallow features, difficulties that drive up maritime insurance costs dramatically and give mariners a strong incentive to avoid them.
But as the constructivist scholar Alexander Wendt says, “anarchy is what states make of it,” so to the extent strategic thinkers in Beijing, Jakarta, Canberra, and Washington find Mearsheimer’s arguments convincing, they will have an impact.