PRC assertiveness stirs discussion, action among Indo-Pacific stakeholders

PRC assertiveness stirs discussion, action among Indo-Pacific stakeholders


A continuously assertive People’s Republic of China (PRC) has been a topic of discussion recently at meetings of Indo-Pacific stakeholders.

Though the PRC was not mentioned directly during a late September 2021 meeting of the leaders of the Quad — Australia, India, Japan and the United States — officials spoke against actions widely known to be carried out by the Chinese government.

“We stand here together in the Indo-Pacific region, a region that we wish to be always free from coercion, where the sovereign rights of all nations are respected and where disputes are settled peacefully in accordance with international law,” Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison said during the meeting, an apparent message to the PRC, according to The Washington Post newspaper.

The Quad’s joint statement after the meeting also alluded to regional rifts and disagreements involving the PRC while saying its members intend to redouble efforts to ensure regional peace, stability, security and prosperity.

“Towards that end, we will continue to champion adherence to international law, particularly as reflected in the U.N. [United Nations] Convention on the Law of the Sea, to meet challenges to the maritime rules-based order, including in the East and South China Seas,” the statement read. “We affirm our support to small island states, especially those in the Pacific, to enhance their economic and environmental resilience.”

The PRC continues to encroach into the exclusive economic zones (EEZs) of nations across the region and remains deadlocked in South China Sea disputes with countries that include Brunei, Indonesia, Malaysia, the Philippines and Vietnam. The PRC also continues to ignore a 2016 ruling by an international tribunal that invalidated its claims to waters in the Philippines’ EEZ in the South China Sea.

Japanese officials grew more vocal in September 2021, expressing frustration over a territorial dispute with the PRC involving the Senkaku islands, known as the Diaoyu islands in China. Japanese Defense Minister Nobuo Kishi told CNN that the islands are unquestionably Japanese territory and would be defended as such. Japanese authorities said Chinese coast guard vessels encroached into Japan’s waters or within 12 nautical miles of its territory 88 times from January to late August 2021, according to CNN. Japan accused the PRC of an additional 851 incursions in the contiguous zone, waters between islands but not within 12 miles of shore, according to CNN.

In late August, Tokyo filed a complaint with Beijing after seven Chinese coast guard ships, four outfitted with cannon-like weapons, appeared together in waters around the disputed islands, the Stars and Stripes newspaper reported.

“Against Chinese action to Senkaku islands and other parts of the East China Sea … we have to demonstrate that our government of Japan is resolutely defending our territory with the greater number of Japanese Coast Guard vessels than that of China,” Kishi told CNN.

Japan has expanded its Self-Defense Forces, adding F-35 fighter jets and converting warships to aircraft carriers, CNN noted. It is also expanding its fleet by building new destroyers, submarines and missiles.

Meanwhile, the PRC maintains its Diaoyu claims and has created laws to enforce them, including authorizing its fleets to use lethal force against foreign vessels operating in Chinese-claimed waters.

A new defense pact among Australia, the United Kingdom and the U.S. — known as AUKUS — takes direct aim at countering attempted Chinese aggression.

“As leaders of Australia, the United Kingdom, and the United States, guided by our enduring ideals and shared commitment to the international rules-based order, we resolve to deepen diplomatic, security, and defense cooperation in the Indo-Pacific region, including by working with partners, to meet the challenges of the twenty-first century,” according to a joint statement by Morrison, U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson and U.S. President Joe Biden. “Through AUKUS, our governments will strengthen the ability of each to support our security and defense interests, building on our longstanding and ongoing bilateral ties. We will promote deeper information and technology sharing. We will foster deeper integration of security and defense-related science, technology, industrial bases, and supply chains. And in particular, we will significantly deepen cooperation on a range of security and defense capabilities.”

(Pictured: U.S. President Joe Biden, joined virtually by Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, left, and U.K. Prime Minister Boris Johnson, discusses a national security initiative known as AUKUS at the White House in September 2021.)

“It is a big deal, because this really shows that all three nations are drawing a line in the sand to start and counter the Chinese Communist Party’s aggressive moves in the Indo-Pacific,” Guy Boekenstein, senior director of defense and national security for Australia’s Northern Territory government, told the BBC. “It also publicly demonstrates our combined stance on this and commitment to a stable and secure Indo-Pacific region — one that for the past 70 years has led to the prosperity of all in the region, including China’s economic growth.”

The trilateral AUKUS treaty will allow Australia to acquire nuclear-powered submarines using U.S. technology and also calls for cooperation on cyber capabilities, artificial intelligence and quantum technologies, among other strategic priorities.