The instinctive reaction of many analysts to the new military tie-up between the US, the UK and Australia was to ask – how will China respond?
No surprises there. As reflectively defensive as that question is, every foreign policy decision has to be calibrated against a response from other parties.
But far fewer have been focused on what might be a better, albeit, more uncomfortable, question.
Over the last decade, China has engaged in one of the most rapid peacetime military build-ups in recent history, focused on navy and air force expansion and modernisation.
China now has a larger naval fleet than the US, largely concentrated in the seas around it, whereas Washington’s deployments span the globe. In 2016, China commissioned 18 new ships; the US just five.
The Chinese air force’s enhanced capabilities are on display more than ever before, most notably as part of Beijing’s efforts to pressure on Taiwan to agree to some form of unification.
The nationalist party tabloid, the Global Times, reported – given its status, you could say, announced – this week that Chinese fighter jets will soon begin regular flights over Taiwan and the waters between it and the mainland, although much of that air space is nominally under Taipei’s control.
China has built massive new islands in the South China Sea and turned them into military bases to underline its territorial claims there. New silos are being built in western China, in all likelihood to house missiles as part of an expanded nuclear deterrent.
On its border last year, China and India engaged in a military clash, shocking strategists in New Delhi, who still don’t understand why Beijing decided to upend a long-negotiated separation of forces there.
Which brings us back to the sorts of questions that countries in a region that is now engaged in a massive arms race should be asking themselves.
Let’s start by turning on its head the question that many in Australia have been asking – how will China react?
Rather, when Beijing launched its own military build-up, did Chinese leaders and strategists ask themselves – how will the US, and its allies like Japan and Australia, respond?
With Thursday’s announcement in Washington, London and Canberra, the answer to that question is becoming clear.
In the US, competition with China has become the key organising principle for the political, military, scientific and business establishments which have otherwise been divided and devoid of purpose.
Australia, a close US ally, is now also re-shaping its military, economic and trade policies on a mostly bipartisan conviction that Beijing intends to mould the region according to its own strategic designs.
The answer is also becoming clearer in Japan, where the battle to succeed Yoshihide Suga as prime minister has been dominated to an unprecedented extent by debates over how to stand up to China.
In Japan’s case, there are two flashpoints – Taiwan, its former colony, with which it maintains deep ties, and the Senkaku/Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea, which Tokyo controls but Beijing claims as its own. (The islands are also claimed by Taiwan, but that is another story.)
The opacity of the Chinese political system means we have limited insights into similar debates in China. But even without such insights, the direction under Xi Jinping is clear and implacable.
Beijing will make no compromises on any territorial issue. As Xi has told numerous visitors in recent years, China will not give up “one inch of territory left behind by our ancestors”.
Some will argue that China’s military build up is just a response to being surrounded by US allies and bases in the region. In other words, that it is purely defensive.
There is an element of truth in this. The US has been the most powerful country in Asia since 1945. For years China benefitted from the stability provided by the US military as it developed its economy.
But there was no way that a country of China’s size and history would ever accept a secondary role to the US in Asia once it was powerful enough to push back.
Beijing won’t like the Australia/UK/US announcement and will no doubt deride Canberra as Washington’s lackey. It is already doing so with Japan, as well as reviving Tokyo’s crimes against China during its invasion and occupation in the 1930s and 1940s.
But Xi’s hard line, plus a political system which trucks no disagreement at home and abroad, means that in the process Beijing has alienated many of its neighbours in the region.
It is hardly surprising, then, that democracies like Australia and Japan are looking for options to manage China’s rise. In different ways, so are South Korea and many south-east Asian nations. The US is indispensable in all of their calculations.
Australia stands out as a country which has been willing to push back, often clumsily, against China, and it has paid a price for doing so. That price may rise in coming years.
But it is also increasingly clear that Beijing will have to fight many battles, and punish many dissenters, on the way to achieving what Xi benignly calls “the China dream”.
As if anyone needed a reminder, Thursday’s decision makes the fault lines even clearer.
• Richard McGregor is a senior fellow at the Lowy Institute