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Dr John Lee in The Australian: ‘China’s new team cut from the same military cloth’

9 April, 2013

CISS Fellow Dr John Lee has published an opinion piece in The Australian on China and Australia’s recent announcement of military co-operation. 

SINCE his confirmation as China's President, Xi Jinping has pledged to "strengthen military co-operation" with Russia, advanced a "new type" of military relationship with the US and India, and vowed to boost military ties with Malaysia. The latest charm offensive is the announcement by China and Australia of unprecedented military co-operation.

But Canberra should not oversell the weekend announcement to itself or the region. We are not witnessing any sea change here in Chinese strategic ambition or the PLA's propensity towards poor transparency of means and ends.

Why the more conciliatory military diplomacy from the new leadership in China? Beijing offered the region a decade of soothing diplomacy from the late 1990s onwards of its peaceful development, arguing persuasively that China requires a peaceful and stable environment within which to continue its rise.

Beijing and its PLA generals then spent from 2010 onwards challenging their own rhetoric of peaceful development: escalating diplomatic incidents with Japan in the East China Sea; reaffirming China's claim to almost all of the South China Sea as its "inviolable sovereignty" while picking fights with claimants Vietnam and The Philippines, which raised concerns in all trade-dependent countries in Southeast Asia; scaling back military-to-military relations with the US; and periodically escalating its land dispute with India over the Indian-held territory of Arunachal Pradesh.

In response, every major maritime country in Asia deepened or else reaffirmed its strategic, diplomatic and military relationship with the US and each other. In some cases, former adversaries quickly became strategic friends.

For example, Vietnam publicly appealed for an even greater US military presence in the region - a scenario that could not have been imagined several decades ago. Indeed, it is questionable whether the political conditions in Australia would have existed to support the 2011 announcement of the US marines rotating through Darwin had China not increased its overall assertiveness. The same could be said for Singapore's recent decision to host up to four US littoral combat ships, and the likely reinvigoration of the US-Japan alliance.

Beijing's bluster has been backed up by defence budget increases that have exceeded its high rates of GDP growth for more than 15 years, meaning that its smile diplomacy from the 1990s onwards coincided with the most rapid military build-up in recent peacetime history. Its official defence budget is about $US115 billion ($110bn), with an unofficial estimate that spending is upwards of $US180bn. Of particular concern is that China has commissioned at least 45 advanced submarines since 1995 and is funding five new submarine programs.

Beijing would offer the plausible argument that it is simply building a military commensurate with its economic size and interests. But a focus on submarines in particular is hardly an indication that Beijing intends to play the role of public security goods provider, while the scale of its military expansion can no longer be credibly accounted for by its official objective that it is only about preventing Taiwanese independence.

It is clear that the regional stampede to balance against China has caused the new leadership to attempt a "diplomatic reset" in Asia. Even so, Beijing's capacity to mollify regional wariness is limited by the fact that Chinese fundamental objectives have not been altered. On the contrary, the domestic determination to make good on claims in the East and South China seas has deepened over time, and Beijing's capacity to compromise and co-operate with other capitals is poorer now than at any time since the reform period from 1978 onwards. Early indications are that Xi and his new team are cut from the same cloth as previous leaders. Xi has given a number of speeches referring to the "rejuvenation" of "the China Dream". Domestic audiences are repeatedly told that a "dominant military" is at the heart of a "strong nation". Were China to achieve its stated ambitions, it would damage every major nation in Asia.

Any opportunity to deepen military-to-military relations should be welcomed. But serious differences between China and the region need more than military exchanges to resolve them.

Dr John Lee is the Michael Hintze Fellow for Energy Security and an Adjunct Associate Professor at the Centre for International Security Studies, Sydney University. He is also a non-resident senior scholar at the Hudson Institute in Washington, DC and a director of the Kokoda Foundation in Canberra.


The article was published in The Australian on 9 April 2013.


Contact:Shoshana Robuck
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