Wayne Swan’s budget announced that Australia will receive a $27 billion military upgrade that, according to the Defence White Paper, will include 12 more submarines for our fleet. There has been much discussion here and abroad about this significant step, and, just as importantly, about how it will be received by our Chinese economic partner. Along with the announcement about the fleet, there have been attempts to reassure the Chinese that the military purchases outlined in the White Paper are not aimed at them.
But were they? And if so, was that a wise move for Australia?
Prime Minister Kevin Rudd stated a few weeks ago: "It follows very plainly that here in the Asia-Pacific region, there are in certain parts of the region the build up of armed forces … We simply need to take a calm, measured, responsible approach for the future to make sure that our army, navy and air force have the resources they need for the future."
But Shi Yinhong, Professor of International Relations from Renmin University, was a little more blunt: "China definitely will not accept Australia adopting the so-called China threat thesis."
What neither said of course was that this regional naval buildup has been occurring for some time now, with submarines the most popular toy for Asian militaries facing not just China’s increasing military muscle, but the possibility of more skirmishes at sea like the recent maritime "shipping incidents" that have occurred between US military vessels and the Chinese "fishing" fleet.
In one of these, in the Yellow Sea, Chinese ships confronted the USNS Victorious, an "unarmed ocean surveillance" ship conducting "authorised undersea listening operations in international waters", according to the US Navy. This indicates the real tension during these skirmishes, and what is at stake. China is trying to protect its communications: in the Yellow Sea, lying between China and the Korean peninsula, these are most likely to be between itself and North Korea.
Intelligence warfare is taking place in oceans around the world and, in very basic terms, states are protecting their own communications or spying on others’, and increasingly they are making use of submarine technologies in Exclusive Economic Zones and international waters.
These maritime skirmishes also reflect the importance of international sea lanes to both the US and China, and of sea power generally. Hence China’s Gulf of Aden missions, and its strategic relations with countries such as Burma and Pakistan that can give it access to oceans. Freedom of trade is vital to China’s economic livelihood, especially as the global economic crisis deepens. Michael Green wrote a provocative piece for Pacnet in March suggesting that this economic downturn could lead to more militaristic policies from Beijing — although his analysis has been refuted by commentators within China.
Currently, China and the US are warily circling each other in maritime areas. The apparent tension between the reigning world power and its emerging peer competitor has been building for some time now — most obviously seen in the Pentagon Reports that have warned of China’s growing military capabilities, the fierce economic competition between the two countries and of course, spats over China’s human rights record in areas like Tibet.
Recently military-to-military relations between the two were suspended after the US Government announced in October that it was selling arms to Taiwan, and to date they have not been resumed in full, although US Deputy Assistant Secretary of Defense David Sedney visited Beijing in February.
The head of US Pacific Command Timothy Keating this week saw danger in the trajectory of these shipping incidents if communication doesn’t improve between the two powers: "If confusion persists, that can lead to some sort of confrontation. And confrontation … can engender a crisis."
Chinese analysts meanwhile have talked of a "Cold War" mentality in Washington that is shaping US policy, and sees it increasing ties with traditional allies such as Japan, and non-traditional allies such as Vietnam in an attempt to contain and check China’s rise in the Asia Pacific. There is concern within China that hawks in the US are pushing the "China Threat" theory with potentially negative consequences for China’s economic growth and global positioning.
But while these issues are subject to some rather delicate diplomacy, the gloves are off when discussing other issues, such as the current financial crisis (China believes the crisis is a result of poor fiscal discipline in the US — see comments at the recent Boao Asia forum), Taiwan (the US maintains it has the right to sell Taiwan arms, angering Beijing), and North Korea (both sides claim the other is working against a "peaceful" resolution to the nuclear problem with China believing that the US is advocating "regime change").
So the answer to "Is our new military hardware aimed at China, at least in part?" is a pretty simple "Yes". But the question over the wisdom of spending such enormous sums to protect us from China remains.
Some analysts, like John Mearsheimer, feel that as China’s power grows, conflict with the US is inevitable, since neither will tolerate the inevitable attempts of the other to restrict it. In that light, the Obama Administration’s recent emphasis on long involvements in Afghanistan and possibly Pakistan — countries that border on China — will be giving Beijing cause for concern.
Interestingly, there’s plenty of well-informed opinion within our own security establishment that disagrees with the White Paper’s assessment of the threat posed by China. Further, US Defense Secretary Robert Gates has expressed the view that future conflicts will be more around insurgencies rather than states at war with each other.
Whatever the reality of future conflict, our Defence White Paper didn’t indicate an "end to all wars" and as China fiercely guards its borders and "territorial integrity", it will certainly be keeping an eye on the changes.