Thursday, 26 July 2012

Chinese military expansion warrants close scrutiny from Pacific states

The world’s biggest military expansion is not American or European, it is Chinese.

While their growth has been advancing for some time, the trend is so slow and steady that most media outlets have opted not to report on it, instead favouring more dramatic and easier-to-explain world events.

For New Zealand, Chinese military expansion is a crucial pulse to monitor. Such a large trading partner, and one Wellington is prepared to fortify ties with in the future, is going from strength to strength and by some accounts will overtake the United States in economic output sometime in the next few decades.

Given the likelihood of future trade and cooperation between the two countries, New Zealand should be aware of how China is spending its new-found wealth.

Even now, Beijing’s defence spending grew from a modest $30 billion in 2000 to a much more respectable $120 billion in 2010 according to the research institute SIPRI. This should come as no surprise. It is natural for a growing economy to invest in an indigenous military to guarantee trade routes and protect its borders, but China’s expansion bears scrutiny. A four-fold increase in military funding over ten years betrays a restlessness in Beijing or in the very least points to China’s security at home.

Beijing’s military spending, if trends continue, is set to surpass Washington’s by 2035. American military planners have indeed noticed this, so it is hard to believe U.S. officials who proclaim their strategic pivot towards the Pacific isn’t meant to counter China’s expansion.  

It is not exactly useful to look at the motives or the ‘why’ of the Chinese build-up; ideology changes and motives alter over time. What a government says today may evolve later into something quite different. After all, it is quite clear why a country like China is injecting more funds into its military. One reason is Beijing’s calculus about its interests as a global power and how they must not be limited or restricted to local, finite, resources. Therefore spreading influence and gaining accessibility to regional or even global resources is the next logical step. Expansion is key.

A crucial rung in this expansionist ladder is of course a capable navy. China has been without a capable navy for much of its existence, focusing instead on protecting its borders and keeping the peace inland amongst a historically restive, and gargantuan, populace.

Today China has competently fortified its borders and continues to control an ethnically diverse, yet largely poor, population. Indeed, 40 percent of Chinese (or 500 million people) live in sub-Saharan poverty of below $2 per day. China’s vaunted two million-man army is not an expeditionary structure. Its existence keeps the Chinese rural inland under control and off Beijing’s strategic radar.

This explains why, for a traditionally land-based military, China has treated the high seas as a luxury. Perhaps the most important aspect of the Chinese military build-up therefore is the modernisation, and development, of the People’s Liberation Army – Navy (PLA-N). This has not been a cheap exercise for Beijing because navies are incredibly expensive purchases. Historically only strong countries with excess capital can usually afford them. China, with an advantage of a controlled heartland and protected borders, has entered this club and is now allocating huge funds for a modern navy and air-force.

For instance, in the next decade or so, Beijing has proposed an increase of its already sizable submarine capability from 60 to over 75. Submarines have enormous strategic value, and Chinese vessels are very capable. These indigenous Chinese submarines are reportedly extremely quiet and difficult to detect. So difficult in fact, that in 2008 a Chinese Song class submarine surfaced, undetected, within torpedo range of a U.S. aircraft carrier. Keep in mind also the speedy technology upgrade of Chinese anti-ship missiles, including the so-called “aircraft carrier-killer” and these vessels are significant additions to the Chinese navy.

While a submarine’s range isn’t likely to intimidate New Zealand, other Chinese purchases warrant closer inspection. This year the PLA-N commissioned number four of an expected eight new amphibious landing docks. Each ship boasts a capacity for 800 troops, plus armoured vehicles and helicopters. Even though current Chinese movements are relatively benign, it’s hard to see these ships being meant for purely defensive purposes.

The United States has many allies in the Pacific, New Zealand among them, largely because China has taken a mostly hands-off attitude to bilateral relations. Encroaching on Philippine territory or Malaysian waters would draw U.S. warships and China is not ready for a confrontation with the United States. It isn’t clear Beijing is looking for confrontation with America in the future at all.

Under the current government structure in Beijing, one that effectively mixes a bottom-up market economy with a top-down command ideology, military aggression shouldn’t be conducive to Chinese strategic goals. Beijing is very adept at using the “soft-power” approach.

But this is why it is important to assess capabilities, not motives. Leaders come and go, ideologies evolve and internal politics fluctuate. China is unlikely to threaten the U.S. navy in the short or medium terms, but neighbouring states are vulnerable to a policy of subtle troop deployments. A case in point: Beijing revealed plans to construct a new garrison on a disputed island chain in the South China Sea. One of many more on their strategic horizon.

Being aware of Beijing’s capabilities and monitoring their government structure closely is prudent. There is no reliable prediction for how a country as dynamic as China will look or act even ten years ahead.

The current Chinese trajectory of military expansion coupled with economic relationships seems to be working as a benign force presently. However, power projection is sometimes best achieved down the barrel of a gun, a concept that doesn’t appear to escape smart Chinese strategic planners. As energy resources become scarcer, a strong navy is useful for Beijing.

The slow but steady expansion of the Chinese navy will continue for the foreseeable future. Just how far they wish to push their influence in the South Pacific is much less predictable. Treating China as a long-term trading friend without preparing a counterweight to their growing naval power would place South Pacific nations on the back-foot when, inevitably, motives begin to change in Beijing.

As featured on the National Business Review:

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