Wednesday, 12 March 2014

China's real audience

China has announced its biggest rise in military spending in three years. At the opening session of parliament, Premier Li Keqiang said that the defence budget would be increased by 12.2 percent, partly to develop more high-tech weapons and to enhance coastal and air defence.

China’s military spending is now the second highest in the world after the United States. The growth of China’s defence budget may be significantly larger however, because Beijing rarely provides accurate information about the true size of its military.

Meanwhile, US Defence Secretary Chuck Hagel revealed a heavily duct-taped American defence budget.

Seeing China increase its military forces while the American’s “streamline” their own forces is stirring debate in the United States - and amongst its Pacific allies - as to whether the US will be able to adequately enforce its defence commitments in the future if China makes any dangerous moves.

China has already tested a range of new weaponry over the past 12 months, from hypersonic missiles to impressive stealth aircraft and an aircraft carrier. None of these constitute a peer threat to the United States.

China’s bark appears to be much bigger than its bite, if you will. It is the trajectory and strategic goals of building such machines which ruffles international feathers in the Asia Pacific.

But the real question is: why funnel more resources into the military now? All this monetary spend with few significant gains in regional influence to show for it? It’s all very strange, unless a wider view is taken.

The Chinese navy is an interesting case in point. They cannot yet defeat the United States Navy in open combat, so they must not risk a shooting war with an American ally either. China’s tactic is to goad their neighbours into low-key responses by conducting lightly aggressive actions in territorial waters.  

At no point has China reinforced a territorial claim with troops or staked a flag. The ongoing dispute with Japan over a string of islands in the South China Sea is more of a strategy of harassment than it is about directly challenging Tokyo for control of the islands. It is possible Beijing truly wants to annex those islands for itself, but so far the political will is not forthcoming.

Why they won’t use their growing navy to carve out more space in the South China Sea actually has more to do with the Chinese mainland than it does with islands or water.

Increasing the military budget is a smart way of encouraging the story of a rising China for its audience. That audience is not the international community however, which is becoming more sceptical of China’s future. The audience is the Chinese populace.

It is a risky proposition, but China’s citizens need distraction from a slowing economy, and whipping up a few scraps with neighbours is just the trick.

Nothing keeps the cultural spirit buoyant in downturns quite like nationalism. But it is never clear just how far nationalism can be pushed without spilling over. So far Beijing has been careful not to generate too much attention from the lurking US Navy. Every time it looks to be aggravating the Japanese, it switches to another territorial claim in the Philippines or Vietnam, and back again, to the applause of China’s billions.

These sorts of moves are Beijing’s tell that China’s leaders are under pressure at home. Economic and political change is coming. Perhaps the more China liberalises, the more it will listen to what the populace wants. And word on the street points to an increasingly truculent China in the future.

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