China recently announced its military budget this year would increase by 10 per cent, to about $US141 billion ($180bn), marking the 21st consecutive year in which its military spending has grown by a double-digit increment.
It is now the second biggest military spender in the world, after the US. The difference is the US has worldwide commitments, providing security and reassurance to its many allies, including the EU and Japan. China, by contrast, protects no one and nothing but itself. So why is its military spending increasing even faster than its gross domestic product (forecast to grow by roughly 7 per cent this year)?
James Fanell, until recently the head of intelligence for the US Pacific Fleet, is in no doubt. Earlier this year he used his retirement speech to warn a gathering of more than 100 military professionals, among them several admirals, that China was preparing for war.
“Let’s not deceive ourselves,’’ he said. ‘‘The evidence I’ve been chewing on over the past 15 years is overwhelming.’’ He argued that China’s military rise, if left unchecked, ‘‘will necessarily disrupt the peace and stability of our friends, partners and allies’’. He urged the US to take deliberate and concerted steps to deter China from using its growing military capabilities to assert control of the South or East China Seas.
In China’s Coming War With Asia, Jonathan Holslag, professor of international politics at the Free University of Brussels, argues that China’s ambitions are indeed as Fanell describes them but are understandable and justifiable — if seen from within China.
He acknowledges that China’s neighbours are not reconciled to its ambitions and that the US has no intention of accommodating them. For that reason, he argues, we should expect some serious trouble in the not-too-distant future.
Holslag does not go so far as to predict a cataclysmic war between China and the US but details tensions between the two and a prolonged period of rivalry and posturing along the rim of the western Pacific and, by proxy, elsewhere in the world.
Holslag’s message is of clear relevance to Australian strategic planners, who are working on the next defence white paper. Much of this book is taken up with going over fairly familiar ground regarding China’s great shift after Mao Zedong’s death and its impressive “Meiji Restoration” since the late 1970s.
The sharp end of Holslag’s argument, however, is two-pronged. First, he suggests China is a deeply dissatisfied rising power and that it will want to destroy the liberal world order we have become accustomed to since 1945 or since the end of the Cold War, just to the extent that its increasing power enables it to do so. Second, he argues there is no evident way to satisfy China’s ambitions while preserving the security of its neighbours and the liberal world order. He therefore forecasts war in Asia.
Both the extent and proximity of the danger are, of course, the subject of much debate, here as well as in the US and Japan. One Beijing-based Western commentator has recently stated that ‘‘the sheer scale of the fiscal resources available to Beijing will soon give it the means to end the era of decisive US military superiority in the Asia-Pacific. Beijing might insist that it has modest military ambitions, and yet the underlying economic and strategic trends tell an altogether different story.”
On certain projections, China’s gross defence expenditure will grow rapidly, increasing from 2 per cent to 4 per cent of its GDP.
‘‘China claims that its rise is intended to be peaceful,’’ defence analyst Andrew Krepinevich writes in the current issue of Foreign Affairs, ‘‘but its actions tell a different story: that of a revisionist power seeking to dominate the western Pacific.’’
Krepinevich argues forthrightly that the response of the US and other regional states should be ‘‘archipelagic defence’’, by which he means hi-tech defence of the first island chain — Japan, the Ryukyus, Taiwan and The Philippines — against Chinese revisionist claims and military intrusion. Quite certainly, this is the fault-line where the tectonic plates of American supremacy and Chinese ambition meet.
Holslag emphasises just this point.
‘‘The whole world,’’ he writes, ‘‘has been echoing the complaints of Japan and the United States that China is seeking to deny access to its adjacent seas, whereas a formidable screen of sensors and steel is pulled up all along the first island chain around China.’’
It is precisely this screen that Krepinevich is urging be strengthened in the immediate future. It is chiefly against that same screen that China has been developing a wide range of capabilities. It is important, therefore, to remind ourselves that the first island chain does not consist of abstract American defensive positions but of a series of independent states, each of which has been seeking US assurances against the rising power of China. The situation would be very different if those states had been seeking Chinese support against an unwelcome US dominance.
The strategic debate in Australia must reckon with all this at two levels: our deep economic engagement with China and the possible consequences for our wider interests should the US retreat from the first island chain and an assertive China make good its claims to territorial control of the East and South China seas. Hugh White, in particular, has been urging that we press the US to pull back and give China much of what it demands, but then resist if China starts to get out of hand. Malcolm Fraser in his final book, Dangerous Allies, called for us to abandon our alliance with the US, a position that has had support from Paul Keating.
The first island chain, however, is the only available defensive redoubt available along which to guard against Chinese ambitions; and the US is the only power whose presence may deter China from going to war in Asia. Holslag quietly fears that trouble is unavoidable. He may be right.
Paul Monk is founder of Austhink Consulting and author of The West in a Nutshell.
- South China Sea: China reclaims land on yet another reef, to show disregard to US, Vietnam and Philippines (chinadailymail.com)
- U.S. senators seek strategy to stop China’s South China Sea reclamation (chinadailymail.com)
- China connects Spratly Islands to TV and mobile phone networks, so troops will no longer feel lonely (chinadailymail.com)
- Claiming to have equalled the west, China says its weapons design is now harder (chinadailymail.com)
- China’s Xi Jinping unable to rule if unaware of conservative faction’s strength (chinadailymail.com)
- China, Malaysia pledge to enhance ties (wantchinatimes.com)
- Balancing China’s “Great Wall of Sand” (the-american-interest.com)
- China building a ‘great wall of sand’ in South China Sea – US Navy (rt.com)
- US admiral says China ‘creating a great wall of sand’ in sea (utsandiego.com)
- China raps ASEAN secretary general for weighing in on S. China Sea row (english.kyodonews.jp)