Don't Kowtow to China Now

By Paul Dibb

Prime Minister Julia Gillard's visit to China has confirmed important strategic priorities for Australia. She called for Australia and China to gradually increase their defence co-operation as a means to promote good relations and understanding of each other. She also talked about wanting to see increased military transparency by China.

Defence Minister Stephen Smith says he has also made it very clear to his Chinese counterpart that Australia expects China to abide by, and conduct itself, in accordance with international norms, including the international law of the sea.

Given China's military build-up and its more aggressive behaviour of late in the East and South China Seas, these are entirely legitimate strategic interests for Australia.

While Gillard has made it plain that she does not support the idea of the US and its allies containing China, her strong support of the US alliance during her recent visit to Washington will not have gone unnoticed in Beijing. It was appropriate that the Australian PM first visit Japan and South Korea before going to China. The fact is that the US, Japan and South Korea are - like us - democracies and allies of America. China will never be our ally.

None of this undermines the PM's objective of encouraging increased military co-operation and defence links. We have to understand what China intends to do with its military forces in future.

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These are non-trivial issues for Australia over the next two or three decades. Of course it is sensible policy to encourage Beijing to be a responsible emerging great power and to be closely engaged in the development of security and stability in the Asia-Pacific region.

It is also good policy to engage China across the full range of our bilateral relationship - political, economic, defence, cultural and human rights.

But as Beijing's power inevitably grows this suggests that in parallel with engagement we should also have a policy of hedging against a more belligerent China in future.

The Australian defence white paper of May 2009 states that by 2030 China will be the strongest Asian military power by a considerable margin and that its military modernisation will be increasingly characterised by the development of power projection capabilities.

As China becomes more powerful economically, it can be expected to develop more substantial military capabilities befitting its size. But, as the white paper notes, the pace, scope and structure of China's military modernisation have the potential to give its neighbours cause for concern.

If China does not become more transparent, questions will inevitably arise about the purpose of its military development plans. Beijing is developing some quite impressive capabilities that will eventually make it more hazardous for the US and its allies to operate in China's maritime approaches with impunity. This is increasingly recognised to be the case by the US and Japan.

In Australia, there have been some fantasies lately suggesting we should be able to develop forces capable of attacking China directly. That is dangerous and stupid. We can, however, aspire to building force elements - including submarines - that would contribute usefully to a US-led coalition force, which would include Japan and Australia.

This is not to see China as the next inevitable enemy. Now and foreseeably it will not have the awesome military strength of the former Soviet Union. And Beijing has no experience whatsoever of prosecuting a modern war.

China needs a basically peaceful strategic environment so that it can give priority to governing an increasingly restive population of 1.3 billion.

China is not a country without weaknesses. We need to remember this before we conclude that China will continue to rise and rise and not experience serious hurdles.

To take one example, the one-child policy has resulted in a rapidly ageing population.

By 2014, China's working-age numbers will begin to decline and by 2040 some 30 per cent of China's population will be over 60 years old.

This will inevitably have serious implications for economic growth rates, which are already predicted to decline to about 7 per cent a year compared with 10-12 per cent growth previously.

There are many other political, economic, environmental and corruption problems facing China in the 21st century.

We should be wary of straight line extrapolations that predict China's inevitable growth to a position of regional supremacy.

There are other geopolitical factors at work.

If China becomes more aggressive it will face a closing of the ranks in Asia. Already, its more confrontational stance over maritime disputes and its unquestioning support of North Korea has led Japan and South Korea to be more pro-American.

While it is true that many countries in the region, including Australia, are increasingly dependent on China for our economic wellbeing, there is growing unease about China's military build-up and its increasingly aggressive attitude over its territorial claims.

The fact is that China's only really close friends in Asia are North Korea, Burma and Pakistan. India will inevitably find itself uncomfortable with China's growing power and that is already the case with Vietnam. Other middle powers, such as Indonesia, will also have to take account of how a more assertive China conducts itself.

We have two scenarios here. The first is a China that continues to focus on its economic wellbeing and which increasingly sees it in its interest to be part of building a co-operative regional security environment (what Beijing calls "a harmonious region"). The second scenario is the one we must hedge against: it involves a militarily stronger and more dangerous China.

The jury is out on which direction China will take. It is not prudent at present to panic and to build forces supposedly capable of tearing an arm off China. Nor is it time to kowtow and acknowledge the inevitability of Chinese primacy accompanied by, as some would have it, the equally inevitable decline of a US fatally weakened by its current economic difficulties.

Paul Dibb is emeritus professor of strategic studies at the Australian National University. In 1978, as deputy director of defence intelligence, he visited China to open up defence relations.

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