The posturing from China in response to the release of Australia’s Defence White Paper was swift and prickly – but it simply leaves everyone wondering what precisely China’s concerns are.
And according to University of Melbourne China expert Dr Pradeep Taneja, that is China’s biggest problem.
No one really knows what China wants and that uncertainty is pushing its wary neighbours into closer alliance with the US. That is only adding to China’s long held fears that it is being hemmed in, Dr Taneja says.
Rather than more posturing, he argues China needs to come clean on why it is so intent on reclaiming land in the disputed South China Sea and stop dragging its feet on agreeing to a code of conduct for the area.
“I think China’s strategic planners simply wish that the US will get nervous about potential confrontation with a rising China and quietly withdraw from the region, but that is unlikely to happen,” says Dr Taneja, from the School of Social and Political Sciences.
“The Chinese government officially says that China will never seek hegemony, but whatever term you use, the fact is that China would like to be able to decide what essentially happens in the region. And at the moment they can’t because the US is still by far the most powerful player.
“The question needs to be asked of China, ‘what does China actually want?’” Dr Taneja says.
Australia’s Defence White Paper 2016 signalled increased spending and closer interoperability with US forces. It also explicitly expressed concern at the “unprecedented pace and scale” of China’s reclamation activities in the South China Sea.
It diplomatically called on all claimants to “exercise self-restraint, take steps to ease tensions and refrain from provocative actions that could increase tension and uncertainty in the region”.
China’s deployment of surface-to-air missiles on disputed Woody Island in the South China Sea clearly wasn’t an exercise in reducing tension. The White Paper also makes clear that the South China Sea is strategic for Australia noting that almost two-thirds of its exports pass through the Sea.
China’s foreign ministry spokeswoman Hua Chunying was quick to express “dissatisfaction” and complained that the White Paper’s remarks on the South China Sea were “negative”.
According to Dr Taneja, China’s response is largely expected and the rhetoric comparatively mild compared with previous Defence White Papers, but he warns this could change as the nationalist Chinese media takes up the issue.
He says China routinely interprets any increase in military spending by the US or its allies as threat. “Every time the US or its allies do anything in terms of modernising their military, Chinese officials and media complain it is about the containment of China.”
He says the White Paper is broadly consistent with the other White Papers going back to 2009. He says Australia’s moves to modernise its armed forces and increase spending is too small to be seen as any threat to the regional balance of power.
For all the umbrage China may be publicly taking, he says the onus must be on Beijing to reassure the region and the US and its allies that it would continue to abide by the norms and rules that have served the region well so far.
China’s large size and massive economic growth means it is inevitable that its military power will increase too, says Dr Taneja. But he says it is also inevitable that its increasing military spend and modernisation will worry its neighbours in the absence of closer cooperation and transparency.
Dr Taneja notes that China’s military spending has been growing at double digits for over ten years. The White Paper argues the growth of China’s military power means its “policies and actions will have a major impact on the stability of the Indo-Pacific to 2035.”
It notes that China has the largest navy and air force in Asia and that it will soon have more than 70 submarines and is pursuing advanced fighter aircraft capabilities. It is also pursuing new space and cyber technologies.
“China’s military modernisation and its fast-paced island-building activities in the South China Sea are concerning everybody,” says Dr Taneja. “It needs to lay some of its cards on the table – maybe not the whole pack, but it needs to say what its ultimate goals are.”
He said that the lack of transparency from China only risks alienating it in the region. He notes that even former enemies of the US like Vietnam are increasing ties with the superpower as a counter point to China. And India too is moving closer to the US rather than to China.
“China has a special responsibility to try to explain more clearly and engage with the rest of the world,” Dr Taneja says.
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