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Don't get too close to Beijing

By Paul Dibb - posted Thursday, 4 August 2005

The Howard Government seems to be going soft on communist China. Consider the following events.

In August last year, Foreign Minister Alexander Downer cast doubt over whether the ANZUS Treaty, which he described as symbolic, would automatically apply in the event of war between China and the US over Taiwan. Downer was right, of course, in implying it would depend on the circumstances at the time. But, make no mistake, Washington would be very likely to invoke the treaty if China attacked US forces in the Taiwan Strait. We simply would not be able to stand aloof. To do so would irreparably damage the alliance.

Last week in Washington, Prime Minister John Howard said Australia did not presume any kind of intermediary role between the US and China. However, he does see us as having a role in "identifying and advocating to each the shared strategic interests" they have in regional peace and prosperity. In fact, he goes further than this and asserts that he does not believe "there is anything inevitable about escalating strategic competition" between China and the US. World history tells us otherwise: rising powers often have come into conflict with established powers. Why should China and the US be any different?


In June, on a visit to China, Defence Minister Robert Hill said he saw China's expanding military expenditure as a process of modernisation, not destabilisation. Try telling that to Taiwan or to the citizens of Japan and the US who are targeted by Chinese nuclear warheads. US Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld contradicts Hill when he says: "Beijing's military spending threatens the delicate security balance in Asia."

What is the reason for all this ducking and weaving by the Howard Government? The answer seems to be the critical rise in importance of China to our economy. China has overtaken the US as our largest source of imports and it ranks behind Japan as an export market. It is only a matter of time before China becomes our largest trading partner. The government now talks about a "strategic economic relationship" with China, whatever that means.

What is inevitable is China's rise to power in the Asia-Pacific region and the consequences this will have for the balance of power in the region. It is not necessary to portray China as an expansionist or aggressive power to understand that it will become the predominant influence in our region.

Already, Beijing is carving out a sphere of influence for itself in northeast Asia, where it is seeking to cower Japan and detach South Korea from its alliance with the US; in South-East Asia, where it has skilfully used the idea of an East Asia Summit to change the regional order dominated by the US; and in the South Pacific, where Chinese diplomats, businessmen and criminal money are making worrying inroads in our neighbourhood.

We would do well to remember that despite its adoption of the capitalist road to business, the leadership in Beijing is illegitimate. A small clique in the Communist Party of China continues to repress any challenges to its monopoly on political power. Freedom of speech and the right to demonstrate against or criticise the government remain heavily circumscribed in today's China.

Hill says: "We accept that it is perfectly legitimate that China modernise its defence force: they are entitled to do so in the same way as anyone else is entitled." But China is not anyone else - it is an authoritarian regime and no amount of diplomatic obfuscation will paper over that unpalatable fact.


China, similar to all communist countries, lies about what it spends on defence. Its published figures do not include expenditure on military acquisitions, subsidies to defence industry, military sales, space and other covert programs, and research and development. The best estimate is that China spends more than $US56 billion ($74billion) annually on defence. That makes it the largest defence spender in our region and the third largest in the world, after the US and Russia. China has by far the largest armed forces in the world, with 2.25 million regular troops and about 800,000 reserves.

The Pentagon's recent report to the US Congress, Military Power of the PRC 2005, warns, "China is specifically building military capabilities to counter third-party, including potential US, intervention in cross-strait crises". China deploys more than 650 short-range ballistic missiles opposite Taiwan and it is developing a submarine capability that would strengthen its hand in imposing a blockade on Taiwan and countering intervention by US aircraft carriers. The Pentagon says that if present trends persist "[People's Liberation Army] capabilities could pose a credible threat to other modern militaries operating in the region." No prizes for guessing to whom that refers.

The US National Intelligence Council has assessed that China will continue to strengthen its military by acquiring advanced fighter aircraft, sophisticated submarines and increasing numbers of ballistic missiles. It predicts that China will become the second largest defence spender in the world after the US during the next two decades, "and will be, by any measure, a first rate military power".

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First published in The Australian on August 2, 2005.

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About the Author

Professor Paul Dibb, former deputy secretary of defence and director of the Defence Intelligence Organisation, is head of the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at the Australian National University.

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