Monday, October 4, 2010

China reverts to the harder line

Oct 4, 2010

By Robert Karniol, Defence Writer

THERE is in much of the punditry and the press a simplified view of China's rise that ignores history and misunderstands the military planning cycle. Or is plainly ill-informed.

This distortion is typified by commentary on Beijing's recently aggressive assertion of its maritime territorial claims in the South China Sea. Rather than representing a new posture, it is the revival of an established stance after a lull seemingly aimed at avoiding distractions that could impede the country's prioritised economic growth.

A patient Beijing simply suspended its territorial offensive for a time. But it seized the Paracel Islands from Vietnam in 1974, was involved in a bloody clash with Vietnam near Johnson Reef in 1988, and bullied the Philippines over possession of Mischief Reef in 1994 and 1999.

A decade later it has reverted to type, stridently uncompromising on issues related to territorial integrity.

Modern China never lacked for self- confidence but a range of factors - its newly won economic muscle, adroit diplomacy and strengthened military - seemingly convinced Beijing that the timing was right for it to resume the harder line.

It should be further understood that China's possessive view of the South China Sea and the Yellow Sea is not primarily driven by instincts to protect the maritime trade and oil imports underpinning the country's current prosperity. Instead, both are intrinsic to Beijing's broader offshore defence strategy introduced in the mid-1980s.

Some 25 years ago, Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping concluded that a major war with the then-Soviet Union had become improbable. Together with a re- evaluation of the established 'people's war' doctrine after China's disastrous 1979 border war with Vietnam, this saw the People's Liberation Army (PLA) adopt in 1993 a new strategy based on preparing for 'local war under high-technology conditions'. And the offshore focus came with the land threat largely removed.

'People's war' doctrine is a defensive strategy dependent on massive ground strength to defeat an enemy on Chinese territory. The new posture aimed to meet any threat beyond China's borders, on land through the development of rapid reaction forces and at sea through enhanced naval and air power.

This doctrinal shift has since driven PLA force development, and where some see China's growing military might as sudden and unexpected, the trend has been evident for several decades.

Consider the J-10 multi-role fighter aircraft, whose operational status was officially acknowledged four years ago. Its development was launched in 1988. Or the Type 093 and Type 094 nuclear submarines now entering service nearly 30 years after the programmes began. Or the new land-based DF-31 and submarine- launched JL-2 ballistic missiles, whose development accelerated after the successful test of their common solid rocket motor in 1983.

There can be similar confusion surrounding China's official defence spending, which is often seen as excessive. The 2008 defence budget was about 19 times greater than in 1989, when the spending surge started. But national expenditure grew by a factor of 25 over this same period and gross domestic product by a factor of 20.

Defence accounted for 8.9 per cent of China's national expenditure in 1989 and, despite a few upward blips over the next 20 years, it had dropped to 6.7 per cent in 2008. Defence as a percentage of GDP has meanwhile remained fairly constant at 1.4 per cent. Similarly, for 12 years out of the 20, the growth in China's annual central budget outpaced the rise in defence spending.

These measures show that military expenditure, although significant, is in line with economic performance.

The same sort of mythology is apparent in some of the commentary on American military activity in the Asia-Pacific region, which is seen as a response to China's emerging ambition.

This view argues that the heightened regional presence of American aircraft carriers and submarines is a reaction to recent Chinese moves. In fact, it results from a global post-Cold War realignment of United States forward deployed forces under the 2003 Integrated Global Presence and Basing Strategy and the 2006 Quadrennial Defence Review.

Similarly, the presence in Guam of B-1, B-2 and B-52 strategic bombers together with KC-135 refuelling tankers. These have actually been on rotational deployments typically averaging four months since 2004. Or the stationing in Guam of RQ-4 Global Hawk long-endurance unmanned aerial vehicles, which are actually replacing very old U-2 reconnaissance aircraft currently operating from Osan Air Base in South Korea.

There was a time when some argued that China's military modernisation was motivated by its claim to Taiwan. Most have since recognised that the Taiwan issue can influence pace and priority but force development would continue regardless. Likewise, the South China Sea.

Both China's military modernisation and the US force realignment in the Asia-Pacific are ultimately rooted in the evolving post-Cold War strategic landscape. The ill-informed mistake the more obvious tactical tussling for this guiding strategic imperative.

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