The unprecedented economic rise of China has paved the way for its meteoric increase in military capability and geo-strategic designs for the Indo-Pacific. The new defence white paper, China's National Defense in the New Era, identifies some old flash points and some new ones, with renewed direction focused on countering American-led aggression in the region.
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Like every ascendent economic, political and strategic power China has used its period of rapid industrialisation and economic expansion to begin establishing its position within the broader global context – fuelled by a long memory of a "century of humiliation" at the hands of Western imperialism, finally ending with the successful Communist Revolution in 1949, China and its political leaders have dedicated the nation to establishing a new era of Chinese global primacy.
Recognising this, for the first time in four years the Chinese government has released its national defence white paper (DWP), titled China's National Defense in the New Era, with a focus on responding to the rapidly deteriorating economic, political and strategic situation in both the Indo-Pacific and in the broader global context.
As China's position within the global order has evolved and its ambitions towards the Indo-Pacific in particular have become increasingly apparent, the Chinese government, driven by an extremely ambitious leader, President Xi Jinping, has identified a number of factors of both 'internal' and 'external' concern for the rising superpower's status.
These 'concerns' extend to traditional areas of Chinese focus, namely central Asia, Tibet and the Taiwan situation, and more concerning for nations like Australia – America's resurgence, characterised by "intensified competition among major countries, significantly increased its defence expenditure, pushed for additional capacity in nuclear, outer space, cyber and missile defence, and undermined global strategic stability".
A 'peaceful' domestic focus first?
China has been quick to highlight its focus on a number of 'internal' security challenges that directly impact the rising superpower's sovereignty, security and therefore directly impact the continuing economic development of the nation – despite the 'domestic' nature of these national security issues, they have nevertheless drawn international condemnation.
In particular, China's insistence on opposing and containing any "Taiwanese independence" attempts – including responding with military force to coerce the island nation and external influences, read the US and its regional partners, as a means of supporting China's primary national defence aims, identified as follows:
- To deter and resist aggression;
- To safeguard national political security, the people's security and social stability;
- To oppose and contain "Taiwan independence";
- To crack down on proponents of separatist movements such as "Tibet independence" and the creation of "East Turkistan";
- To safeguard national sovereignty, unity, territorial integrity and security;
- To safeguard China’s maritime rights and interests – building on the nation's expansion in the South China Sea;
- To safeguard China’s security interests in outer space, electromagnetic space and cyber space;
- To safeguard China’s overseas interests; and
- To support the sustainable development of the country.
Each of these "domestic" issues – particularly those directed towards the Indo-Pacific – place the rising superpower's ambitions in direct conflict with the post-Second World War economic, political and strategic order established by the US and supported by a number of established regional powers, including Japan, Australia and South Korea.
China's White Paper clearly articulates its position towards the South China Sea and it's construction of military facilities on reclaimed islands throughout the international waterways: "China resolutely safeguards its national sovereignty and territorial integrity. The South China Sea islands and Diaoyu Islands are inalienable parts of the Chinese territory. China exercises its national sovereignty to build infrastructure and deploy necessary defensive capabilities on the islands and reefs in the South China Sea, and to conduct patrols in the waters of Diaoyu Islands in the East China Sea.
"China is committed to resolving related disputes through negotiations with those states directly involved on the basis of respecting historical facts and international law."
Further compounding these issues is China's commitment to "solve the Taiwan question" – which the rising superpower has stated will be reunited with mainland China, while directly issuing a challenge to potential external influences, namely the US and its regional allies, stating, "China resolutely opposes any attempts or actions to split the country and any foreign interference to this end. China must be and will be reunited.
"China has the firm resolve and the ability to safeguard national sovereignty and territorial integrity, and will never allow the secession of any part of its territory by anyone, any organisation or any political party by any means at any time. We make no promise to renounce the use of force, and reserve the option of taking all necessary measures. This is by no means targeted at our compatriots in Taiwan, but at the interference of external forces and the very small number of 'Taiwan independence' separatists and their activities. The PLA will resolutely defeat anyone attempting to separate Taiwan from China and safeguard national unity at all costs." (Emphasis added).
Contradictions – Theory v practicality
While China's new white paper was quick to identify what it defines as a purely "defensive national defence policy" – reality is often different to what is articulated – even when clearly defined commitments to use force to "reunify" China are present.
This articulated focus on developing and enhancing the "defensive nature" of the Chinese military strategy, force structure modernisation and capability acquisition program seemingly contradicts developments in the Indo-Pacific, the South China Sea in particular and the clearly apparent Chinese ambitions and designs of regional dominance.
To this end, China identifies a "military strategic guideline for a new era" that directly adheres to the principles of: defence, self-defence and post-strike response; and adopts what China defines as "active defence", which is responsible for the modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of China's military capabilities ranging from advanced cyber and space capabilities, to conventional power projection capabilities including ground and air combat forces, naval power projection units like aircraft carriers and supporting strike groups, and a modernisation of China's nuclear deterrence force.
This modernisation and recapitalisation has also expanded to China's development of tactical and strategic levelling capabilities, namely the active development and militarisation of reclaimed islands in the South China Sea and the development of advanced, integrated anti-access/area denial defence networks throughout the region – both of which are designed to counter and hinder the tactical and strategic mobility of US and allied forces in the western Pacific.
Increasing strategic competition
Further influencing China's military modernisation, recapitalisation and expansion of capabilities is what the rising superpower defines as "international strategic competition" – driven largely by a resurgence in the US and its direct approach to dealing with China across the economic, political, diplomatic and, increasingly, strategic domains throughout the Indo-Pacific.
Building on this, China also focuses its attention on the US' regional allies, namely Japan, Korea and Australia, as part of a gaggle of seemingly 'petulant children' negligently modernising and expanding their own respective military capabilities in response to childish concerns about China's own military capabilities:
"The US is strengthening its Asia-Pacific military alliances and reinforcing military deployment and intervention, adding complexity to regional security. The deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in the Republic of Korea (ROK) by the US has severely undermined the regional strategic balance and the strategic security interests of regional countries.
"In an attempt to circumvent the post-war mechanism, Japan has adjusted its military and security policies and increased input accordingly, thus becoming more outward-looking in its military endeavors. Australia continues to strengthen its military alliance with the US and its military engagement in the Asia-Pacific, seeking a bigger role in security affairs."
This direct focus on both the US and its regional partners has been identified by many in the Australian media as a direct threat, particularly when viewed within the context of China's expanded commitment to reunite Taiwan with force and its continued assertive positioning in the South China Sea.
Despite renewed commitments, including a record level of US Marines based at Darwin and force modernisation efforts by the US, it is clear that given its global responsibilities, allies like Australia, Japan and South Korea will be required to play a larger, more active and direct role in stabilising the Indo-Pacific and maintaining the post-WWII economic, political and economic order upon which all nations, including China, are dependent.
It is important to recognise that for the first time America has a true competitor in China – a nation with immense industrial potential, growing wealth and prosperity, a driving national purpose and a growing series of alliances with re-emerging, resource rich great powers in Russia, and supported by a growing network of economic hubs and indebted psuedo-colonies throughout the Indo-Pacific and Asia.
Unlike the Soviet Union, China is a highly industrialised nation – with an industrial capacity comparable to, if not exceeding, that of the US, supported by a rapidly narrowing technological gap, supporting growing military capability and territorial ambitions, bringing the rising power into direct competition with the US and its now fraying alliance network of tired global allies.
Whether consciously recognising the potential of this challenge or not, the US President's direct, often confrontational approach towards allies belies domestic concerns about America's ability to maintain the post-WWII global order. Andrew Davies of the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI) highlighted the importance of recognising the limitation of US power in a recent piece for ASPI, saying, "The assumption of continued US primacy that permeated DWP 2016 looked heroic at the time. It seems almost foolishly misplaced now."
Australia's need for greater autonomy
As Australia's traditional strategic benefactors continue to face decline and comparatively capable peer competitors – the nation's economic, political and strategic capability is intrinsically linked to the enduring security, stability and prosperity in an increasingly unpredictable region. Renowned Australian strategic policy leader Hugh White has taken a dramatic shift in the way he proposes the planned defence of Australia.
White's focus on and underlying belief that Australia seriously committing to a sustained and focused effort to develop a true regional power is too difficult continues to perpetuate a 'black' and 'white' approach to developing strategic policy.
This approach fails to recognise the precarious position Australia now finds itself in, however it does identify key areas for the nation's political and strategic leaders to focus on if Australia is to establish a truly independent strategic capacity – this focuses largely on:
- Australia's continuing economic prosperity and stability and the role the economy plays in supporting defence capability;
- The economic, political and strategic intentions of Australia's Indo-Pacific neighbours; and
- The rapidly evolving technology-heavy nature of contemporary warfare.
"We probably can defend ourselves independently if we choose to do so and if we go about it the right way, which means adopting a military strategy that exploits the advantages of our geography and trends in the technology of warfare ... Second, it depends on how new technologies affect the conduct of military and maritime operations," White posited.
"Third, it depends on whether we can get access to the technologies that we would need to make our military strategy work. And finally, it depends on how our own economy fares, which will determine how much we would have to sacrifice to build the forces required to defend ourselves."
Responding to these challenges requires an approach that recognises each of these factors are all part of national security policy. This includes a dedicated focus on developing a robust economic and industrial capacity – devoid of dependence on any single source of economic prosperity – while focusing on developing a robust and independently capable tactical and strategic military capability, supported by Australia's enduring diplomatic good will and relationships in the region.
These responses do not hinder Australia's economic growth or strategic stability – rather, if developed, communicated and implemented correctly they support the economic growth, diversity and development of the nation, building on a record period of economic growth and prosperity, providing flow on benefits for Australia's strategic capacity to act as an independent strategic benefactor.
Questions for Australia
Despite Australia’s enduring commitment to the Australia-US alliance, serious questions remain for Australia in the new world order of President Donald Trump’s America, as a number of allies have been targeted by the maverick President for relying on the US for their security against larger state-based actors, which has seen the President actively pressuring key allies, particularly NATO allies, to renegotiate the deals.
Enhancing Australia’s capacity to act as an independent power, incorporating great power-style strategic economic, diplomatic and military capability serves as a powerful symbol of Australia’s sovereignty and evolving responsibilities in supporting and enhancing the security and prosperity of Indo-Pacific Asia. Shifting the public discussion away from the default Australian position of "it is all a little too difficult, so let’s not bother" will provide unprecedented economic, diplomatic, political and strategic opportunities for the nation.
In the second part of this series, Defence Connect will take a closer look at the proposed changes to defence expenditure, force structure modernisation and recapitalisation identified by the Chinese government and its China's National Defense in the New Era Defence White Paper.