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 have now seemingly spread to Hong Kong as dissent continues to grow and nearly 200,0000 military police have been deployed to the border. This commitment to resolve "internal" matters through either the threat or use of force, combined with China’s insistence on unilaterally defined “national interests” being internal matters, casts an ever-growing shadow of concern for many nations throughout the Indo-Pacific.
This combination of domestic and regional concerns has bubbled over in recent months as pro-democracy demonstrations in Hong Kong continue to unfold, challenging China's hold on the former-British colony and raising the potential for embarrassment for the Chinese regime in the lead-up to the 70th anniversary of the creation of the People's Republic of China.
In response, 'leader for life' President Xi Jinping has resolutely resolved to assert China's influence and ambitions in the Indo-Pacific, while also defiantly responding to any external attempts to interfere with the rising superpower's national interests – a key component to this is responding to the ongoing issue in Hong Kong, potential conflict with Taiwan and the growing capacity of the People's Liberation Army to influence regional affairs.
Wang Xiaohui, executive vice minister for the Communist Party’s Publicity Department, said at a press briefing in Beijing: "The purpose is to motivate and mobilise the whole party, the whole military, and all of the people to unite closely around the CCP Central Committee with Xi at the core."
This growing ambition and seeming willingness to use force to directly influence outcomes in China's favour doesn't bode well for regional nations, including Australia.
Concerningly, China’s continued recalcitrance towards foreign concerns about the use of force and the threat of force, combined with the seemingly sensitive nature of the Chinese Communist Party to external criticism, including from corporate entities like luxury goods companies Swarovski and Coach, serves as a unique conundrum for the rising superpower while raising some troubling questions for nations throughout the region.
This confluence of issues was further exacerbated following a statement released by the Chinese state-owned Global Times, which stated: “If Hong Kong rioters cannot read the signal of having armed police gathering in Shenzhen, then they are asking for self-destruction.”
Thrashing against this seeming sensitive nature, 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.
This reinvigorated, seemingly aggressive posture was identified in the Chinese government’s new Defence White Paper, China’s National Defense in the New Era, which focuses on securing China’s growing designs and ambitions for the Indo-Pacific, with a focus on securing China’s sovereignty, economic and territorial ambitions in the region – posing important questions for Australia to consider moving forward.
China's "Peace Disease"
As part of Xi's rallying call, the PLA will conduct a military parade larger than the celebrations for the 50th and 60th anniversaries of PRC and is expected to demonstrate the growing modernisation, expansion and capability developments of the various branches of the PLA, with a particular focus on the advances made in strategic nuclear missiles, advanced fighter jets, including the fifth-generation J-20.
Despite a well catalogued capability modernisation and expansion program, including the People's Liberation Army Navy's growing aircraft carrier and amphibious warfare ship fleet, President Xi has identified a key concern for the future capability of the PLA, namely a "peace disease", basically defined as a lack of direct combat experience.
This growing "peace disease" is reportedly amid growing concerns surrounding the training for high-intensity modern combat operations, with concerns about the PLA's capacity to match a high-end adversary, something articulated by Charlie Lyons Jones for the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI): "Despite the focus on improving the quality of military training, issues in performance and readiness linger in the PLA. Chen Dianhong from the PLA Daily reported recently that the 75th Group Army was suffering acutely from a lack of preparedness for combat. ‘The quality and amount of equipment are unsatisfactory and insufficient for daily training’, the brigade leader noted. It’s not clear that the CCP is entirely convinced that the 75th, or other corps for that matter, can meet Xi’s lofty targets for modernisation.
"The symptoms of poor performance and readiness might manifest themselves in large training exercises, but they begin in basic training. Writing in the PLA Daily, He Junlin and Sun Yanbao argue that ‘only through improved basic training can the full potential of [the PLA’s] weapons be realised, comprehensively raising combat effectiveness’. Their comment demonstrates that the CCP is concerned about a mismatch between the quality of the PLA’s armaments and the quality of the personnel deploying them. To resolve this issue, the CCP expects the PLA to improve the basic training of new recruits."
This conundrum raises a series of troubling questions for many regional nations, particularly Australia, Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and their strategic benefactor the US, as China looks to reduce the gap in combat efficacy and platform capability in the face of potential high-intensity conflict.
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.
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 – particularly that of an increasingly assertive China determined to challenge the traditional 'rules based order'.