The term ‘militarisation’ is the new portmanteau expression for describing China’s initiatives in the South China Sea; it is at once accusatory and exculpatory: China is the instigator, the Western powers and those Western-aligned (defensively-minded, and innocent) are exonerated from any guilt their reactions might attract. The term, however, is misused in the current context, dangerous, and a form of bubble-gum for a distracted strategic imagination.
Fragment 1: Militarisation-as-Amnesia: To begin, let us concede what China has done, and is doing, overall, and especially in the South China Sea – within a warfighting strategy aimed at preventing an adversary from occupying or traversing an area of land, sea, and air from which attacks against China could be launched – it is extending the range and modernising its armed forces in general, and might even be taking the lead in some technologies (such as hypersonic anti-ship weapons, air-to-air missiles, and drones). In some areas these represent serious challenges to the strategic dominance over China that the US has enjoyed since the PRC came in to existence.
In this context China is reported to have recently installed cruise missiles on disputed islands which it has occupied and conducted military exercises around Taiwan, ostensibly as a reminder to constituencies there that any “independence” initiatives would not be tolerated. The most likely prospect is that such measures – which will include port facilities in Burma, Djibouti, Pakistan and Sri Lanka, often of an assertive, but not an aggressive nature – are likely to continue in the manner of a great power rising. Almost inevitably, they will create frictions and tensions.
They do not, however, necessarily betoken war; nor do they necessarily betoken a Chinese global imperium. Nevertheless they are frequently referred to as the “globalisation” of China’s military power in general, and the militarisation of the South China Sea in particular.
Making sense of this requires locating the South China Sea in a geostrategic context: if it is defined according to the International Hydrographic Organisation’s demarcations – that is, the area of water south of China, east of Vietnam, west of the Philippines, east of the Malay Peninsula and Sumatra, and north of the Natuna Islands – then accepting the description favoured by many oceanographers – a cul-de-sac of the North Pacific – is logical.
The North Pacific, then, forces a focus on the extent and nature of “militarisation”. On a comparative basis we might set the 320 ships of the People’s Liberation Army Navy against the ships which constitute the navies of the regional states, as follows: Japan (154); Republic of Korea (170) and Taiwan (67). Add to these the basing systems of the United States – from the submarine base at Kitsap, Maine, on the Pacific northwest; west, to 11 in Hawaii; south, to the COMLOG WESTPAC installation in Singapore; north, to a reinvigorated agreement with the Philippines for facilities and rotational deployment of US forces; further north, to more than 30 bases in Japan and 15 in the Republic of Korea. To complicate matters further there are the numerous facilities of the Russian Pacific Fleet with some 50 warships and 23 submarines.
Given that, overwhelmingly, most of this infrastructure was in place before China saw it for what it could be in the event of war – a wide-ranging threat to its national security – and before it had the resources to address it, the accusations of militarisation, echoed by Australian government ministers, are myopic and devoid of strategic history and imagination.
Fragment 2: Ocean Militarisation-as-Addiction. The survey above is injuriously brief; a more detailed account would have explored such dangerous Cold War initiatives against the Soviet Union as the intelligence-gathering missions of US submarines in, for example, the Sea of Okhotsk, and which would be known to Chinese naval planners. And it would also include the Pentagon’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s proclivity to experiment with the weaponisation of marine mammals, dolphins being particularly popular candidates with the US Navy.
More recently, however, the turn has been to create genetically modified marine organisms in a program called Persistent Aquatic Living Sensors. Essentially, the program embraces the objective of using everything from bacteria to large fish as locators of underwater vehicles. That the consequences of successfully operationalising these sensors as intelligence agents for the purposes of undersea warfare could be both the destabilisation of whole marine ecosystems, and the marine fish stocks which provide food for humans, has yet to be seriously addressed.
Fragment 3: The Further Militarisation of University Ocean Research. This is already underway and in plain sight, and the indications are that it will intensify. Just as future warfare is conceived of as multi-domain, militarised ocean research will align with militarised space research overall.
Several universities in Australia have embraced the development. The ANU was successful in 2017 in winning funding for drone technology and submarine and nuclear strategy research. In the same year Boeing announced the continuation of its research collaboration with the University of Queensland (UQ) which had begun more than 13 years earlier: in 2007 for example, the latter had been brought into collaboration with the company and the Australian Defence Science and Technology Organisation on three critical flight tests within a $US 54 million hypersonic research program named HIFIRE.
In 2017, Boeing Research and Technology Australia opened a research centre at UQ to work on, inter alia, autonomous systems and aircraft simulator technologies. A Boeing presence is also to be found in the Strategic and Defence Studies Centre at ANU (the Boeing Library) and the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology University. Similarly, in 2016 the University of Melbourne found favour with an investment of $AU 13 million by Lockheed Martin’s STELaRab under the aegis of the Defence Science Institute – an organisation charged with facilitating “the growth of defence science research networks between Victorian universities, government and defence industry”.
These, it is emphasised, are but fragments – indicative examples, commonly and conveniently forgotten.
From 1982 to 1988, Michael McKinley taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy in the Department of Politics at UWA. From 1988 to 2014 he taught diplomacy, international relations and strategy at the ANU. He is currently a member of the Emeritus Faculty at the ANU.