The inconvenient truths in the rise of China

Jun 2, 2023
Map of china in hand.

In charting the way ahead for Australia-China relations, Canberra needs to present the risks posed by increasing Chinese military power in realistic rather than hawkish terms, writes Colin Heseltine.

Building the case for Australia to significantly upgrade its defence force structure and capability, including the expensive acquisition of nuclear-powered submarines, is a challenge for the Government. At present it has fairly strong support. The Lowy Institute’s 2022 poll indicates growing concern in Australia about our security environment with majority support for increased military spending. A significant majority sees China becoming a military threat to Australia in the next 20 years. But, according to the poll, only half would favour Australia using military force if China invaded Taiwan and the US decided to intervene.

This suggests some ambivalence among Australians on issues of national security. Maintaining support for Australia’s national security policies will not always be easy. The complexities need to be handled carefully. Defence Minister Richard Marles recently spoke of the inconvenient truth that China’s growth story, and the economic benefits it has bestowed on Australia, has unfolded alongside China becoming a significant source of national security anxiety. Marles has rightly pointed to the “shrill and fundamentalist” debate over China prior to last year’s Australian election. To its credit, the Albanese government has mostly avoided inflammatory rhetoric towards China as it moves to stabilize of the bilateral relationship.

And yet, there remain substantial inconvenient truths that the government struggles to explain, which hinder the formulation of a coherent policy towards China.

Marles himself has repeatedly highlighted that China has undergone a massive military build-up – the largest by any country since 1945 – and has done so with lack of transparency as to its motive and without providing reassurances to countries in the region. Australia, on the other hand, he says, has been open and transparent in explaining its defence aims to the region.

There is, however, a glaring contradiction between on the one hand portraying China as major security threat to Australia and the region, and at the same time talking about stabilizing the relationship and reaping the economic benefits this will provide. Many Australians understandably find this hard to process. Marles addresses these contradictions and the concerns many Australians have by stating that the relationship is extremely complex – “it is hard to imagine a relationship less suited to simplistic platitudes”.

He is dead right. It always was going to be awkward defending attempts to stabilize a relationship with a country that many Australians have been conditioned in recent years to view as an existential security threat.

No-one would deny the difficult strategic circumstances facing Australia and its regional neighbours as the two major global military powers contend for power and influence. Nor should anyone doubt that Australia is right to want to develop a highly capable and competent defence force. Any sensible country should be doing this. But how this is articulated and explained to people is important, not just to our own people but to our neighbours from whom we seek support for our diplomatic efforts in the region. Australia’s relentless portrayal of China in hawkish terms goes way beyond the language used by other regional countries, whose proximity and history of maritime and other disputes with China would, one might think, lead them to feel more threatened than us.

When Richard Marles says China’s massive military build up is the biggest by any country since 1945, he is stating an important fact. But the other side of the equation is that China’s recent economic growth has been the greatest of any country in modern history (its GDP is now 50 times greater than 30 years ago). During this time the growth in its defence spending has been steady at around 1.7 per cent per year, and China is still spending far less than the United States. Given China’s rapidly expanding global economic interests, and its growing dependence on global maritime transport (90 per cent of its merchandise trade goes by sea), it is not surprising that it has built a formidable navy. As an island continent, Australia (and for that matter the United States) will see its security environment very differently from that of China which has some 20 land and maritime neighbours, some of which, like China, have nuclear weapons.

What would be most surprising in these circumstances, indeed ahistorical, would be if China had not developed a formidable military force. This is an inconvenient truth that Australia must face.

The claims that China has lacked transparency in building its military and has failed to provide assurances to its regional neighbours about its motives is a strange one. China’s rhetoric has often proclaimed its peaceful intentions and indeed, Xi Jinping’s own speeches over the past couple of decades have often emphasized this. In 2015, Xi told the Bo’ao Forum that no country that has tried to achieve its goals through force has succeeded. While it would be reassuring if Xi uttered these words in the context of Taiwan and Ukraine, the fact is he said them. Xi has repeatedly said China will not engage in aggression or expansion but is confident it will defeat any aggressor. In other words, China’s military build-up is explained in defensive not aggressive terms (“build the PLA into a wall of steel”). Other than Taiwan, there are no references to aggression towards other countries.

It is, no doubt, wise to be questioning when Xi speaks like this but no more questioning than when other major powers say similar things. This is what great powers do. China’s own experience with wars in the past 70 years has been limited to Korea in 1952 and the militarily inept strike against Vietnam in 1979, as well as border battles with India and Russia in the 1960s.

None of this, of course, should be taken as a reliable guide to whether China would undertake military actions against other countries in the future as it builds its strength, but it does suggest that China might well prefer other means to achieve its goals, such as utilizing its economic influence. China’s trillion-dollar Belt and Road Initiative is a case in point. Nothing would destroy this massive program more than if China were to engage in military adventures.

China, as Richard Marles has said, is complex, and developing relations with it does not lend itself to simplistic platitudes. A good way forward would be for the government to present the security environment being shaped by China in realistic rather than hawkish China threat terms. Singapore’s deputy (and likely next) Prime Minister, Lawrence Wong, spoke at a Tokyo forum last week of the growing mistrust in the region between the US and China, noting that “any incremental move by one party has its own dynamic and domestic political pressure, and elicits a counter-move by the other”.

In this environment, it would in no way undermine the Australian Government’s case for strengthening defence capabilities, if, at the same time, it ensured that public discourse on the subject takes place rationally and calmly, rather than in the overwrought and fearful atmosphere we so often see. A visit to China by the Prime Minister, were it to take place later this year, would provide an opportunity to calibrate the narrative.


A version of this article was published by The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald.

Republished with permissions from AsiaLink insights.

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