Articles by " Geoff Wade"

The ultimate aim: an Australia with more independent capacities

Southwestern Australia (NASA, International Space Station, 04/01/13)  The sun is about to set in this scene showing parts of southwestern Australia, which was photographed by one of the Expedition 35 crew members aboard the International Space Station on April 1, 2013. Several of the orbital outpost's solar array panels are seen in the foreground.

Michael Fullilove’s address to the National Press Club urging a ‘larger Australia’ engages directly with the vital question of Australia’s future. A subsequent query by his colleague Sam Roggeveen—‘What should Australia aim to achieve with this increased power and influence?’—goes to the nub of the issue and deserves exploration.

The most fitting answer is that a larger Australia would enable an increasingly independent and sovereign nation. Dependence on the United Kingdom and the United States has marked Australia’s evolution to nationhood. But is such dependence on external powers necessarily an element of a future Australia? Shouldn’t a larger Australia aim at achieving a greater capacity for independent action in both domestic and international affairs?

If we accept that Australia should and could aim for greater independence in both domestic and international affairs, we might start by exploring the ways in which this vision can be realised. Read more

Let’s examine a few of the key issues. First is population size. Our present population density of 3 persons per square kilometre (as compared to the US at 32, France 118 and Germany 262) is the lowest globally. This continent could support 60–80 million people (PDF), and this greater human capital would underpin a larger economy, a wealthier nation, and—perhaps more importantly—the economies of scale that would permit those communication and transport facilities (national broadband, super highways and high-speed railways) that the current population couldn’t sustain.

Still, Australia needs not merely a larger economy but a higher one. The recent closure of the car industry’s basic manufacturing facilities sounds a clarion call for Australia to push its economy further up the technology chain.

Developing and growing high-technology skills and industries requires the establishment of a range of major high-tech education-industrial bases. Across the globe, strong states—the US, Russia, China, Japan, India, France and Germany—are marked by a number of major high-tech industrial capacities that underpin their capacity for independent action. In particular, they all possess aerospace, IT and nuclear industries. Perhaps through an initial concentration on those three spheres Australia could gradually—over decades, or perhaps centuries—attain a domestic capacity that would allow greater options for our future.

The aerospace industry might be a fruitful initial foray into the sphere of high technologies precisely because of our existing links to the US. Australia hosts a range of tracking stations that provide the US a southern hemisphere base for space research, satellite communication and the monitoring of global communications and missile use. Yet Australia remains a junior partner in those nominally joint activities. Such dependence, where we have no need to pursue our own capacities in these fields, needs to be addressed in any pursuit of a larger Australia.

We could urge the US to join us in funding a major Australian academy aimed at developing domestic skills in aerospace theory and practice. That would eventually aid Australia in establishing aerospace and space industries, and would have intellectual and industrial spin-offs in many areas of the Australian economy. Further funding for such an enterprise could involve inserting a condition in all future aerospace procurement documents that requires successful tenderers to contribute a stipulated volume of skills or funding to that academy.

A similar pattern could be pursued in respect of an IT teaching–research–industry complex, that could be modelled upon Stanford–Palo Alto–Silicon Valley in California, where academic and industrial IT expertise comes together. While accepting there’s only so much that government planning and execution can achieve in such spheres, the creation of such an academy would provide Australia with the tools necessary to enhance virtually all aspects of social existence. A recent Ditchley Park conference underlined how important IT capacities will be as a key driver of future growth.

Then there’s the nuclear industry. While the export of uranium and the development of a nuclear industry have long been contentious issues in Australia, a larger Australia would need to make use of its ready access to uranium to develop a nuclear industry that could provide for its needs. Australia holds over 30%of the world’s uranium resources. While the ANSTO researches and applies small-scale uses of nuclear technology, the larger opportunities are still being discussed. The 2006 Switkowski report and its recommendations have gone nowhere. By providing the country with a generous supply of electricity, and reducing the many problems of fossil fuels, the nuclear option could provide the energy baseload for a larger Australia.

To ensure Australia has the skills and capacities to utilise its nuclear resources fully and safely, we would need to develop a research-educational-industrial complex engaging with everything from nuclear physics to power generation, including medical applications, materials engineering and the plethora of other uses of nuclear science. The funding of such a complex could be met in part from government funding, in part through income from the uranium industry, and subsequently through commercial applications of technology.

This proposed troika of research and industrial centres will be key to creating a richer, more powerful and more high-tech Australia. They’ll allow Australia to move into what Brynjolfsson and McAfee term the Second Machine Age.

Two points are worth reiterating in conclusion. First, without these industries and the skills that flow from them, Australia will remain limited in its capacity to pursue its own domestic and foreign policy agendas. The other point is that the greater independence of a larger Australia can’t be achieved quickly. Population growth is naturally incremental and it’ll take decades or centuries to realise the necessary industrial capacities. What’s key is recognition of the direction that Australia must travel if it’s to achieve an increased capacity for independent action and self-determination. A larger Australia with a higher economy is very much a part of this agenda.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user NASA’s Marshall Space Flight Center.

Further Defence tasks outsourced

A RAAF CL-604 Challenger (part of the RAAF VIP fleet) at Canberra airport. Northrop Grumman Australia will now maintain these aircraft and provide a range of other services to Defence since its acquisition of Qantas Defence Services. The commercial woes of Qantas have blanketed the airwaves and newspapers of late, but the government’s intent to change the Qantas Sale Act to allow more foreign ownership of the airline seems unlikely to be realised in the near term.

Yet in all of the media fuss, virtually no attention has been paid to the fact that one part of Qantas has just been sold off to a foreign company—lock, stock and barrel. And it’s the sensitive side of Qantas to boot. On 27 February, Northrop Grumman Australia Pty Limited, a subsidiary of Northrop Grumman Corporation of the United States, announced through a press release issued in Virginia that it has completed the acquisition of Qantas Defence Services Pty Limited (QDS), a wholly-owned subsidiary of Qantas Airways Limited, and that the acquisition is now called ‘Northrop Grumman Integrated Defence Services Pty Limited (IDS)’. That’s to say, all of Qantas’ defence-related business has been sold off to the Australian branch of an American company. Read more

QDS, which had an annual turnover in excess of $140 million, was engaged in aircraft maintenance, repair, modifications and upgrades, engine testing and maintenance, fleet planning, and fuel management as well as diverse supply chain, training and logistics tasks for the Australian Defence Force. It was also involved in the conversion of A330-200s to tankers for air-to-air refuelling and had signed aviation-linked contracts with the Indonesian government.

Through the A$80 million purchase, IDS takes over a range of major defence aerospace systems. Within NSW, the company will maintain C130H Hercules aircraft at RAAF Base Richmond and operate a unit at Villawood for maintaining, repairing and overhauling aircraft engines. In Canberra, it’ll maintain RAAF Special Purpose Aircraft (two Boeing B737-700IGW and three Bombardier Challenger CL-604 aircraft operated by the RAAF’s 34 Squadron). It’ll also operate businesses in Brisbane and at the RAAF base at Amberley. QDS employed approximately 500 workers, of whom some 320 will be retained by IDS.

The Australian media felt this news was deserving of no further attention than the reprinting of a truncated press release. And indeed, there has already been much outsourcing of Australia’s defence needs, as detailed in Andrew Davies’ table on the subject from last year. But there are several issues that suggest this deal might be worthy of deeper examination. The first is the reason for, and process of, the sale. At first glance it appears that this might have been intended to remove security-sensitive defence operations from the Qantas stable, in order to ready the airline for further public ownership. However, the impending sale of QDS was announced by Qantas in August last year and the company assigned the sale simply to the ‘disposal of non-core assets’. The process of government approval for the sale—or indeed whether any government approval was necessary—hasn’t been made public.

That Northrop Grumman has the technical capacity to take on the tasks of QDS isn’t at issue. It’s among the 10 top global aerospace companies and it’s a supplier and provider of defence hardware and services to a wide range of countries.

Through its Australian branch it’s a major subcontractor for the RAAF’s Wedgetail AEW&C, F-35 Lightning II and the FA/18 Super Hornet programmes. In addition, it has been contracted to build a cyber-test range for the Australian Defence Force Academy in Canberra , and in 2012 purchased M5 Network Security which provides cybersecurity services to military, government and large corporations.

While the United States is Australia’s major defence ally and provides our nuclear umbrella, and while its companies are key suppliers of our military hardware, the recent purchase of QDS by Northrop Grumman raises some concerns. When a foreign company, albeit that of an ally, is able to take over one of Australia’s largest defence services companies, whose tasks include maintenance of the prime minister’s aircraft and diverse other RAAF resources, with no media attention and no questions asked in Parliament, an observer might ask why. One could imagine, by comparison, the ruckus which would ensue in the US if an Australian company was tasked with providing and maintaining Air Force One.

Such purchases are increasingly facilitated by the Australia-United States Defence Trade Cooperation Treaty (PDF), signed by John Howard and George W. Bush in 2007. Only the UK and Australia have such treaty arrangements with the United States. This Treaty is being implemented in Australia through the Defence Trade Controls Act 2012, which came into force in May 2013, a few months before the QDS sale was announced. The Treaty and enabling legislation are intended to reduce defence export control restrictions between the two countries, and facilitate defence trade cooperation in ‘goods, services and technologies’ across the Pacific.

It’s inevitable that Australian and US defence integration will be stepped up through this Treaty and legislation, and we’ll be seeing more such tie-ups and purchases between businesses across the Pacific. The nature of the QDS sale suggests, however, that it’s perhaps worthwhile to keep an eye on the degree to and means by which Australian defence tasks are being outsourced to companies owned beyond our shores.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Defence Image Library.

World News Connection disconnected

UnpluggedThe last day of 2013 marked more than the close of the year: it signalled the end of one of the most important global sources of publicly-accessible intelligence.

Through a low-key notice, the United States government announced that World News Connection (WNC) would be closed down on 31 December. WNC was the public database for transcribed and translated newspaper and electronic media materials gathered globally by the Director of National Intelligence Open Source Center (OSC) of the US Government. The OSC restricts itself to publicly-sourced materials—open-source intelligence (OSINT)—and the materials collected are distributed throughout US government agencies and to major agencies of key allies, including Australia. The OSC also produces a wide variety of analytical reports based on these materials. However, its most prominent public face was World News Connection, subscribed to by university libraries, think tanks and other institutions, and used by a multitude of analysts and scholars around the world.

Read more

The OSC has a long and prestigious history. Emerging from the US Foreign Broadcast Monitoring Service which was tasked with monitoring Axis radio broadcasts during WWII, the organisation morphed in 1947 into the Foreign Broadcast Information Service (FBIS)—an open source intelligence component of the CIA’s Directorate of Science and Technology. In collaboration with the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Monitoring Service, FBIS monitored radio and other media around the globe through 20 bureaus. It also absorbed the Joint Publication Research Service (JPRS), which monitored and translated military-related tracts. Those materials selected and translated were, to the great credit of the participating governments, also made available publicly through FBIS Daily Reports, JPRS reports and the BBC’s Summary of World Broadcasts. These materials thereby came to constitute the major source of primary materials for non-government analysts, scholars and journalists around the globe through the entire Cold War period. The value of the resource for researchers globally since the end of the Cold War has also been very clearly demonstrated (PDF).

In November 2005, the duties of FBIS were taken over by the newly-created OSC, and, for the last eight years, WNC have provided the materials sourced and translated from thousands of news sources around the world to libraries, research institutes and think-tanks through commercial providers. While the reports to the mid-1990s will continue to be available through commercial providers, and will forever constitute key historical materials for researchers, the demise of WNC means that the provision of contemporary materials to non-government constituencies will now cease. Materials from half the world’s countries will now not be available in the consolidated, searchable and archived form which WNC provided. Strangely, the other half of this global monitoring system—BBC Monitoring—will continue to provide to the public the materials which they source and translate from global media.

To what should we ascribe this change in US policy? The National Technical Information Service, which distributed WNC, assigns the closedown to the following reasons:

Several developments have combined to necessitate cancelling WNC, including increasing costs, increased competition from alternate sources, and incompatibility with mission limitations of the compiler of the data, while advances in technology make the information in WNC more readily available from the original source.

And yet, the additional costs of providing the public feed are miniscule and are partly met by subscriptions; there’s no alternative source which provides the materials and database which WNC did; while ‘incompatibility with mission limitations of the compiler of the data’, appears to simply suggest that US government OSINT shouldn’t be made available outside government circles. The rationale conveniently ignores the fact that WNC provided in English translation much material which would never otherwise be available to analysts and scholars around the world who work in English.

Following the announcement that the WNC would be closed, a wide range of scholarly organisations across the United States came together to suggest that the action violates President Obama’s Open Government Plan (PDF) and to urge its reversal. Many other advocates have voiced their support for the maintenance of the service, and Elizabeth Murray, an erstwhile member of the US National Intelligence Council who worked with OSC for 20 years, has pointed out how the decision to close WNC goes against many American interests.

What does this mean for Australia? Through essential reliance on US and British collection and dissemination of global OSINT since WWII, Australia has only limited capacity to gather and disseminate such materials for the broader interests of Australian society. Thus we’re at the mercy of actions such as this by the Americans, whereby non-government parties are now excluded from the most important global source of OSINT, and so from access to many primary materials on global affairs. Australian government agencies will continue to receive OSC materials but the remainder of society will be deprived of that resource. That will necessarily reduce the capacity of Australian society generally to understand and analyse global events and trends, and will inevitably mean a reduction in the quality and quantity of extra-governmental analysis, of public discussion and of informed commentary on global issues. This can only harm an open society.

As such, this should be an issue of national concern, and the Australian government should use its good offices with the Americans to encourage the reversal of this decision. The issue might be fruitfully discussed at this week’s meeting in Washington on the US–Australia Alliance, or later through more formal avenues. Australia, like the rest of the world, needs World News Connection.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the Crawford School of Public Policy, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user nige_mar.

China’s efforts to break the Australia–US alliance

'Go' board gameIn the Chinese Buddhist tradition, as we flail in the ‘bitter sea’ of existential illusion, we only need to ‘turn to the other shore,’ constituted by the Buddhist path, in order to find Enlightenment. Australia is now being urged by China to seek its own enlightenment—to give up the ways of illusion constituted by alliance with the United States and to turn to the other shore, a shore provided by closer political and strategic alliance with the PRC.

The kerfuffle at the recent Australia–China Forum held in Canberra in late November—the third in the series – was an excellent example of these efforts by China. The Chinese delegation to this 1.5 track conclave was led by Ambassador Li Zhaoxing who heads, among other organisations, a People’s Liberation Army front organisation known as the China Association for International Friendly Contact. Despite the bland press release on the conclave offered by the Australian Foreign Minister , with its perhaps less than accurate headline ‘Australia-China Forum forges closer ties,’ a newspaper report by Peter Hartcher, who also attended the conference, more accurately describes what transpired at the event.

Read more

Hartcher describes the anger vented by the Chinese side during the forum as initially directed towards the Australian statements criticising the PRC’s unilateral announcement of an air-defence identification zone (ADIZ) over the East China Sea. However, the pique was then extended to the apparent cause of this ‘unwarranted intrusion’ into China’s affairs—Australia’s close alliance with the United States. According to Hartcher, reporting under Chatham House rules, the Chinese side called into question the robustness of the Australia-US relationship, suggesting that this relationship was simply ‘a product of the Cold War’, and that today this entente negatively affects China’s ‘core interests, its sovereignty and its territorial interests’. Australia should therefore, by implication, recognise on which side its bread is buttered and act responsibly.

When Australian foreign minister Julie Bishop arrived in Beijing in early December for the first China-Australia diplomatic and strategic dialogue, while the language was not quite as strong, she still copped more of the ‘disloyal vassal’ rhetoric. Unsmiling PRC foreign minister Wang Yi expressed China’s hope that ‘the Australian side can properly handle sensitive issues from a strategic and long-term perspective,’ so as to ‘increase mutual trust and expand substantial cooperation’ in order to ‘ensure the right direction of the China-Australia strategic partnership’. And it wasn’t just the Communist Party of China which thought that Australia had jeopardised trust—it was the ‘entire Chinese society and the general public’. Xinhua even flew a balloon claiming that Julie Bishop had said that ‘China is the most important economic and strategic partner of Australia’.

Australia’s strong and immediate response to the declaration of an ADIZ certainly shocked China. Anyone closely listening to PRC sotto voce suggestions to Australia and its officials over the last few years will have recognised a continuing leitmotif—Australia’s long-term interests will be much better served by turning away from the United States with its fickle foreign policy and aligning itself more closely with its major trading partner, China. The lockstep US-Australia response to the ADIZ declaration showed Chinese officials that their efforts in this respect have so far been in vain, and it was frustration over this that was reflected at the Canberra meeting.

But what’s the rationale for such attempts by China to cleave the Australia-US alliance? Obviously, achieving some distance between these allies, or in fact any allies, will prove beneficial to China in any future conflict. While divide et impera is an almost universal strategy, imperial China pursued this policy in the past with extreme efficacy. During the Cold War, we saw the PRC effectively pursuing such policies across Southeast Asia, and today we’re observing similar efforts globally.

Taking advantage of an admitted lack of American strategy to deal with China’s new naval power and assertiveness, China is widely pursuing efforts to divide the United States from its allies in the Asia-Pacific. This has been described as a board game of calibrated coercion, with the aim to ‘blunt U.S. influence across Asia and sow doubt about America’s commitment to its allies in the region’—precisely what we observe happening in Australia.

But while these efforts to divide are obvious, other Chinese endeavours are aimed at bringing together China’s neighbours under a new arrangement. At a conference on diplomatic work with neighbouring countries in late October, PRC President Xi Jinping stressed that

China needs to work hard to advance diplomacy with neighbouring countries, strive to achieve a sound surrounding environment for China’s development, and enable neighbouring countries to benefit more from China’s development for the purpose of common development.

And, more specifically,

China needs to protect and make the best use of the strategic opportunities to safeguard China’s national sovereignty, security and development interests. China needs to develop closer ties with neighbouring countries, with more friendly political relations, stronger economic bonds, deeper security cooperation and closer people-to-people contacts.

President Xi summed this up as a ‘Community of Common Destiny’ (命运共同体). Australia is undoubtedly one of the key targets for this new Chinese embrace, and the speech is prominently displayed on the website of the Chinese embassy in Australia.

This appears to be a geographical extension of the historical concept of tian-xia (that space which a Chinese state is the centre of), from what might be called China proper to the quadrisphere comprising the Eastern half of Eurasia, Offshore Asia and Oceania.

One should never ignore the element of history in China’s perceptions of itself and the world. And there’s still a great sense of injustice within China with respect to the expansion of European powers over the last five centuries and the effects which this has had on China’s regional influence (even if China’s own expansion into other polities throughout history is considered to be a natural process).

The reversal of perceived ‘national shame’ and the pursuit of ‘national glory’ are elements which continue to fill rhetorical space in China, far more so than in any other country. There is today a ‘Great Renaissance of the Chinese Nation Index’, which claims that China has attained only 65% of its former glory, while in the recent Communiqué of the Third Plenum of the 18th CPC Central Committee , it’s ‘the Chinese Dream of the great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation’ that must be pursued in ‘the face of extremely complex international circumstances’.

The obvious efforts to break the Australia-US alliance are an integral element in China’s reassertion of national glory, and appear to be part of a larger grand strategy to eventually extend Chinese authority and influence over the entire western Pacific. Those who urge a new power sharing-arrangement and a greater role in East Asian regional leadership for the secretive, expanding and often repressive one-party state that is the PRC only encourage and facilitate such aspirations.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.Image courtesy of Flickr user spwelton.

Changing Asia: China’s high-speed railway diplomacy

Chinese high speed railA new term has become popular in Chinese political parlance over the last few years. This neologism—‘high-speed railway diplomacy’ (高铁外交)—is used to describe the mechanisms by which China’s burgeoning capacities in high-speed railway (HSR) construction are being used in China’s international relations.

The speed at which China has mastered HSR technology is unparalleled. Beginning with the import of technologies only in 2003, China began operating the Beijing-Tianjin HSR by 2008. In that same year, it built a train capable of a speed of 350 kilometres per hour. Today the country boasts the greatest length of HSR track in the world (over 10,000 kilometres of rail capable of carrying trains at speeds in excess of 200 kilometres per hour). Further, China South Locomotive and Rolling Stock Corporation Limited (CSR) has achieved global records in terms of speed, with tests reaching 600 kilometers per hour. The scope of the system can be gleaned from the fact that in less than 2 years the HSR line linking Beijing and Shanghai recorded over 100 million passenger trips, while the Chinese government plans to invest over US$100 billion in railway construction this year. Read more

China’s new and relatively cheap expertise in this technology is being promoted as both an economic and diplomatic tool. Discussions on export of the technology are being held around the world and visiting dignitaries to the PRC are being urged to use Chinese technology for their future HSR. India, for instance, is actively seeking Chinese HSR technology, while during a meeting with Premier Li Keqiang in Beijing in mid-October, Australian Governor-General Quentin Bryce was urged to employ China’s HSR technology for Australia’s needs.

But it’s the external connections of China’s system which are of prime interest to us here. A 1,700 kilometre high-speed track will connect Lanzhou to Urumqi in Xinjiang (8 hours) from 2014, and this is intended for extension to Central Asia, while the Shanghai-Kunming route is slated to open in 2016. When completed, trains will take but 8 hours to cover the more than 2,000 kilometres between these two cities. Longer-term plans are afoot to drive an HSR route from Kunming into India and then through Pakistan to Teheran.

It’s from the Kunming hub that the high-speed rail system will route into mainland Southeast Asia, and it’s in this region that China’s HSR will be a strategic game-changer. As part of Thailand’s massive plans to upgrade its transport infrastructure, China is offering support through provision of HSR technology. Of the four Thai routes planned, the main one will be the northeast line, from Bangkok to Nong Khai, which will continue through Laos to Kunming. This route is planned to be functional by 2020. While Thai Transport Minister Chatchart Sitthipun has said that tenders will be called in 2014, his visits to Kunming, and the discussions on possible rice barter trade agreements with the PRC to fund the project suggest that the eventual contractor will be from China. Chinese engineers are already conducting geological surveys along the routes. There’s also discussion about a branch line which will run from Bangkok to the Thai-funded Dawei Special Economic Zone (SEZ) in Myanmar on the coast of the Bay of Bengal. During his recent visit to Bangkok, PRC Premier Li Keqiang opened an exhibition promoting a high-speed railway system that would link China, Thailand and Singapore, making Singapore-Kunming a 12-hour journey.

Other HSR routes connecting Kunming and mainland Southeast Asia cities are also being planned. A connection between Kunming and the Laotian capital of Vientiane was the subject of a 2010 memorandum and, while feasibility plans are still being conducted, the plan remains ‘on track’.) A high-speed line Kunming to Yangon was also proposed in 2010 and discussions are apparently ongoing. HSR routes connecting Kunming to Vietnam and to Cambodia have also been mooted and are seen as part of a ‘Pan-Asian railway’ project. A conventional railway from Kunming to Mengzi is being extended to the Vietnamese border and will eventually connect to Hanoi, completely replacing the narrow-gauge railway service which was discontinued in 2003.

This process of developing HSR across mainland Southeast Asia has only just begun but the long-term effects aren’t difficult to assess. As was foreshadowed several years ago, connectivity between mainland Southeast Asia and southern China is growing much faster than intra-ASEAN connectivity, and the strategic geography of East Asia is thereby being changed forever. Driven by the high-speed rail networks, new roads and telecommunication facilities centring on Kunming, together with China’s burgeoning economic engagement—both trade and investment—with the Greater Mekong area, mainland Southeast Asia is in the process of disconnecting from maritime Southeast Asia. This will, almost inevitably, result in ASEAN dividing along this fault line. And when the people of the mainland countries soon find, through the convenience of HSR, that Kunming is their ‘closest neighbour’ but a few hours away, the Yunnan capital will gradually emerge as the hub of the Greater Mekong Region and will eventually become, in effect, the capital of mainland Southeast Asia.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user 1010uk.

China’s six wars in the next 50 years

In a recent post, I introduced a new PRC book entitled ‘China Is Not Afraid — New Threats to National Security and Our Strategic Responses’, (中国不怕——国防安全新威胁与我们的战略应对). I suggested that the volume is part of a larger PLA strategy to invigorate and bolster the morale of domestic constituencies, both military and otherwise, as well as being intended to serve as a warning to any foreign powers which might seek to constrain or restrict China. It’s perhaps worthwhile further extending this analysis to two other PLA-inspired products, one a film and the other a newsagency article, to explore what sort of agenda these works are promoting.

The Chinese film Silent Contest (较量无声) was controversial as soon as it appeared on Chinese and global websites in October. By the end of that month, the film was being deleted from PRC websites without any official pronouncements as to the reasons for its appearance or disappearance. The film is still available in various iterations (video) on YouTube.

Read more

Highly polemical, and set against a rousing soundtrack, the film suggests that the United States is trying to subvert China through five avenues: (1) undermining China politically, (2) engaging in cultural infiltration, (3) warfare in terms of ideas, (4) the training of fifth column agents and (5) the fostering of opposition forces within China. The overall message is that the United States seeks not simply to dismember China but aims to find ways to take it under control. Frank Ching notes a strong anti-Hong Kong democrat aspect in the film, amid an implicit fear that a Hong Kong–Taiwan–US alliance could destabilize the PRC. The film’s intended audiences are certainly the domestic military and civilian constituencies, and it aims to be rousing and to induce indignity and anger. Reactions within China have varied (video), from the obviously supportive to the derisory.

The PLA was intimately involved in the making of the film. More specifically, the National Defence University, the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences and the China Institute of Contemporary International Relations, which is subordinate to the Ministry of State Security, participated in the production of the film earlier this year. Without doubt, it is a reaction to the US ‘pivot’ to Asia and the increased American engagement with the region since 2011, but obviously has deeper roots. With such a range of august national institutions being involved in the production of the film, it might be suggested that the rather extreme sentiments expressed therein are not restricted to some hawkish elements in the PLA.

A more troubling example of irredentism can be seen in an article which appeared on the website of the Chinese news agency Zhongguo Xinwenshe (Chinese, English translation here) in July this year. Entitled ‘Revealing the Six Wars China Must Fight in the Coming 50 Years’ (曝光中国在未来50年里必打的六场战争), the article is another manifestation of the hyper-nationalist attitude seen within some parts of the PLA. However, that an article of this nature was carried by a PRC national news agency suggests that it was approved at a very high level.

The six ‘inevitable’ wars suggested in the article’s title are presented in the chronological order in which they will take place:

  1.  The war to unify Taiwan (2020–2025)
  2. The war to recover the various islands of the South China Sea (2025–2030)
  3. The war to recover southern Tibet (2035–2040)
  4. The war to recover Diaoyutai and the Ryukyus (2040–2045)
  5. The war to unify Outer Mongolia (2045–2050)
  6. The war to recover the territory seized by Russia (2055–2060)

Claims to Taiwan have been a part of PRC policy since 1949, and military action has never been ruled out, but a specific timetable for such action has never been suggested. In a remarkable coincidence, the Taiwan military has just announced that the PRC will have the military capacity to take Taiwan by 2020. In terms of a South China Sea war, little imagination is needed to see the current argy-bargy in the region extending into a military conflict. Regarding the third proposed war, China’s claims to the Indian state of Arunachal Pradesh (PDF) have been a thorn in China-India relations for decades, but the extent of Chinese claims over Tibetan cultural areas in the Himalayas remains unspecified.

Claims to Diaoyutai/Senkaku have filled the press of late, so again little creative power is needed to see this situation descending into war. China’s very recent declaration of a ‘maritime air defense zone’ will also certainly exacerbate tensions. Regarding the Ryukyus (the Okinawa island chain), Chinese scholars were seeking the ‘return’ of these islands to China in the 1920s, so this certainly isn’t a new claim. Meanwhile, Chinese claims to what’s today the nation of Mongolia derive from Qing dynasty control of this region and again have been part of Chinese territorial claims since the Republic of China was established in 1912. The same is true of the Russian Far East territories, which many Chinese see as having been unjustly occupied by the Russians.

None of the above wars are endorsed by current PRC policies, and some Chinese claim that the article represents only the views of radical hyper-nationalists. However, the claims to territories which this article avers need to be ‘recovered’ through warfare are long-standing and are remarkably congruent with a 1938 map of ‘China’s shame’ authorised by the Ministry of the Interior of the Republican Government which shows the areas torn from China by imperialists—European and Japanese. (See map below) The ‘lost’ Chinese territories on this map include not only the Russian Far East, the Ryukyus, Taiwan and the South China Sea, but also Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, Thailand, the Malay Peninsula and Singapore, Myanmar, Nepal, parts of Pakistan and most of Central Asia.

Chinese 'national map of shame' (1938)Observing how these explicit Chinese claims on territories well beyond the borders of present-day China extend back 70 or more years, and in reading some of the hyper-nationalist rhetoric such as the article cited, we might well excuse the populace of the areas subject to these historical claims from feeling quite as threatened and insecure as apparently do some people in the PRC.

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University.

‘China is not afraid’

ZHANJIANG, China (May 30, 2013) - Capt. James T. Jones, commanding officer of the guided-missile cruiser USS Shiloh greets Rear Adm. Zhang Wendan, deputy chief of staff South Sea Fleet of the Chinese People's Liberation Army Navy during a ceremony welcoming the ship for a port visit.The Chinese military has been doing some sabre-rattling lately. While PLA naval forces have been busy asserting China’s claims in the East China Sea and the South China Sea, there’ve been larger efforts in train to impress upon global players China’s capacity and willingness to engage, if necessary, in broader military confrontation.

This has been seen on several fronts. The most obvious manifestation is the very public parading of Chinese military hardware. The CPC’s key ideological journal Qiushi recently showcased China’s nuclear submarine force for the first time in four decades, even introducing us to some of the commanders, while Xinhua has been widely circulating illustrations of the vessels. Chinese military capabilities have also been on display closer to the United States, with a PLA Navy electronic reconnaissance ship sailing into Hawaiian waters, reportedly in response to the activities of the USS George Washington in the Yellow Sea. Photos of new-generation KJ-500 AWACS aircraft have also been making the rounds. Read more

A new fighter plane, the Shenyang J-15 (‘Flying Shark’), has been extensively publicised within China and abroad, while China’s future weapons have also been given quite some press. We learn that the development of the country’s first stealth fighter—the Chengdu J-20—is well under way and that a military delegation was sent to Moscow in October to discuss cooperation in the development of an engine for this aircraft. China and Russia have also agreed that China will purchase at least 24 Sukhoi Su-35 strike fighters.

Meanwhile, Senior Colonel Wu Guohui (吳國輝) of the PLA Air Force has revealed in an interview with Renmin Ribao that China is now developing its own long-distance strategic stealth bomber ( H-18). Wu has further stressed the importance of both offensive and defensive drones in Chinese military strategies, a point underlined by the wide range of unmanned aerial vehicles on show at the recent 15th Beijing Aviation Expo. Of most concern to the United States is the ‘carrier killer’ DF-21D missile—China’s first anti-ship ballistic missile and a key element in the PLA’s Anti-Access/Area Denial (A2/AD) strategies. Land trials of the weapon have apparently already been conducted in the Gobi desert.

But it hasn’t been solely details of China’s military hardware that have been finding their way in some profusion into Chinese and world media. The PLA has also been actively disseminating accounts of their immediate regional aims and strategies. Senior Colonel Du Wenlong (杜文龙), of the PLA’s Academy of Military Science, for example, recently spoke of China’s aim of ‘establishing command over sea and air in the South China Sea region.’

What’s prompted this recent flurry of information on China’s weapons and military aims? When the nuclear submarine fleet was introduced to the world, the Defence Ministry spokesman perhaps protested too much when he noted:

The PLA Navy submarine force is responsible for safeguarding national security as well as maintaining peace. China is revealing its nuclear submarine force unit for domestic audiences and the international community so that they can gain a better knowledge of this force. It is not related to the current regional situation.

Other observers might suggest that it’s precisely the ‘current regional situation’ which is prompting this flaunting of hardware and capabilities, and  that this is a calculated effort, if not to shock and awe, at least to warn and deter foreign polities from engaging China militarily when it deals with issues it considers regional.

But there’s another element which is driving these actions, revealed during the launch of a book published, not serendipitously, during the recently-concluded Third Plenary Session of the 18th CPC Central Committee. Entitled ‘China Is Not Afraid—New Threats to National Security and Our Strategic Responses,’ 《中国不怕——国防安全新威胁与我们的战略应对》 the book is ascribed to 80 year-old General Zhang Min (张民), a Korean War veteran and former deputy director of the Strategy Department at the PLA Military Academy. Suggesting that the United States will never relent in its efforts to contain China, the book is basically a rousing call to the military forces to gird their loins for the potential conflict. The importance of the book in reflecting broader PLA sentiments was demonstrated by the fact that five PLA generals spoke at its launch.

In his comments on the volume, Major General Peng Guangqian (彭光谦) stressed that China’s ‘peaceful rise’ isn’t equivalent to China ‘refusing to fight,’ while Major General Xiao Yusheng (肖裕声) suggested that ‘some Chinese people,’ need to overcome their ‘America-phobia’ and ‘Japan-phobia’. The idea of dealing with domestic fears was also stressed in the book through the citing of Mao Zedong’s famous adage that imperialists are ‘paper tigers’. Mao originally put this idea forward to deal with the problem of fear among his forces. It now appears that ‘China Is Not Afraid’ has precisely this same function as a domestic morale-booster when facing powerful enemies. The press release for the volume summed this up succinctly:

Our Party and our army were founded on the premise of having no fear. The Chinese army should ‘be able to fight, and fight to win.’ It must have the will of fearlessness in the face of strong enemies.

In conjunction, these various phenomena begin to assume a coherence that they lack in isolation. Through publicising and promoting the growing power of Chinese weaponry and the military’s near-term regional strategies, the PLA is addressing both foreign and domestic audiences. To those beyond China the message is ‘Stay out and engage us at your peril’, while for those at home the emboldening signal is ‘Fear not’!

Geoff Wade is a visiting fellow at the College of Asia and the Pacific, Australian National University. Image courtesy of Flickr user U.S. Pacific Command.

Spying beyond the façade

Chinese opera mask

The almost-eternal profession of covert intelligence collection and analysis (a.k.a. spying) has been much in the news of late, with the US National Security Agency and Australia’s own Signals Directorate sharing headlines across the region and indeed the globe. But it’s not just Australia and the United States that have had their covert activities brought to public attention. China’s covert operatives (in this case HUMINT rather than SIGINT) have also been the subject of some unsought attention through the publication of a recent detailed study (PDF) of the General Political Department (GPD) of the PRC’s People’s Liberation Army (PLA) by the Project 2049 Institute in Virginia.

Authors Mark Stokes and Russell Hsiao used primarily open-source material to detail the history and current activities of the political wing of the PRC military. ‘Political warfare’ has been an intrinsic part of Chinese military strategy under both the Guomindang and the Communist Party of China. It was long domestically oriented, but of late, with the growing global engagement of China, the activities of the GPD’s Liaison Department (LD) have become increasingly international. Stokes and Hsiao see political warfare as ‘active measures to promote the rise of China within a new international order and defend against perceived threats to state security,’ with these functions augmenting traditional state diplomacy and formal military-to-military relations.

Read more

The LD can certainly be considered to be an integral element of the Chinese intelligence community. But its functions are broader as it develops links with global elites and aims at influencing the policies and behaviour of countries, institutions and groups beyond China. It engages in a broad range of activities including propaganda, liaison, influence peddling, information gathering and perception management. And LD members are sometimes posted to Chinese embassies. In brief, its tasks involve much greater calculated manipulation than does usual soft power.

To pursue its tasks, the LD has created a range of front organisations, the most prominent of which for international activities is the China Association for International Friendly Contact (CAIFC). The CAIFC, defines itself on its website as ‘a social organisation devoted to fostering international and regional people-to-people friendly exchanges,’ which completely obscures its connections with the People’s Liberation Army and the Central Military Commission. It organises visits and activities to which elite members of international society are invited. For example, the First China Philanthropy Forum in November 2012 was attended by Bill Gates, Tony Blair, and Western Australian Governor Malcolm McCusker, along with ‘40 other consultants and directors of the CAIFC’. John Howard also attended, and was feted by Cheng Siwei (成思危), chairman of the China Foundation for International Strategic Studies, an organisation which is likewise intimately tied to the PLA.  Just this month the CAIFC reportedly invited Aung San Suu Kyi to visit China, an invitation which has been denied by the Chinese Foreign Ministry, suggesting perhaps some difference between the PLA and the foreign ministry.

The current CAIFC President is former PRC foreign minister Li Zhaoxing, who melds the CAIFC activities with more formal foreign affairs organisations such as the recently-established China Public Diplomacy Association, which he also heads. Together with Kevin Rudd, Li opened the inaugural Australia–China Forum in Canberra in November 2011. One of the long-term CAIFC vice presidents is Deng Rong, daughter of Deng Xiaoping, but it’s the other vice presidents who have now become the centres of attention.

In their CAIFC roles, the PLA’s major operatives within the organisation necessarily adopt alternate identities. The Stokes and Hsiao study illuminates the types of identities behind which the activities of the Liaison Department are pursued. Key operatives include Xing Yunming (邢运明), the executive vice president of the CAIFC, noted on their website as a bureaucrat who had served in Nanjing and the Ministry of Civil Affairs. But the study reveals that Major General Xing has also been the Director of the Liaison Department of the General Political Department of the PLA since 2007. Xing hosted Tony Blair on his visit to China in June this year. In 2012, Andrew Forrest of the Fortescue Metals Group, Christopher Barnard of the Macquarie Group and Owen Hegarty of OZ Minerals were also photographed with Xing, while Forrest met again with Deng Rong earlier this year. John Garnaut has highlighted the efforts by CAIFC to target Australian business leaders.

Also of interest is Li Xiaohua (李晓华), listed on the CAIFC website alongside Deng Rong as a vice president of the association, and described as an economist who has worked with the Guangdong Economic and Trade Commission and the State Planning Commission. We now find that Mr Li is also a Major General in the PLA and a deputy director of the GPD Liaison Department. MAJGEN Li also regularly meets and fetes senior visitors from around the region in his CAIFC capacity.

Another CAIFC VP is Chen Zuming (陈祖明), a Russian language specialist who previously served in the Shandong foreign trade department. He’s known in the PLA as MAJGEN Chen Zuming, and led the Liaison Department prior to Xing Yunming. He appears to concentrate on links with Russian and Eastern European countries. Lastly, Xin Qi (辛旗), yet another VP, is an academic who has been involved in cultural and publishing endeavours. PRC military websites however record him as MAJGEN Xin Qi, a deputy director of the Liaison Department.

This intense engagement by senior members of the PLA in CAIFC activities clearly shows the degree to which  it is a covert arm of the PLA, engaged in intelligence and propaganda work.

While this exposé of a PLA front organisation isn’t going to garner the acres of headlines nor induce the reactions which we saw with the NSA and ASD revelations, it does provide a little insight into the workings of a nation with which Australia is increasingly engaged. In the murky world of covert operations, a little insight is the most that we can hope for.

Geoff Wade researches China–Southeast Asia relations. He developed the China–ASEAN and China–India Projects at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong and subsequently worked with the Southeast Asia–China Cluster of the Asia Research Institute, Singapore. Image courtesy of Flickr user Ashley Wang.

Xi Jinping and the Sabah enigma

Chinese President Xi Jinping has been a busy man of late. Fresh from a whirlwind tour of central Asian states and international summits in September, he’s been on the road again—this time to Southeast Asia.

The Southeast Asian tour included official visits to Indonesia and Malaysia and the APEC conference in Bali. Xi signed economic agreements with Indonesia and Malaysia, while stressing the resurgence of a ‘Maritime Silk Road.’ Rhetoric of shared prosperity, growing mutual trade and ‘win-win’ situations was accompanied by a proposal for an Infrastructural Development Bank, all of which we were told would contribute to a new ‘diamond decade’ in China–ASEAN relations.

Everything seems to have gone according to plan in Southeast Asia. But did it?

Let’s return to late August this year. After a meeting with his Chinese counterpart Wang Yi in Beijing, Malaysian Foreign Minister Anifah Aman announced that Xi would visit Malaysia in October, spending 4–5 October in Kuala Lumpur and 5–6 October in Sabah. The planned visit was reported in the Malaysian press and the Sabah Chinese community began anxiously preparing for the occasion. However, cancellation of the Sabah visit was informally announced on 6 October, without explanation. Read more

An enigma, indeed! Malaysia doesn’t encourage any visiting dignitary to travel to the Bornean states, and given that the programme was announced after talks in Beijing, it seems a reasonable assumption that the proposed visit was a PRC suggestion. But to what end was the visit proposed and why was it cancelled? We don’t have answers to these questions, but we can extrapolate on the basis of two factors—the sensitivity of Sabah for the Malaysian government and the potential importance of Sabah for the Chinese government.

The fragility of the Malaysian state isn’t always recognised. It’s only 50 years old, cobbled together in 1963 by a decolonising British Empire by bringing together the states and settlements of the peninsula with the state of Singapore (later expelled) and a number of British-associated territories in the north of Borneo. It was an unexpected nation, but it made sense from a British perspective in a Cold War context, as it constituted an anti-Communist bulwark in the middle of Southeast Asia between China and Indonesia.

Sabah, one of the two Bornean states shoehorned into Malaysia in 1963, remains an extremely sensitive part of the country. Malaysia has assumed the obligations of the former British North Borneo Company and continues to pay the heirs of the Sultanate of Sulu a recompense of 5,000 ringgit annually. In addition, the Philippines reasserted its claim to Sabah as recently as 2011 and in early 2013, there was a bloody stand-off between more than 100 Sulu people and Malaysian forces, over a territorial claim to the area. On the Sabah maritime borders, the overlapping South China Sea claims provide an even more complicating environment. There are also internal Christian-Muslim tensions.

Given these conditions, why then would the President of China have planned to spend half of his official visit to Malaysia in Sabah? Initial plans were apparently for him to open a Chinese consulate, a Chinese bank and a Confucius Institute in the state capital Kota Kinabalu. The Chinese Consul-General in Kuching, Li Shugang, has suggested that China’s activities in the area will double if a consulate is opened in Sabah. At the same time, the Sabah government is actively promoting PRC investment in the state and business migrant delegations from China are being feted. Former PRC foreign minister Yang Jiechi visited Sabah in August last year to boost Chinese investment in infrastructure, palm oil processing and agriculture.

Even without a consulate, Chinese tourism to the area has boomed, with probably 300,000 PRC tourists expected to arrive in Sabah this year, on charter flights, which have increased by 90% over a year. The PRC naval training ship Zheng He has also just made a visit to Sabah.

But the most important role Sabah can play in China’s plans for the future derives from its location as the precise centre of maritime Southeast Asia. Given China’s claims to the majority of the South China Sea and its overall blue-water naval aspirations, a naval base located in Sabah would allow it unparalleled access to the South China Sea and to Southeast Asia more generally.

map of Malaysia

(Click to enlarge map) Sabah is located at the centre of maritime Southeast Asia.

This could occur by way of joint economic and defence agreements. At the recent 16th ASEAN–China Summit, Chinese Premier Li Keqiang urged bilateral joint development of South China Sea areas commonly claimed. Malaysia’s Prime Minister Najib Razak agreed that such discussions could be pursued. Also, after meeting PM Najib, Xi Jinping reported: ‘We have agreed to strengthen our partnership with naval defense, joint military exercises to combat terrorism, transnational crime and promote security. This will create a sound environment for peace and the prosperity of both countries.’ Any such joint defence arrangements or military activities may well include naval facilities in Sabah.

And longer-term possibilities and calculations shouldn’t be excluded. The relations between Kuala Lumpur and the Bornean states have always been fractious and the incongruousness of having two parts of a nation divided by ethnicity, economic interests, perceptions of exploitation, and by a huge swathe of sea is increasingly apparent.

It’s not difficult to imagine a situation where the existing cleavage between the peninsular and Bornean states of Malaysia widens to a degree where any existing national unity dissolves. If that happened, any entity with established economic interests and political links with Sabah would be well-positioned, and could provide any new state with economic benefits far beyond those which Kuala Lumpur currently assigns it. The stationing of naval forces would then be a matter of formality.

As we ponder the reasons behind the planning and then the cancellation of President Xi’s visit to Sabah, both the domestic situation of Sabah within Malaysia and China’s aspirations within Southeast Asia are informative. The complexities of the Sabah situation, historical and otherwise, also suggest that this former backwater of Southeast Asia will not long remain in the shadows and will likely soon become a rather prominent pawn in the global competition within Southeast Asia.

Geoff Wade researches China–Southeast Asia relations. He developed the China–ASEAN and China–India Projects at the Centre of Asian Studies, University of Hong Kong and subsequently worked with the Southeast Asia–China Cluster of the Asia Research Institute, Singapore.