It’s not hard to find examples of concerns about China’s military build-up. But how much should we actually worry about it? In my view, not as much as many commentators assume. It’s true that, at home, the Communist Party and its apparatus continue to be in charge of this huge state and fiercely determined to nip any signs of organised dissent or opposition in the bud, if necessary by force. It is also the case that even if there were—unimaginably—some kind of breakdown in the Party and governmental apparatus, no-one has any idea of what might follow.
And yet the social volatilities unleashed by Mao half a century ago continue to bubble under the surface. Every day there are reportedly hundreds of protests or riots against thuggish local Party authorities, which are often put down by force. The Bo Xilai affair is only one example of uncertainty, disarray and fierce competition within the Chinese leadership in the run-up to this autumn’s changes at the very top of the CCP. Obviously the military cannot remain unaffected.
One reason for China to keep and expand large security and military forces is the misguided nationalist sense that China has for too long been put upon by greedy or careless foreign countries. It is time to assert China’s general power and prestige. (Television recently showed a clip of President Hu Jintao meeting with UN Secretary-General Ban-ki moon. President Hu stood still in the middle of the carpet in the centre of the room waiting for Ban-ki moon to sidle obsequiously up to him. Clearly neither man had forgotten the behaviour appropriate for a Korean tribute-bearer being received by the emperor.)
Another reason for creating stronger and more capable forces is to make China less vulnerable in a world where it lacks reliable allies but has major powers harbouring distrust or hostility towards it. Its military might also serves to overawe domestic dissent, not just in Tibet or Xinjiang but elsewhere.
Nor is it surprising that China should put special effort into modernising its air force and navy. These forces may be growing and improving, but size is not everything. China has had no navy of any consequence for the last six hundred years. It only began to grow and modernise around 1990 and it takes much longer than 20 years to build a truly effective navy with inbred traditions, habits of cooperation, and effective command and control systems. Computers do not replace long experience of human interaction, not least between captains and crews. Having an aircraft carrier, or even two, is not the same as having an effective fleet air arm. Similar points can be made about the air force, in spite of new developments of drones and space-related devices.
The future is always unpredictable. But it seems safe to say that for the time being any Chinese admiral or air force general who allowed—let alone encouraged—his force to ‘mix it’ with the US would need to have his head examined. It’s hardly surprising that China is also spending heavily on various asymmetric and other capabilities.
Not only that, but in operational and administrative terms, there is no such thing as a ‘Chinese Navy’. There are substantially separate South Sea Fleet, East Sea Fleet and North Sea Fleet forces and each has its own coastal defence and marine forces. There are many other organisations involved in maritime affairs. It is, of course, true that there are a Central Military Commission, a Party Politburo and especially a Politburo Standing Committee that governs everything. However, its members, especially at a time of serious domestic political turmoil, are overwhelmingly concerned with home affairs. Obviously, political competition at the centre also involves being seen to stand up for China’s ‘rights’ vis-a-vis foreigners, not least territorial ones. Beyond that, though, top leaders jostling for position have other things to worry seriously about than a few ‘foreign’ fishing boats around the Spratly islands or even foreign naval exercises in disputed areas of the Sea of Japan. Especially if, as now, so many people, and especially journalists, in Southeast Asia and Australia seem to be (from Beijing’s point of view, helpfully) terrified at the mere sight of a couple of Chinese patrol boats.
Much more worrying is China’s skill at cyber hacking and stealing industrial and security-related technologies. But even there, exploiting the technologies requires not just the technological and industrial infrastructure but a highly capable workforce. Whether, as yet, China has such a workforce (as distinct from small groups of seriously excellent scientists) is a much more important question than whether or when they might acquire a third aircraft carrier.
Harry Gelber is emeritus professor at the School of Government, University of Tasmania.