Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:58 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 06 Oct 2021 | 16:58 | SYDNEY

Australia-China defence ties: Beyond the hype


Rory Medcalf


29 April 2011 09:04

Media coverage has made a big deal of Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard's comments on defence ties during her visit to China this week. I am not so sure the reality is all that dramatic.

It makes sense for Australia to develop constructive defence engagement with China, as I have long arguedAustralian forces are less likely to find themselves confronting Chinese forces (whatever opinion polls might imply) than working alongside them, for instance in counter-piracy or disaster relief operations. So it makes sense for each side to forge a practical understanding of how the other operates.

It is also precisely because of the anxieties about how China will use its power that we ought to get to know the PLA up close. Channels of communication and so-called 'confidence building' measures (CBMs) between the Chinese military and their counterparts in the US, Japan and India are weak to non-existent.

Yet these will need to be strengthened in order to minimise the risk of maritime confrontations either occurring or escalating inadvertently.

Of course, CBMs have their limits, especially if one country is setting out to provoke or coerce another. But even if they can make a marginal difference to the risk and scale of conflict, they are worth the effort.

Australia has already made reasonable progress in engaging with the PLA. Media reports that Gillard is encouraging Chinese ship visits to Australia overlook the fact that these are already taking place — such as this exercise off Sydney Heads last September, reported directly by The Interpreter.

We can and should do more — for instance, training PLA peacekeepers in English. But we should keep our allies and partners apprised of the logic and merits of our relations with the PLA. Some Japanese analysts have quietly said they were less than pleasantly surprised by Australia's live-fire drill with the Chinese Navy last September, at a time of deep Sino-Japanese maritime tension.

And every step of the way we should be aware of the risks. After all, mutual intelligence gathering is a natural part of bilateral military engagement between any two nations that share less than fulsome trust.

Photo, of the People's Republic of China Training Ship, Zhenge in Sydney Harbour, courtesy of the Department of Defence.