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Defence cooperation: What does Beijing want?

20 December 2011 10:21

Wilson Chau is a Lowy Institute intern. His Security Challenges essay on this topic recently won the Australian Defence Business Review Young Strategic Writers prize.

The deepening of the Australia-US alliance during President Obama's visit last month was widely seen as directed at China, with potentially damaging consequences for relations between Canberra and Beijing. Yet Australia-China defence relations seem to have continued without missing a beat.

Cooperation Spirit 2011, a bilateral exercise between the Chinese and Australian ground forces, concluded on 1 December. Fifteen members of the ADF took part in a disaster relief exercise with the PLA Comprehensive Emergency Response training unit in Sichuan Province. This exercise follows two others held between the two nations, a maritime search and rescue drill in 2007 and a live-fire naval gunnery exercise in 2010.

For Australia, there are important reasons to cooperate with the PLA. Bilateral exercises abate competition by building confidence. These activities also encourage China to be transparent and it is an opportunity for the ADF to share world-standard norms and operational procedures.

Less understood are China's motivations for undertaking bilateral exercises. In my recent article in the journal Security Challenges, I sought to understand why the PLA engaged in such overt forms of defence diplomacy. Unlike most militaries, the PLA only began participation in international military exercises recently, since 2002. China was traditionally reluctant to engage in cooperative activities that would expose the extent of its capabilities (or incompetencies) to foreign observers.

My research identified five imperatives that enabled Chinese military and civilian authorities to overcome that barrier. 

Beijing is interested in using international exercises for the political purposes of building confidence with nations in the region, cooperating with international partners in mitigating non-traditional security challenges, and counterbalancing what it perceives as Washington's hegemony. There are also professional benefits for the PLA: international exercises enhance modernisation efforts and capabilities in military operations other than war. 

The strengthening of US-Australia defence relations marked by the November Obama visit was interpreted by Beijing as a consolidation of a perceived American containment strategy. From a Chinese point of view, therefore, Cooperation Spirit 2011 might have served as a way to build confidence with Australia and thus – however slightly – offset Washington's enlistment of Canberra in an assertive regional strategy.

Of course, exercises like this are usually planned months in advance, so the decision in Beijing would not have been to hold the exercise so much as not to cancel it.

By engaging in a cooperative disaster relief activity, China sells itself to the Australian Government and public as a benign partner rather than a threat. It is also an attempt to prove that Beijing is able to bolster political and defence relations with a key US ally, eroding any presumptions that the Washington-Canberra alliance is watertight.

The exercise is also underpinned by the PLA's desire to enhance its non-warlike capabilities. Disaster relief and other humanitarian missions are expanding roles for the PLA. The Sichuan earthquake in 2008 exposed deficiencies in the military's ability to respond to both domestic and international disasters. By engaging in bilateral disaster relief exercises, the PLA hopes to accrue practices and doctrines from more experienced partners as well as to gain experience in coordinating with foreign militaries in rescue operations. Attaining the skills to employ its military resources for humanitarian purposes strengthens Beijing's ability to exert soft power abroad and enhances the PLA's public image at home.

This latest Sino-Australian military exercise underlines the multiple gains Beijing seeks from such activities: improving a diplomatic relationship while also diversifying and modernising its military capabilities. Understanding what China seeks to gain from these exercises can help Australian policy-makers determine how to proceed with defence ties with Beijing in an era where the US has declared itself in Asia to stay.

 Image courtesy of the Defence Department.