Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:43 | SYDNEY
Wednesday 25 Nov 2020 | 02:43 | SYDNEY

Learning to live with a stronger China


Hugh White

4 February 2008 09:54

As Sam Roggeveen correctly points in his fascinating post, the PLA Navy’s use of Australian technology to develop a new class of small missile-firing warships raises a lot of intriguing issues and questions.  Here are three that come to mind.

First up, it tells us something about the way China is developing its maritime capabilities. Much attention has rightly focussed over the past decade on the pace at which China has bought complete weapons systems from other countries, especially Russia. The introduction of Kilo submarines and Sukhoi aircraft, and the sophisticated guided weapons they carry, has already raised the costs and risks to the US of naval operations in China’s approaches very significantly. I think it might be fair to say that it poses the biggest challenge to Western maritime domination of the Western Pacific since the rise of the Imperial Japanese Navy a century ago.  But the future trajectory of China’s air and naval forces will increasingly depend on its ability to build its own platforms, weapons and systems, so the trend to watch is China’s ability to integrate imported technologies – not necessarily specifically military technologies – into new capabilities that meet China’s strategic needs.  This appears to be exactly what we are seeing in these new fast missile catamarans. No one should be complacent about China’s ability to build first-rate war-winning weapons systems off its own bat in future. And I cannot resist observing that the PLA seems to be much more interested in new ship technologies than the ADF, which has steadfastly refused to show any interest in the largely Australian-developed fast cat technology, preferring to invest in big, old, slow, vulnerable, and enormously expensive ships like the new air warfare destroyers and amphibious ships ordered just last year.

Second, China’s trend towards developing its own high-tech weapons raises the question, central to Sam’s post, of whether other countries including Australia should try to limit the development of China’s forces by restricting access to the wide range of civil technologies that could help China build better weapons systems. There is a precedent, of course: during the Cold War the US led a broad Western effort to deny the Soviet Union and its allies access to key civil and dual-use technologies. It was called COCOM. After the Cold War, COCOM was dismantled, but in recent years there has been serious attention in the US to reviving it against China. I think such efforts are doomed to fail, because our economic connections with China are so very different from those between the Western Alliance and the old Warsaw Pact. The West could deny the Soviet Union access to technology because the Soviet economy did not matter to us. Today our prosperity in the West depends on trade with China, including trade in high-tech goods. It can be tempting – especially for America — to see the emerging strategic competition with China as a re-run of the Cold War, but this is very different. The Cold War was a strategic competition between two basically autarchic economic blocs. What we see today is the emergence of strategic competition between states deeply and interdependently enmeshed in a highly-integrated global economy. That is why the US cannot approach its growing strategic competition with China the way it won the Cold War.

And this leads, of course, to the deeper question of the view that we in Australia should take of China’s growing military power and the emerging strategic competition between the US and China. Sam’s post tends to assume that Australia should share American anxieties about China’s growing air and naval capability, and that we would automatically align ourselves with the US if and when strategic competition between the US and China intensifies to crisis or conflict. These are very credible views, with very strong arguments in their favour, but I think we should be careful about treating them as givens. Indeed the drift of Australian policy over the past few years has tended to take the opposite view. Australia has not been among those voicing strong concerns about China’s growing military capabilities, and it has — mostly — avoided alignment with US policies directed at containing China’s growing power.

Clearly it would be better for China not to build these new forces, but in an era when we ourselves are planning to upgrade our air and naval capabilities significantly, why exactly should we regard China’s developments as illegitimate? I tend to think that a major expansion of China’s air and naval power is a natural and maybe inevitable consequence of China’s economic growth, and a symptom of the way in which the shifts in the distribution of economic power is leading to a shift in the distribution of strategic power in Asia. The smart approach for Australia is not to try to treat the symptom by looking for ways to try to limit China’s military buildup, but to help address the deeper question of how Asia’s international order can adapt to accommodate the new distribution of power that is emerging as China, and India, grows. And that must begin with an acknowledgement of the legitimacy of China’s role as a major power – including a major military power – in the Asian Century. We cannot do that while denying China the right to build a modern navy.

Photo by Flickr user williamli1983, used under a Creative Commons licence.