May 27th 2006

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Articles from this issue:

EDITORIAL: Nuclear energy - Australia's pivotal role

THE ECONOMY: The Budget - populist and unsustainable

CANBERRA OBSERVED: Labor leadership rumblings

NATIONAL AFFAIRS: Snowy Hydro's privatisation is theft

INTELLIGENCE BRIEF: Will new personnel save CIA and ASIO?

PRIMARY PRODUCE: Pernicious policies killing Australia's dairy farmers

WESTERN AUSTRALIA : Inquiry rejects Kimberley fresh water plan

STRAWS IN THE WIND: Indonesia and the islands / Victoria's new Liberal leader / More on that second oldest profession

POLITICS: Plight of families under uncontrolled capitalism

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS: China forms strategic alliance with Russia

OBITUARY: Jean-François Revel (1924-2006)

Another view of Family First (letter)

DLP not eclipsed by Family First (letter)

Time for a Pacific Youth Corps? (letter)

Blame government for house prices (letter)

BOOKS: The Victory of Reason: How Christianity led to freedom, capitalism, and Western success, by Rodney Stark

BOOKS: Bad Faith: A Forgotten History of Family and Fatherland, by Carmen Callil

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China forms strategic alliance with Russia

by Sharif Shuja

News Weekly, May 27, 2006
Is the "China threat" overstated, asks Sharif Shuja.

The conventional view of communist China is that it has entered the realm of global politics and is currently vying with the United States for superpower status. The perceptions of China revolve around fears that China poses a military threat to its neighbours, and anxiety that China's growing economic clout poses a formidable threat to continued US global pre-eminence.

American pre-eminence is the dominant structural feature of the present-day international system. This is something with which the Chinese leadership is not at all comfortable. Most troubling to Beijing are the elements of the Bush Doctrine - unilateralism, regime change and preventive war.

The fact that this doctrine has been applied chiefly in the Middle East has been of some benefit to China. American attention and resources have been diverted from East Asia at the very time when China is seeking to consolidate its power and influence in that region.


Beijing has helped establish the framework for ASEAN+3 (China, South Korea and Japan), signed the Treaty of Amity and Friendship with ASEAN, paved the way for the East Asian Community Summit, overcome five decades of tensions with India, and initiated the first multilateral institution in Central Asia with the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO).

China is pursuing a multifaceted cooperative diplomacy in order to consolidate its power in this region. A thinker of the realist school, John Donnelly, in his Realism and International Relations (2001), argues that, as a state increases its power, it will invariably seek greater influence and change to the power structure in the region. This poses a threat to regional order as established powers will react to maintain their position in the system, and the emerging power may resort to war to revise the status quo.

Like Donnelly, John Mearsheimer, in The Tragedy of Great Power Politics (2001), asserts that states seek to maximise relative power to increase their security vis-à-vis other states, and agrees that a rising China will seek to increase its power capability and displace the US as the regional power.

This realist view is based on the notion that China's rapid economic growth and increased military power will invariably translate into an ambitious and expansionist foreign policy.

Many do not perceive China as posing a direct security threat but, at the same time, a few scholars still suggest that the Chinese security policies contain underlying threatening factors.

They point out that the lack of transparency in Chinese military expenditure is the source of suspicion and worry for the concerned countries. For example, most military experts in the world believe China's military investment is two or three times what the Chinese say it is.

China's hardline stance on Taiwan is viewed by some as evidence of its belligerency. Beijing has always made it abundantly clear that it will not tolerate the idea of a separate, independent Taiwan.

There is always the possibility that miscalculation in Beijing, Taipei or Washington could lead to escalating tension, and bring the simmering conflict to boiling point. Other countries could then be drawn into the conflagration.

American defence planners view China's rise with apprehension. As China gets richer, it can pay for more and smarter weapons. A recent Pentagon review noted: "China does not now face a direct threat from another nation. Yet, it continues to invest heavily in its military, particularly in programs designed to improve power projection."

The review added that current trends in military modernisation could pose "a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region". In August last year, a Chinese general, Zhu Chenghu, threatened that China would lob nuclear weapons at "hundreds" of American cities if the two countries came to blows over Taiwan.

Chinese generals often make such remarks, and are not punished for it.

Beijing has consolidated its influence in Southeast Asia. Quite a few of the poorer ASEAN countries, such as Laos, Cambodia and Burma, have become virtual Chinese client-states as a result of generous economic aid.

Improved links

Moreover, Beijing has improved geopolitical, security and military links with individual ASEAN members.

For example, Beijing has worked out agreements with Manila and Hanoi for the joint exploration of oil and gas in contested areas of the South China Sea. Until recently, it had been an ASEAN consensus that the Spratly Islands issue be negotiated between China on the one hand, and the entire regional bloc on the other.

Equally significantly, the People's Liberation Army (PLA) has conducted joint military manoeuvres with individual ASEAN nations. Beijing is also selling weapons of various degrees of sophistication to countries including Malaysia and Indonesia.

Particularly alarmed by the inroads that Beijing has made with Indonesia, Washington recently decided to lift a six-year-old embargo on arms sales to Indonesia.

Beijing's leadership is trying to undermine US influence in Asia, and is also hoping to achieve other important foreign-policy goals. This includes further isolating Taiwan. Beijing is confident that it can achieve the latter, especially after the defeat suffered by the pro-independence Government of President Chen Shui-bian in the December 3 mayoral and county-level polls in Taiwan.

While no Asian country has kept diplomatic ties with Taiwan, the rich island has retained substantial influence in countries such as Vietnam, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia, and the Philippines, owing to factors that include foreign direct investment (FDI) and a long history of people-to-people relations.

Beijing's clout

Should Beijing's clout in ASEAN continue to grow, however, the Chinese Communist Party leadership may be in a position to play the "Asia card" against Taiwan. For example, if Taipei continues to snub Beijing's demand for an open recognition of the "one China principle", the Chinese leadership could put pressure on Asian capitals to "choose between China and Taiwan", which is to say, drastically scale down economic ties with Taiwan.

Many analysts have indicated that Washington's obsession with the global war on terrorism since 9/11 has provided an opportunity for Beijing to wade into a power vacuum in the Asia-Pacific region.

In August last year, China and Russia staged their first joint military manoeuvres, code-named "Peace Mission 2005". They denied that these were aimed at any third country, and tactfully called the 10,000-man exercise in the Shandong Peninsula (eastern China) an anti-terrorist operation.

It is hard to believe that a message to America was not implied. Both countries are members of the Shanghai Cooperation Organisation (SCO), a grouping of Central Asian nations that both China and Russia have been nurturing as a counterbalance to America's influence in the region.

Russia is China's biggest arms supplier. The deployment, during the August exercises, of Russian Tu-22M and Tu-95 long-distance bombers, armed with nuclear-capable cruise missiles, added a strategic dimension to the engagement.

Russian Defence Minister Sergei Ivanov and his Chinese counterpart Cao Gangehuan, who watched the manoeuvres, stressed this point.

The Russian defence chief said the Sino-Russian "strategic cooperative partnership" had entered a new stage and was emerging as "a guarantee of security in the Asia-Pacific region". His Chinese counterpart emphasised the "important realistic significance and profound historic impact [of the war games] on safeguarding regional and world peace and security".

The joint manoeuvres, staged under the aegis of the SCO, marked a historic change in China's defence policy and showed that China is ready to take part in coalition action. Never before had Beijing held large-scale military exercises with a foreign country. It has always shunned defence alliances and preferred to act militarily on its own.

This has created an entirely new geopolitical situation in the Asian region. Earlier, experts had ruled out military cooperation within the SCO if only because China was opposed to it. After the Shandong exercises, Sergei Ivanov said cooperation between the two militaries gave "a new dimension" to the inter-governmental international organisation, which counts among its members, not only Russia and China, but also Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan and Tajikistan.

"It is necessary to guarantee security in the SCO's zone of responsibility to facilitate economic growth. If there is no security, there is no growth," he said.

Although the SCO is a strictly political organisation, it already has a military component whose role will increase steadily. The SCO is being projected by Moscow and Beijing as the nucleus of a broader Asian security set-up. The Russia-China manoeuvres can therefore be seen as the first step in building the "new security architecture" that Vladimir Putin and Hu Jintao proclaimed in a Declaration on the World Order in the 21st Century that they signed in Moscow on July 1, 2005.

The Putin-Hu Jintao declaration inspired a subsequent SCO demand to the United States to set a deadline for its military presence in Central Asia, followed by Uzbekistan's decision to evict a US air base set up in 2001 for the anti-Taliban operation in Afghanistan.

The Shandong exercises carried a similar message: that Russia and China had reached a level of strategic relationship and were ready to jointly guarantee stability and security in the region.

In addition to these military exercises, China's military expenditure is rising. Donald Rumsfeld, in an important speech on June 4 last year at Singapore's Shangri-La Hotel, said:

"It is estimated that China's is the third-largest military budget in the world and clearly the largest in Asia. Since no nation threatens China, one must wonder: Why this growing investment? Why these continuing large and expanding arms purchases? Why these continuing robust deployments?"

Biggest challenge

According to Rumsfeld, China is the biggest serious challenge for the US, being future rivals or enemies.

In the long term, there are three reasons, in my view, why the "China threat" may be overstated. One is that, unlike the American Administration or the old Soviet Politburo, China's ruling party is not trying to spread an ideology. It has none to spread.

The second reason is that, as Adam Segal of the Council on Foreign Relations puts it, China's economic reforms may spur democratic ones. There is plenty of domestic pressure for change. A more democratic China might be nicer, allowing them to grow in a rules-based way.

The third reason is that China's economic explosion cannot continue forever, not least because the one-child policy has probably doomed China to grow old before it gets rich.

  • Sharif Shuja is an academic staff member of the International Studies Program at Victoria University.

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