FOREIGN AFFAIRS: by Peter CoatesNews Weekly
Future threats from China
, August 2, 2008
China's march towards the Olympics in August has brought into focus many of its problems, including internal security, minorities, pollution and energy security.In this article, Peter Coates concentrates on some ways that these problems impact on Australia, or will do so in the future.In order to avoid international embarrassment during the Olympics, it appears that China has pursued a strategy of crushing discontent among its ethnic minorities before the Games begin.
In March, many Tibetans protested in favour of independence. The severity of Beijing's crackdown may have inflamed the situation, bringing more Tibetans onto the streets. If the intention was to effectively suppress Tibetan nationalism before the critical Olympic period, the Chinese campaign may well have succeeded.
Suppression of China's Muslim Uighur minority also appears to have been heavy-handed. On July 9, 2008, Chinese police killed five Uighurs when they raided their hide-out in the Muslim-populated Xinjiang region in far west China. On the same day, two other Uighurs were sentenced to death for alleged terrorist and separatist activities and immediately executed. The coincidence of these deaths suggests that Beijing was doing more than carrying out counter-terrorist operations. It is apparent that many executions were politically motivated.Ethnic minorities
These examples point to the inability of China's communist dictatorship to respond peacefully to its ethnic minorities. While around 92 per cent of China's population are of the Han ethnic group, the remaining 8 per cent of minorities still number 100 million people.
If continuing discontent among Chinese minorities results in an increased movement of refugees, their sheer numbers may well have an impact on Australia.
The common assumption that the Chinese economy will continue to grow rapidly may be illusory. Growth may be slower due to pollution (which is literally poisoning China's waterways) causing increasing health problems as well as food shortages. Energy shortages may also become an economic restraint when accelerated by increasing public demand for cars and expanding industrial uses.
Population growth is leading to land shortages and rising food prices. China has a staggering 160 cities with populations of over one million. There are more mouths to feed, but these cities are encroaching on farmland.
Lack of water is also a restraint for this newly industrialised country. The Olympics highlight this problem. China is pumping 300 million cubic meters of "emergency" water, mainly from neighbouring Hebei province, to satisfy Beijing's "green" Games slogan. The fact that Hebei is already experiencing an extended drought appears to be a secondary concern.
China's growth imperative aims to meet public demand for a better lifestyle while maintaining the communist regime. China relies on locally mined high-emission coal for 70 per cent of its energy needs.
It has resisted international pressure to reduce its emissions and instead intends to build 500 new coal-fired power stations over the next decade. Current estimates are that China will have 140 million cars by 2020, up from the current 12 million.
This growth will comprehensively cancel out any Australian emission reductions resulting from the Rudd Government's newly-adopted Carbon Pollution Reduction Scheme. If Rudd hopes that China will follow Australia's blueprint to slow emissions growth, his policy will fail. Even the Group of Eight ("G8") countries that met in July this year were unable to persuade China to reduce its emissions.
Australia's highly regulated carbon scheme will simply hamper our own economic growth and may well damage our own standard of living.Military power
For the short to medium term, China is shaping its military around land-based operations. Development of the navy remains slow compared to China's competitors in the Pacific (the US, Russia and Japan).
Dramatic reports of China's interest in aircraft-carriers and constructing a fleet of nuclear-missile submarines amount to the refitting of just one 23-year-old ex-Russian carrier (the Varyag
) and China building two second-rate Type 094 ballistic-missile submarines. Analysts consider it highly likely that the 094s are noisy, hence easy to detect, and carry less than half the warheads mounted on the missiles of modern Russian, US, French and British submarines.
Occupation of Taiwan and domination of the potentially oil and gas-rich Spratly Islands appear to be China's most immediate concerns in terms of naval power projection.
For these objectives, large numbers of smaller surface vessels, such as destroyers and landing craft, might be adequate and are being constructed. As China has around 1,000 ballistic missiles aimed at Taiwan, this renders any future Chinese aircraft-carrier unnecessary in an invasion.
Once, or if, Taiwan is occupied, China will gradually build a "blue water" (open ocean) navy. This, in conjunction with a chain of naval bases China is building from Pakistan to home waters, could protect the oil routes from the Middle East and Africa that are vital to China.
A Chinese blue-water navy could also be a potential threat to Australia. So too is a massive naval base China is constructing at its southernmost point, near the resort of Sanya, on Hainan Island. In a setting and plot worthy of James Bond, China moved one of its Type 094 submarines to the naval base in December 2007. China appears to be building tunnels in hillsides there which could be capable of hiding as many as 20 nuclear submarines.
The 094's missiles have a range of 8,000 kilometres. As Darwin is only 5,200 kilometres from Sanya, and Brisbane only 7,000 kilometres, this puts these Australian cities in range without an 094 having to leave Chinese waters.Soft power
China has applied the concept of "soft power" to meet its economic and strategic goals. "Soft power" means non-military foreign policies, including international trade and investment, development assistance, cultural influence, humanitarian aid, travel and tourism. An expanding economy allows it to buy influence among small countries rather than spending much larger sums on its military "hard" power.
China has engaged in an aid bidding war in East Timor, Papua New Guinea and many Pacific islands, for economic gain, political interest and strategic goals. The small size of these countries means that their votes at international forums, particularly the United Nations, can be bought cheaply. China's chief bidding opponent is Taiwan, but the sheer size of China's aid budget means that it may someday be able to outbid Australia in its own backyard.
The use of soft power, a need for energy security and its strategic position come together in its recent activities in East Timor. In terms of China's energy security goal, it is involved in oil and gas exploration in East Timor. China was also responsible for compiling a geological survey of that country.
To eventually buy oil rights China is gradually strengthening its aid links to East Timor. The offer of weapons is a potent way to massage East Timor's desire for prestige and independence. On April 12, 2008, East Timor signed a $28 million deal with China to buy two advanced patrol boats.
The contract for the patrol boats provides for 30 East Timorese defence force personnel to be trained in China. The patrol boats, however, may come with strings attached. They may prove too expensive for East Timor to operate without continuing Chinese financial support, and in any case East Timor may require Chinese technicians to maintain the boats.
Australia may have been reluctant to supply patrol boats because it may well see East Timor's defence force as a politically disruptive element. East Timor's army already has a record of mutiny and attempted coup. Boosting the status of East Timor's military leadership through donations of high-tech weaponry may well increase political problems in East Timor. Australia, unlike China, has a strong interest in maintaining order.
China has deepened East Timor's sense of gratitude by constructing that country's Foreign Ministry building and the Presidential Palace. It is also building East Timor's future defence force headquarters.
To have a foreign power build such key national security buildings is unusual. It is therefore important that these buildings are checked or "swept" for hidden bugs, as China may also be expecting some electronic intelligence in return for its generosity.
China's soft power aid strategy has seen it active elsewhere in the region. Aid competition with Taiwan in the Solomons is considered a major cause of recent violence in that country. PNG has received extensive Chinese aid, while China has constructed a satellite ground-station in Nauru.Australia's future
Australia can minimise any disruption from a slowdown in China's economy by maintaining diverse markets and political alliances.
For example, Japan and India have a strong demand for energy resources such as uranium and coal. These Australian products will be increasingly attractive to a range of trade partners as the price of oil rises. Such diversification continually sends signals to China that it cannot use its economic or latent military might to pressure us.
After an initial political tilt toward China, the Rudd Government has performed some necessary fence-mending with Japan and India in the last two months. In that time, two visits by Rudd to Japan and the visit of India's Foreign Minister Pranab Mukherjee to Australia have to a degree altered the perception that Australia's leadership is too close to China.
Other than through submarine and land-based nuclear missiles, China is unable to threaten Australia militarily. Building a long-range "blue water" navy and a chain of air bases that can match America's will take decades.
In the meantime, China is making political and strategic inroads into our region, using soft power to basically buy influence.
Australia can react to this by spending greater amounts on aid and investment in key countries while maintaining its strong military alliance with the US.- Peter Coates is an independent researcher who formerly worked for the Australian Government on intelligence and policy issues. His website is Peter Coates's Intelligence Blog at: spyingbadthings.blogspot.com