America’s Asian allies are bristling at China’s increased military spending, yet loath to cut diplomatic and trade ties with Beijing, writes Duncan Bartlett
The soldiers who battle China’s enemies in the hit film Operation Red Sea are presented as fine examples of the bravest men in the People’s Liberation Army. When the flag is raised during one epic fight, it stirs such patriotic pride among Chinese audiences that some people rise from their seats and cheer.
The cost of making the film, $72 million, came directly from the country’s military budget. Generals deployed many resources to the film-makers, including ships, helicopters and high-tech weapons. Operation Red Sea recouped its expenses by reaching the top spot at the Chinese box office. Yet telling stories of military victory is far less costly than fighting real wars.
In contrast to the drama, the serving members of the People’s Liberation Army have no direct experience of combat. The PLA has more personnel on active duty than both the United States and Russia combined. However, its numbers are being reduced as China seeks to modernise its military with more powerful weapons. President Xi Jinping has vowed to build a ‘world-class’ fighting force by 2050.
At the start of the National People’s Congress in Beijing in March, China announced that it will raise its defence budget by 8.1 per cent this year. In a familiar display of rhetoric, Premier Li Keqiang said: ‘The absolute leadership of the military by the ruling Communist Party must be observed.’
As part of its modernisation, China recently commissioned a squadron of stealth fighter jets and it is planning to build four new aircraft carriers, including a powerful nuclear-powered aircraft carrier, to be launched in 2025.Much of the equipment comes from Russia. According to Bob Savic, Senior Research Fellow at the Global Policy Institute: ‘Russia regards China as its long-term privileged and reliable partner in Asia. It supplies all the latest weapons, including long-range surface-to-air missile systems. Russia also supplies China with super-manoeuvrable fighter jets. These contracts are lucrative for Russia and benefit China with advanced technology.’
The Taiwan question
China has recently stepped up its naval exercises around one of Asia’s most sensitive territories, Taiwan. In response, Taiwan is increasing its defence budget and building strong links with Donald Trump. Some of Trump’s supporters advocate full Taiwanese independence from China and this has led President Xi to warn Taiwan that it would face the ‘punishment of history’ for any attempt at separatism.
‘It makes sense that the Trump administration is willing to strengthen ties with Taiwan,’ says Bonnie Glaser, from the Center for International and Strategic Studies in Washington. ‘China’s growing political, military, and economic pressure is a threat to Taiwan’s security and harmful to US interests.’
Japan is also reviewing its response to China’s increased military strength. The country’s Defence Minister Itsunori Onodera has spoken of the need to ‘confront the harsh reality of the security environment surrounding Japan. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe plans a referendum on Japan’s constitution, which, if reformed, would transform the Self Defence Force into a full army, authorised to fight abroad in support of allies.
Last year, members of parliament discussed whether Japan should develop nuclear weapons, although this is not being suggested as a policy option at this stage. Nevertheless, hawks in Japan will find an ally in Donald Trump’s ultra-hawkish new national security advisor, John Bolton, who has advocated the use of pre-emptive force against North Korea.
Spend, spend, spend
Japan currently spends around $50 billion annually on defence, much less than the official Chinese figure of $174 billion and a fraction in comparison with the United States. This year, the White House announced a defence budget of $686 billion – a 10.7 per cent increase. The United States also maintains tens of thousands of troops in Japan and South Korea, as part of its ‘defence umbrella’ for East Asia.
Japan is seeking accommodation with its Asian neighbours through diplomacy. Prime Minister Shinzo Abe has invited the Chinese Premier Li Keqiang to attend a trilateral summit with the South Korean president Moon Jae-In in Tokyo this summer. There are also provisional plans for Prime Minister Abe to visit China in the autumn, with a possible invitation to President Xi to visit Japan in 2019.
Japan is part of the quadrilateral security initiative known as the quad – a loose alliance with the United States, Australia and India, which is designed to counterbalance Chinese influence.
Dr John Hemmings, director of the Asia Studies Centre at the Henry Jackson Society, says: ‘The quad is a response to China’s military coercion and attempts to dominate international sea lanes and major trade routes. It’s about deterring and shaping Chinese choices.’
But China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi is dismissive. He claims the concept of the quad is like ‘sea foam’ and will dissipate soon.
The former Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, is respected for his expert analysis on China. In a recent speech to an army base in the United States he said: ‘China sees its maritime periphery as deeply hostile. It sees its traditional territorial claims in the East and South China Seas as under threat and it now routinely refers to these as Chinaʼs “core national interests” – placing them in a similar category to Taiwan.’
Rudd believes China’s military build-up is a response to the formidable military power of the US and its allies, including South Korea, Japan, Taiwan, the Philippines and Australia.
Despite concerns about security, America’s allies in Asia intend to keep doing business with China. The Asian giant is Australia’s largest trading partner and business leaders there are pressing the current prime minister, Malcolm Turnbull, to be moderate in his rhetoric towards China.
India is also wary of letting strategic rivalry thwart business opportunities. Prime Minister Narendra Modi is due to meet President Xi in Beijing in June.
Mohan Malik, professor at the Asia-Pacific Center for Security Studies, says: ‘A chill has descended on Sino-Indian ties in recent years over a whole range of issues. There is particular concern in India over China’s Belt and Road Initiative, which could leave India surrounded by military ports and put China on a path to regional hegemony. From New Delhi’s perspective, China’s Belt and Road narrative seeks to rewrite Asian history and shape Eurasia’s future without recognising India’s historical, cultural, religious, and commercial links to the world.’