Are Australia’s taxpayers unwittingly helping their country’s main Asian trading partner to boost its military clout? Chris Pritchard reports

When China’s first aircraft carrier, the Liaoning, sailed recently through the Taiwan Strait – which separates mainland China from Taiwan – reactions varied.

China predictably regarded the event as a manifestation of national pride. Taiwan, which Beijing sees as an errant province, masquerading as an independent republic, nervously scrambled jets and naval vessels. Japan, which like several other countries is embroiled in territorial disputes with China, also watched warily as the Liaoning eased towards the busy strait, near Okinawa (part of Japan), carefully keeping clear of Taiwan’s claimed territorial waters.

They were not the only neighbours to see the warship’s passage as evidence of Chinese militaristic muscle-flexing, further contributing to rising regional tensions as far afield as Australia. Outwardly, Australia and China maintain cordial relations. China is Australia’s main trading partner, its number-one source of foreign tourists and it heads lists of countries of origin of fee-paying overseas students. (Education, one of Australia’s biggest industries, is officially considered an export.)

While attitudes to Australia are mostly positive in China, a small but influential section of the Asian giant’s vast population considers Australia a lapdog of the United States. Similarly, in Australia, there is overwhelming public approval of the two countries’ growing commercial ties – epitomised by exports from Australia of mining goods and agricultural products, and imports of Chinese machinery and consumer items, ranging from electronics to clothing. Australia’s currency rises or falls in step with China’s perceived economic health; doubts about China’s long-term intentions, and assertions that the country wants regional supremacy, are most often heard in ultra-conservative circles.

That was until two academics who study Australia’s relations with China, Dr Clive Hamilton, Canberra-based professor of public ethics at Charles Stuart University, and Alex Joske, of the Australian National University, Canberra, recently pointed out in an article in The Australian, a national daily newspaper, that their country might unwittingly be aiding China’s military programme. Now Australian legislators are beginning to take notice.

Hamilton and Joske noted that ‘for several years the Chinese party-state has been pursuing a co-ordinated programme to acquire from abroad advanced military and industrial technology, and to do so by fair means or foul. It now emerges that Australian universities are inadvertently helping give China the technological leadership it craves’.

The Australian, in an evaluation of the research, argued that it ‘provides a factual basis to underline concerns already raised by the growing debate in the past year on the nature of institutional links between China and Australia’.

Of particular interest to the academics was the fact that the main deck of the Liaoning bristles with J-15 fighter jets built by the government-owned Aviation Industry Corporation of China, and supplied to the People’s Liberation Army Air Force. Professor Hamilton and other experts contend the fighters incorporate Australian technology. While, for economic reasons, Australia imports most of its military hardware, it has considerable engineering skills and high-level technological expertise.

One key illustration of the findings is the fact that the Australian Research Council, which is funded by the taxpayer, gave a grant of A$400,000 to the University of Adelaide, South Australia, towards a research partnership with the Beijing Institute of Aeronautical Materials. Other Australian universities have ties with Chinese people or entities linked to arms-related developments.

‘Australians have consistently seen China as a possible military threat’

Simon Birmingham, minister of education and training, said the Liberal-National coalition government, led by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, took these reports ‘very seriously’. Meanwhile, an opinion poll commissioned by the Lowy Institute for International Policy, a high-profile think tank, found a growing number of Australians are concerned about China’s growing military prowess.

The institute’s director of polling, Alex Oliver, said: ‘Australians have consistently seen China as a possible military threat.’ The annual poll – this year’s was the 30th – looks at Australians’ attitudes to their country’s international relationships. One finding revealed that 46 per cent of Australians expect China to be a military threat to Australia within the next 20 years. Other anti-China complaints identified by the poll include a minority view that Chinese investment is too high, particularly in agriculture, mining and urban residences.

Aside from Liaoning (which was on her way back from a western Pacific ‘training exercise’ when her planned route controversially took her through the Taiwan Strait), China has at least two other aircraft carriers in the pipeline. The first of these, the Shandong, is poised to enter service in 2020. The next will be the first to be completely designed and built by China, rather than being based on a Soviet-era hull.

Despite these growing suspicions of China, the economic benefits deriving from trade with the world’s second-largest economy make even military circles cautious about causing offence. A comment from Australia’s defence chief, Air Chief Marshal Mark Binskin, was typical. Australia, he said, was ‘committed to working with China’. Friendly links between the two were an indication of ‘growing maturity’.

This wariness extends even to the US high command, which, like Beijing, is aware that strong residual anti-Americanism survives in Asia. As with Australia, China maintains a superficially cordial relationship with the United States, which does its best to play down serious differences, such as China’s hard line over the disputed Spratly Islands. Here’s what the US Pacific commander, Admiral Harry Harris, had to say about the aircraft carrier drama: ‘No-one wants conflict… I prefer co-operation.’

Sydney-based journalist Chris Pritchard is a former BBC and Wall Street Journal correspondent and a frequent visitor to Asia.

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