Doubts about China's rise dangerous for us all

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 29 September, 2009, 12:00am

The Communist Party places great store in the military parade at the heart of Thursday's anniversary celebrations of its coming to power. Fly-pasts by jet aircraft and columns of hardware and troops are intended to send out messages, domestically and overseas, of authority, strength and transparency. Speeches will back the spectacle with rhetoric. Left unanswered, though, will be questions about capability and intent.

Two decades of annual double-digit growth in defence spending have raised eyebrows within and outside China. Military expansion and modernisation are important, but so too is putting food on tables, alleviating poverty or providing affordable health care. Nuclear weapons, missiles, submarines and talk of aircraft carriers worry neighbours and rivals. A parade will not ease such concerns.

The event has been years in the planning. Troops have been training for at least five months. No matter how flawless their performance or how well equipped they are, capabilities cannot be judged by watching the event; no inkling will be given of how widely weapons are deployed. The parade is intended to foster national pride. Chinese people will be able to see where funding has been going. Deterrence will be clearly announced - against a conventional attack on sovereignty, nuclear war, Taiwanese independence and terrorism, separatism, and extremism. Leaders will contend that publicly revealing weapons is dedication to transparency in military affairs. Foreign observers are less interested in what will be in the parade than what is not. They have made much of China's expansion of missile defences, its air force and submarine fleet. Its talk of building an aircraft carrier has raised doubts about whether Beijing's military is only for defence or also to project power. Authorities are repeatedly being asked to be more open about spending, weapons development and deployments.

China should not have to be completely transparent. The objective of an effective military hinges on security and surprise. Enemies are not supposed to know what they are up against. Nonetheless some governments, particularly the US, would be more comfortable if intentions were better defined.

Beijing is acutely aware of the concern. Military diplomacy is increasingly taking place through joint exercises, dialogue, displays and inspections. More than 8,000 soldiers have been sent on UN peacekeeping missions - more than for any other nation. Despite these moves, fears persist; greater effort is clearly needed.

China has legitimate security interests. The party's credentials have been burnished in guaranteeing territorial integrity. Some borders remain unstable. Chinese of all political persuasions are acutely aware that at times of military weakness, their nation has been subjected to brutality. Military strength has kept Taiwan from declaring independence. China's growing international interests mean it needs to protect shipping routes. Chinese quite fairly say that if other nations can have well-equipped militaries, so should they. These are strong incentives for robust defence.

Yet doubts about China's rise are dangerous for the nation and the rest of the world. While they persist, there will be the possibility of conflict due to a miscalculation, accident or misunderstanding. As with all governments, Beijing is always going to put national security ahead of confidence-building measures. Hence China and its rivals and friends need to make ever greater strides towards working more closely. Open channels of communication and understanding are essential.