A dangerous vanity

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2009, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 10 November, 2009, 12:00am

It seems easy at times to dismiss the issue of China's military transparency as a war of attrition between Beijing and Washington, fought with sound bites. Repeated volleys of reports and warnings from US institutions and senior military officials tell of worrying gaps of knowledge between China's expanding capabilities and its real intentions.

In return, Beijing predictably fires off round after round from its own spokesmen, who insist that Pentagon chiefs are trapped by a 'cold war mentality'. China's build-up, they explain, is purely defensive and merely reflects the nation's modernisation. Others privately suggest the Pentagon's strategists are simply creating a fresh enemy to justify fat budget requests.

Next week's first visit to Beijing by US President Barack Obama will produce further exchanges, with the issue up for discussion with President Hu Jintao amid a broadening relationship.

Make no mistake, it is no phoney war. Not only are Washington's concerns real and growing, but China's neighbours across East Asia are increasingly nervous, too.

You won't hear it so much publicly, but it is out there. And if China offers some fresh pledges of increased transparency to help gild the visit of Obama, it won't be just with pacifying Washington in mind, but possibly the region, too.

Talking to diplomats and military officials from South Korea, Japan, Indonesia, the Philippines and Vietnam, it is clear there are few hotter subjects.

Over the last 15 years or so, Beijing has worked hard to ease suspicions and forge broader ties with nations across the region, both individually and collectively. Without fresh diplomacy, however, its military build-up risks harming that effort and working against Beijing's interests on a number of fronts.

It may even, for example, quietly provide room to allow the US to shore up its position as the region's largest military power by working to foster its existing alliances and quicken its engagement with newer friends, such as Vietnam and Indonesia.

Already, submarine programmes are being expanded in Australia, Malaysia, Indonesia and, reportedly, Vietnam in large part as a deterrent against China's rapid expansion of its blue-water submarine fleet, now operating from a new deep-water base on Hainan .

It is not just the hardware, but the intangible factors of mistrust and suspicion, if not hostility. Just like even the most hawkish US defence strategist, many across the region acknowledge China's right to modernise a once inward-looking military to better serve growing international interests. Some even look forward to Beijing playing a greater role in peaceful security issues and humanitarian work, such as disaster relief.

But other factors dominate fears. First there is Beijing's long-standing claim that it is not, and has never been, an expansionist power. 'You can only say China is not an expansionist power if you agree that the entire South China Sea belongs to Beijing,' said one veteran Southeast Asian envoy. 'The problem is, everyone else thinks this is nonsense. The South China Sea is the dirty secret behind Beijing's claim to not being expansionist.'

Ambitious plans for mainland shipbuilders to produce multiple aircraft carriers by 2020 are another source of fear. Many aspects of its build-up, such as submarines and improved communications satellites, are understandable. But aircraft carriers speak of grand political visions about the projection of power. Privately, many in the region quote with alarm the comments last year from Major General Qian Lihua , who said that 'having an aircraft carrier is the dream of any great military power'.

'I fear that there is nothing defensive about China's lust for an aircraft carrier,' one South Korean official told me recently. 'Many of us see nothing but a dangerous vanity at work ... China really has to explain this better.'

In some fields, Beijing has won praise for the nuance and sophistication its envoys now bring to the international table. When it comes to military matters, that is a leap it still must make.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent