China's muscle-flexing is a poor defence of its interests

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 21 June, 2011, 12:00am


Friends of China should ask it to consider the potentially dangerous repercussions of the nation's increasingly assertive diplomatic and military behaviour. The policy poses real dangers to the peace of Asia, but ultimately the biggest loser will be China itself.

Vietnam and Japan have already tasted the new saltiness in China's approach and the Philippines, Taiwan, Brunei and Malaysia are all concerned about naval intimidation. A bigger danger comes in Beijing's increased support - including millions of military dollars - for Pakistan, a nuclear power on the verge of becoming a failed state.

China's military spending will be 601 billion yuan (HK$722 billion) this year, according to its own figures. The respected Stockholm International Peace Research Institute estimates that China last year spent US$119 billion or 2.1 per cent of its gross domestic product, putting it second in the global league, behind the US with spending of US$698 billion, or 4.8 per cent of GDP. Some countries, especially China, keep sensitive spending off the books. American military experts say that the true figure for China is US$300 billion a year.

Beijing has persistently pledged that all its intentions are peaceful. But when push comes to shove, the military calls the shots. Beijing's penchant for secrecy does not help. It would be natural for a booming power that has to import many essential raw materials, especially oil and energy supplies, to protect them and to have a navy that can assure their safe passage through troubled waters if necessary.

But China has been reluctant to admit things which have long been open secrets: for example, its plans to launch an aircraft carrier were admitted only earlier this month. And comments from senior military officials, such as, 'We can no longer accept the Indian Ocean as only an ocean of the Indians', and 'We are taking armed conflicts in the region into account', cause concern.

The way Beijing expressed support for Pakistan after Osama bin Laden's killing is also troubling. Friendship between the two nations goes back a long way. Pakistan opened the door to a resumption of ties between China and the US by permitting Henry Kissinger's secret flight to Beijing in 1971. China also effectively masterminded Pakistan's acquisition of nuclear weapons by giving it 50kg of enriched uranium, tonnes of uranium hexafluoride for centrifuges and detailed plans of nuclear weapons.

The security of those weapons must now be in question after Taliban terrorists last month successfully attacked a Pakistan naval air base in Karachi, claiming revenge for the killing of bin Laden.

Pakistan played its so-called China card after bin Laden's death, sending Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani to Beijing. Premier Wen Jiabao promised that China would be an 'all-weather strategic partner' for Pakistan and gifted 50 new JF-17 Thunder multirole aircraft as Pakistan negotiates for new stealth technology aircraft.

What has this military hardware to do with Pakistan's very real problems of a troubled economy, wretched education system and active presence of Islamic terrorists who kill hundreds of Pakistanis every week? Pakistan, China and the US should be co-operating to put the economy on its feet and undercut the terrorists. Instead, Pakistan rounded up key people thought to have told the Americans where bin Laden was hiding.

To me, the biggest disappointment is that China, building up its military strength to become a political as well as an economic superpower, is merely following the tired old imperial way from the time of the Romans. In the 21st century, can the world afford one nation's view or domination?

American president and five-star general Dwight Eisenhower had sobering advice, which Beijing would do well to consider. He said: 'Every gun that is made, every warship launched, every rocket fired signifies, in the final sense, a theft from those who hunger and are not fed, those who are cold and not clothed.' China has enough problems without wasting billions.

Kevin Rafferty first travelled overland to Pakistan and India 42 years ago as the British young journalist of the year