Tinted lens

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 16 August, 2011, 12:00am


With the initial sea trials of China's first aircraft carrier - the rebuilt Russian Varyag - just completed, yet again the issue of China's military transparency is being kicked around.

The argument seems to run along depressingly predictable lines. The US and other regional powers, particularly Japan, home in on what they describe as a worrying knowledge gap between China's growing capabilities and its intentions. Shortly before the Varyag steamed out of Dalian, the Japanese defence ministry's annual white paper raised various concerns. Then, when it was at sea, US State Department officials urged Beijing to explain the need for a carrier.

China, for its part, repeatedly stresses the defensive nature of its build-up, yet places its carrier programme in the context of its role as a global power with broadening economic interests to protect. State media have repeatedly pointed out in recent days that China was the last permanent member of the UN Security Council to obtain a carrier.

It also tries to play the transparency game, issuing its own annual white paper and staging high-profile show-and-tell events, such as the recent inspection of Chinese fighter jets by Admiral Mike Mullen, America's most senior military officer.

A range of Beijing-based military attaches warns that such efforts represent important first steps but much more work is required to meet conventional international standards. Amid the back and forth, few doubt China's basic right to build a military commensurate with its growing international role, stature and expanding interests. Even hawks such as former US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld have acknowledged this.

Rather than burrow down into an all-too-predictable debate, it is a useful moment to broaden the focus. Transparency is really a means to an end, all part of another t-word - trust. Glance around the region, and it is all too apparent that East Asia is plagued by a lack of strategic trust. China's build-up feeds into the worst fears of many in the region and its new capabilities - from carriers to unique missiles - inevitably raise questions over intentions.

Trust is in the eye of the beholder. In a conspiratorially minded region, trust is not easily won, a reflection perhaps of political and cultural differences as well as deep historical suspicions and lingering disputes over territory. Talk to envoys from around the region about their darkest fears and the conspiracies run thick and fast: Chinese officials look at rising tensions in the South China Sea and see a US plot to further containment; US strategists see a Chinese effort to drive them from the region for good; and the Vietnamese fear a future when they will effectively find themselves a tributary state of Beijing.

Transparency, therefore, is merely part of a broader need. To create a meaningful climate of strategic trust will require strenuous diplomacy, communication and creative approaches from all the major players to foster confidence in the long term. Restraint will be vital. A formal and inclusive regional defence grouping would be a start.

The seeds of such efforts are now being sown but the harvest, it seems, is years away.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.