Cold War movie

Booby traps

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 27 March, 2012, 12:00am


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It is fitting that you can form the word 'trap' out of transparency. As the debate about the need for transparency in China's military build-up continues along its fairly predictable path, there is one interesting wrinkle that is often forgotten - that the PLA is trying to become an asymmetric power.

Through weapons such as cyber-warfare, the as-yet-untested DF-21 'carrier-killer' ballistic missile and its long-term submarine programme, the PLA intends to create an effective deterrent against a much larger potential foe, the United States.

One way to understand asymmetric warfare is to think of guerilla operations or judo - a strategy that constantly keeps a much larger enemy off-balance or even turns its very size and strength into a liability.

A key part of such a strategy is keeping your large opponent guessing. A lack of transparency and/or misinformation, therefore, is vital to the strategy's success. And, therein lies the trap for Beijing as its military modernisation continues apace.

Beijing might be able to continue to rail against Washington's demands for more information on its capabilities and, more importantly, its intentions, warning of America's lingering 'cold war mentality', but that is going to be a harder sell in the region.

One problem is that some countries see China as the potentially dominant force long term. That means they are fast adopting their own asymmetric strategies in return.

Just look at Vietnam, for example. Through Hanoi's acquisition of state-of-the-art Russian diesel submarines, a range of missiles and fast naval vessels, it appears to be doing to China what China is trying to do to the US - make the prospect of any conflict near its disputed maritime domain prohibitively complex.

In that regard, a perceived lack of transparency against the US makes an element of strategic sense for China. But, that is not the case when deployed against an increasingly nervous region.

It is almost a unique problem. The US, for example, suffers an entirely different problem of perception. As the dominant player, transparency serves to buttress its position and intimidate - even as it maintains its own secret capabilities.

Amid years of projected cuts to Pentagon budgets, Washington's envoys have been stung by regional perceptions that they are a declining power. Right now, then, openness about its increased regional deployments serves its interests rather neatly.

The challenge, then, for Beijing is to manage these different perceptions to best serve its interests. It will need considerably more nuance in both its civilian and military diplomacy - along with more meaningful attempts at military openness.

That nuance was on show through the 1990s and into the 2000s as Chinese diplomats toiled to ease historic suspicions and forge deeper and broader ties with countries and regional bodies. But, the armed build-up and other actions have set that effort back and provided fresh opportunities for the US.

Even Washington's hawks acknowledge China's right to modernise its military to reflect its growing economic clout and interests. But, the importance of easing suspicions elsewhere can only grow in keeping with the scale of that modernisation.

Greg Torode is the Post's chief Asia correspondent.