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Paul Buchanan: China on the Horizon (Part 1)

The Giant’s Rival, Part One: China on the Horizon

Paul G. Buchanan

14-09-09

The emergence of China as a political and economic actor in the southwestern Pacific during the last two decades has occasioned debate about its geopolitical implications. These have given rise to concerns as well as an appreciation of China throughout Oceania. China’s rise as a regional player is due to a combination of its own ambition and US strategic disinterest in the aftermath of the Cold War. US strategic disinterest in the South Pacific was as much a matter of shifting priorities as it was of benign neglect. With no serious military rival in the region, and with asymmetric threats emerging in the Middle East, Northern Africa and Central Asia, by the mid-1990s the US felt that it could significantly curtail its presence throughout the southwestern Pacific basin while maintaining a reduced marine monitoring force oriented towards East Asia that was complemented by the work of allied naval and land units (particularly those of Australia, France, Japan and New Zealand). It also believed that post-Maoist China was more likely to become a future economic partner rather than military rival, and that promoting commercial ties between the US and China would cement the latter’s place in the global market, thereby opening it to Western influences and diminishing its need for military expansion.

The US did not anticipate that China would step into this perceived power vacuum as a contender for regional influence, and that China’s increased soft power projection in the South Pacific would raise the possibility of a future hard (read military) challenge to US domination in that strategic theater. The US relied on the continued influence of Australia, France and New Zealand in Oceania politics to keep that part of the world within the Western orbit. Now, with sea lines of communication, resources and diplomatic leverage at stake and its Antipodean allies unable to counter on their own, the Chinese Pacific challenge is one that the US can no longer ignore. In two parts, this series outlines China’s Pacific emergence and the US response. Playing on the title of a famous book by Cole Blasier on the subject of the US-USSR rivalry in Latin America, herein is part One.

China’s South Pacific expansion and its security implications.

China has three major interests in Oceania. It wishes to counter Taiwanese influence in pursuit of its One Nation policy, because the small island states of the Western Pacific have offered Taiwan diplomatic recognition in exchange for developmental aid in a measure disproportionate to their importance in global affairs. Taiwanese diplomatic cultivation of small countries with UN voting rights has been a constant since the Chinese Revolution, something that was not effectively challenged by the mainland until China abandoned its revolutionary roots and converted to (state) capitalist development.

With exponential developmental gains resulting from its conversion (albeit under one party authoritarian aegis), in the space of 15 years China has moved to become the third largest aid donor to the fourteen Pacific Island Forum (PIF) nations, after Australia and Japan. Besides countering Taiwanese influence, China also wants to inform Pacific Island policies on matters such as fisheries, whaling, off-shore drilling, seabed exploitation and trade regulations, particularly since these states have the same voting rights in international forums as their larger counterparts. “Chequebook diplomacy” using developmental aid and soft loans serves both purposes as well as provide diplomatic counter-leverage to Western endeavours in the region.

Contrary to the view that Chinese aid policy is a “no-strings attached” proposition, virtually all Chinese developmental aid funding in the Pacific come with provisos that Chinese agents be given preference as contractors, exporters and suppliers of equipment, material, services and technologies related to the funded projects. What is not attached to the provision of aid are domestic accountability and transparency measures, which is a major point of difference with Western aid programmes that are tied to good governance clauses (e.g. anti-corruption clauses that include transparency in awarding local contracts and indigenous labour requirements).

In parallel, Chinese enterprises pursue investment in resource extraction, with particular focus on mining and logging in Melanesia (it controls the largest nickel mine in Papua New Guinea and its logging interests in Indonesia are held responsible for much of the deforestation in Sumatra). Chinese tuna fleets constitute the majority of those operating out of Fiji, and it has encouraged both tourism and emigration from the mainland as part of establishing a permanent Chinese presence in Oceania. China is the third largest aid donor and second largest investor in the region. This has seen a tenfold increase in Chine-PIF trade between 1995-2005, a 32 percent increase in trade in 2006-07, now fronted by 3000 Chinese companies investing over 1.5 billion US dollars throughout the PIF over the last decade, coupled with the opening of number of Chinese diplomatic missions and a wave of Chinese migration in the first nine years of the millennium.

Although it still has to compete with Japan and Taiwan in terms of “Asian” influence on regional politics, it is now the dominant member of that troika, and its influence continues to grow. Truth be told, the modernization of much of the South Pacific in the last decade is due to China’s interest rather than the efforts of its traditional Western patrons or their Asian allies. In the PIF perspective, the Chinese interest is a double benefit: not only do the Chinese promote developmental projects that traditional Western patrons have shirked, without the accountability strings usually attached to Western aid; it also grants PIF governments a previously unseen degree of diplomatic latitude and flexibility when dealing with both new and old patrons.

Many Western analysts see trouble for governance and stability in these developments, particularly the negative influence of Chinese chequebook diplomacy on already corrupt and unstable governmental practices, as well as the penetration of Asian crime syndicates into vulnerable island economies. 9/11 heightened Western concerns that the PIF would become a centre for terrorist financing and armament if already lax accountability and regulatory frameworks were weakened further by Chinese indifference to statutory reform or international compliance as it moved into controlling positions in the financial and import/export sectors. In this view the process of creeping Chinese political control via migration, investment and trade could have negative security consequences in the fight against global terrorism.

However, not all views of Chinese expansion in the Pacific are pessimistic or resigned to the inevitability of Chinese regional dominance. For one thing, China is certainly not indifferent to terrorism, so it has a vested interest in not allowing its growing presence in the PIF to serve as a cover for terrorist fronts or supply networks. More broadly, several analysts have argued that China’s Pacific presence remains relatively weak on all power dimensions, and that resentment against resident Chinese communities, Chinese unfamiliarity with Pacific mores and the authoritarian nature of the Chinese regime mitigate against it making more than shallow inroads into island life and culture. For them, China relations with the South Pacific are a long-term and as of yet relatively embryonic project that will be led by economic interest above all other factors, even if larger strategic concerns underpin it. Similarly, other scholars have noted the incoherent and short-term nature of Chinese Pacific aid strategy, which can lead to diplomatic miscalculation and counter-productive results. For these observers China has neither the soft or hard power to exercise neo-imperial ambitions, and the threat posed by China in the South Pacific is more illusory than real.

Even so, the expansion of Chinese influence in the South Pacific provides a potential basis for the eventual projection of military power. Beyond building stadiums, courthouses, parliaments and resorts, infrastructural projects that modernize deepwater harbours, airports and land transport corridors in places like Fiji, Tonga, Samoa, the Solomons, Vanuatu, Papua New Guinea and the Cook Islands have possible dual purposes: that is, they can serve military as well as civilian objectives. All that is needed for the dual role to be achieved is a political agreement with the host nation, one that is more likely in the measure that Chinese money, material and human resources are poured into them.

The moment of Chinese military projection into the South Pacific is still a ways off, but it is almost inevitable given Chinese strategic planning and the absence of a countervailing military presence. The South Pacific includes major sea lines of communication between the Western Hemisphere and Australasia, yet US, Australian and other regional forces sparsely patrol it. Australian naval assets are occupied with patrol duties in the Indian Ocean, Coral Sea and in support of multinational operations further abroad. New Zealand has limited blue water capability and cannot fully defend its own territorial waters. French naval presence is limited to Francophone Polynesia. Smaller island states such as Fiji have coastal patrol units a best, and the US and its Latin neighbours have preferred to allocate their naval forces to other duties. As a result, the South Pacific geostrategic environment has been left open to exploitation by a committed actor with great power ambition and the capability to achieve it. That actor is China.

Securing regional land basing rights is a long-term Chinese military objective that is facilitated by its chequebook diplomacy. The Chinese maintained a missile monitoring station on Kiribati Island in Micronesia from 1996 until 2006, from which they could telemetrically monitor their own space and military missile testing as well as that of the US on Kwajalein in the Marshall Islands (the location of US nuclear tests sites during the Cold War). With the lease on Kiribati revoked in 2006, the Chinese have a strategic interest in securing another location in which to undertake electronic monitoring and eavesdropping as well as telemetric observations. China also has a practical interest in developing military-to-military ties with island countries so as to loosen the traditionally pro-Western orientation of PIF armed forces. To that end China has engaged military-to-military exchanges with Fijian and Tongan armed forces at a time when Australian and New Zealand military exchange programmes have been largely suspended due to strained relations with the authoritarian regimes that govern them.

Beyond that, China has an interest in developing regional intelligence networks on matters of economic, political and military import. For this it employs human assets located amid recently arrived Chinese regional diasporas (as incidents involving monitoring of Falun Gong supporters in Australia and New Zealand suggest) as well as land and sea-based electronic means (for example, in diplomatic missions and on oceanic research or fishing vessels). Of particular interest to the Chinese is the Echelon signal intelligence stations located in Australia and New Zealand as well as US military communications facilities in Micronesia.

Chinese military ambition has been signaled. Amid a major military buildup (with five percent average increases in the military budget now ongoing for ten years), it has deployed 5 nuclear submarines (including 3 ballistic missile subs) in a fleet of 60, with an increase to 85 boats projected by 2010. It is building its first aircraft carrier, and is modernizing the full range of its naval surface and air patrol assets. In 2008 Chinese submarines conducted 18 confirmed long-range patrols outside of its territorial waters (purportedly to include shadowing Chinese fishing vessels in the South Pacific so as to hide under their acoustic signatures), and it has openly tracked the US Fifth fleet while on exercises in the Western Pacific. What this implies is that it is moving beyond coastal defense and into blue water interdiction missions. In addition it has introduced and stockpiled new land, air and sea-launched surface-to surface cruise missiles as well as conventional boosters, all of which constitute formidable deterrents in the event that they were to be deployed in the Southwestern Pacific. Given the pace of Chinese military upgrading, this could happen within ten years.

The scenario outlined above is consonant with Chinese naval strategy, which was first enunciated by Admiral Liu Huaqing in 1988 and is encapsulated in the “three island chain” approach. By 2010 China seeks to establish a permanent blue water presence in the first island “chain” arrayed on a Japan-Taiwan-Philippines axis, to include the South China Sea. By 2025 it proposes to establish a permanent blue water presence in the second island “chain” stretching from the Aleutians through the Mariana Islands to the East Coast of Papua New Guinea, and which includes the Malaccan Straits. By 2050 the reach will extend to the third island “chain” starting in the Aleutians and ending in Antarctica, to include waters offshore of New Zealand and Australia.

A measure of the its Pacific strategy is the reported comments by a Chinese admiral during the command visit by the senior officer in the US Pacific Command (PACCOM), Admiral Timothy Keating, to Beijing in 2007. According to Keating, after admitting that China wanted to build aircraft carriers, his Chinese counterpart said, "You keep your aircraft carriers east of Hawaii. We'll keep ours west. You share your information with us; we'll share our information with you. We'll save you the time and effort of coming all the way to the Western Pacific." (http://www.newsweek.com/id/175312).

This approach sits within a long history of Chinese military thought extending from Sun Tsu in The Art of War through Mao’s On Protracted War to the contemporary military planners who authored China’s 2009 Defence White Paper. The basic principles of Chinese warfare are based on patience, deception, misdirection, surprise, infiltration, surreptitious envelopment and focused mass over a protracted time period. It emphasizes framing the combat environment so as to advantage fluidity and avoid the friction caused by massed clashes of force, particularly in situations of qualitative disadvantage such as what currently exists with the US. It advises long-term planning and the quiet and extended nature of military build-ups, avoidance of direct confrontation until tactical superiority is assured, and an emphasis on maneuver in kinetic operations. Beyond physical defense of the Chinese mainland the strategic objective is deterrence first, followed by projection of power abroad so as to secure resource and commodity flows, and should conflict occur, denial of victory to adversaries rather than decisive military conquest. Understanding the element of political will in determining military outcomes, when approaching combat operations Chinese strategists emphasize tactics that serve to exhaust the opponent by eroding his will (or that of his population) to continue fighting (in a variation of the “death by a thousand cuts” guerrilla strategy). A naval warfare strategy that engages the US in the South Pacific can do just that.

The expanding Chinese presence in the South Pacific is therefore consonant with these views, and can be seen as a form of preparing the terrain for future military incursions in the region. Whether or not those incursions are realized is a matter for political elites to decide, which is a function of diplomatic interaction and countervailing power. For Chinese military strategists however, the necessities of futures forecasting and forward planning absolutely require that they consider the military option in gaming out potential scenarios for the South Pacific in light of evolving geopolitical conditions.

The bottom line is that China is reconfiguring its military from a land-based defensive force to a more balanced air-land-sea triad with offensive power projection capabilities. As it moves from the first island chain perimeter to the second island chain it will overlap with the primary US military area of operations in the Pacific and come into direct contact with the Australian and New Zealand sphere of influence. In the measure that it has previously secured favorable diplomatic and economic relations with Pacific island states, the achievement of the second island chain objective becomes more likely. It is that possibility that commands the attention of US strategic planners.

The broader issue is that in using its soft power and influence, China has managed to gain a diplomatic and economic toehold in Oceania that not only signals its rise as a regional great power, but also potentially paves the way for a military presence. Depending on perspective, that may be all bad, all good, or somewhere in between. In the next part of the series, the US response will be outlined. By way of anticipation, let us just say the response reflects the US belief that a growing Chinese presence in the southwestern Pacific is not (all) good.

*************

Paul G. Buchanan has interest in security analysis and strategic thought. A member of the www.kiwipolitico.com weblog collective, he is a Visiting Associate Professor of Political Science at the National University of Singapore.

 
 
 
 
 
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