ALTHOUGH unease with China’s assertiveness across Asia has been a part of our region’s geopolitical landscape for years, the past couple of weeks have indicated that tensions are increasing.
The United States government and high military officials have issued a number of statements expressing serious concern about China’s activities, particularly in the West Philippine Sea, and have called on our Big Red Neighborhood, apparently in vain, to respect freedom of navigation and to stop the militarization of disputed waters.
Japan, India, and Australia have all also called on China to respect the rule of law, and refrain from aggravating regional disputes. In the case of those three countries, however, the rhetoric is now taking a disturbingly tangible turn.
The passage of a law in the latter part of last year greatly expanding the allowable use of Japan’s military was, although the measure was unpopular with a great many Japanese, in direct response to China’s challenging Japan over disputed territory in the East China Sea, and Japan has recently retooled its defense budget to allow for the deployment of new ships, planes and other military equipment. India, which has a long-standing border dispute with China and is the host country of Tibet’s exiled Dalai Lama, has also ramped up some military spending, particularly for its naval assets, even while extending a hand of friendship to its would-be rival in economic matters.
And finally Australia, which has a very productive trade relationship with China, announced last week its largest defense budget ever, spurred by what the government called a “high stakes” environment in “momentous times” in Asia. The new defense spending will provide for new ships, new submarines, and expanded capabilities in other areas, such as defending against cyberwarfare.
What we are seeing now – and even our government’s own efforts toward upgrading our military could be counted as a part of it – is the beginning of what looks very much like an arms race in our part of the world, and not the sort that can be explained away by the necessity to defend against threats like extremist terrorists. Everyone in the region has suddenly taken a great interest in building up conventional military capabilities, because one particular name keeps coming up in every conversation about plausible threats to security: China.
The question is, why?
We have to wonder whether China anticipated this sort of reaction, and if so, what it hopes to gain from it. It is not an obvious economic benefit to China; although it is making inroads into the world’s arms market, it is not yet a popular source of military hardware, certainly not among regional countries. Given that it has presented such a universal risk to all concerned, China’s intent certainly cannot be to hope to sow discord among nations it threatens; if anything, its aggressiveness has improved prospects for regional cooperation.
And if China simply believes its neighbors could never match its firepower (so long as it assumes – probably correctly – that it is likely to never face the US in a fight), most military experts believe the Chinese would be in for a nasty surprise; it has evolved from the unwieldy, badly-equipped force that got its nose bloodied by the Vietnamese after making an ill-advised invasion of its southern neighbor in 1979, but still is regarded as having an advantage in numbers and not much else.
China should appreciate that its otherwise welcome moves to play a bigger role in the region and the world – its Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank (AIIB) and proposed Free Trade Area of the Asia-Pacific are a couple of examples – are being severely undermined by its provoking a dangerously counterproductive return to militarism in our part of the world. Any victory it might hope to win, either through actual hostilities, or just by posing the threat of them, would by a Pyrrhic one, with more negative results for China than it realizes.