China causing uncertainty and unease?

Updated On: Jul 10, 2007

Since the first trilateral hosted by Australia for the Foreign Ministers of the US and Japan last year, China has been wary of Australia’s real strategic intentions.

Australia had then been conciliatory and tried to assure that the trilateral is not targeted at them.  However, any lingering doubts about the intention of the trilateral might have been thrown out of the window asCanberra announced that China’s rapid military expansion risked causing greater instability in the region and this came from the mouth of the Australian Prime Minister John Howard. 'The pace and scope of its military modernisation, particularly the development of new and disruptive capabilities such as the anti-satellite missile, could create misunderstandings and instability in the region,' Mr Howard said at the launch of Australia’s new defence paper.

To add punch to the statement, Howard reiterated Australia’s commitment to closer security ties with China’s rival, Japan. 'Australia has no closer nor more valuable partner in the region than Japan,' the document said. 'Japan's more active security posture within the US alliance and multinational coalitions is in keeping with its economic and diplomatic weight.' Mr Howard also hinted that Australia's military must prepare for offensive operations far from home.

Using the China threat theory as part of the reason, perhaps, Howard allocated a budget of A$51 billion (S$66.5 billion) to Australia’s military build-up including two new amphibious assault carriers, missile destroyers, tanks and strike aircraft. 'It needs to be able to defend our mainland and approaches in the unlikely event these ever come under direct military threat. But it must also be capable of conducting substantial operations in our immediate region, whether alone or as the leader of a coalition, and of making meaningful military contributions as a member of coalitions further abroad,' Mr Howard said.Australia’s self-appointment as Washington’s deputy sheriff is coming one step closer to reality.

In concert with AustraliaJapan’s Defense Ministry in its 2007 Defence White Paper also warned that China's military power will likely exceed that of Taiwan and expand to a level that could affect Japan's security. "There are arguments that China's intentions for modernizing its military forces could be something more than measures to deal with the Taiwan issue," the report said. "The China-Taiwan military balance is becoming more advantageous for China," according to the report.

China's marine rapid-reaction forces are "aiming to gain the ability to operate in further distant sea waters," the report said and China is also "aiming to build up not just its air defense capabilities, but also its combat capabilities to control air space further forward, as well as its capabilities for air-to-surface and anti-ship attacks." As China reaches out into space warfare, the White Paper said Beijing's military expansion also extends to outer space: "It is highly possible that (China) is considering attacks against satellites as part of its military actions". Other than space warfare, the White Paper reports that China is also keen on another form of power projection as reflected in its “strong interest in possessing an aircraft carrier".

Just as Australia tries to justify its defense spending with highlights of threat from the region, Japan is accelerating the deployment of the missile shield. "There are fears about the lack of transparency concerningChina's military strength," the Japanese Defense Ministry’s White Paper says. "In January this year China used ballistic missile technology to destroy one of its own satellites. There was insufficient explanation from China, sparking concern... about safety in space as well as the security aspects." This is a preview of issues that Japan’s Defense Minister will bring up with China's defence minister who is due to visitJapan later in 2007, the first visit in ten years. Japan is interested to know what are China's military intentions.

Leading these chorus of “concerns” about Chinese military spending is the US who has regularly raised the issue. In the latest statement, Pentagon’s top Asia adviser, Richard Lawless, again hit out at Chinasaying that “secrecy about its military buildup is sowing distrust in Washington and uncertainty in Asia”.  He then turned a little conciliatory and emphasized that the US is not trying to “presume a hostile intent on the part of China” and called for more open, and deeper engagement. 

China’s international outreach is increasingly under spotlight and being challenged.   While US, Australia and Japan are carefully monitoring China’s military development, China is busy extending its influence much further away into Africa. China's biggest oil company CNPC has reached a deal with Sudan to search for oil and gas in the north of the country on the coast of the Red Sea and it will be teaming up with the Indonesian state oil and gas company PT Pertamina for six years of exploration and 20 years of shared production, covering about 3.8 square kilometres of shallow water on the Red Sea. China has almost a free hand in Sudan as it is Sudan's top foreign investor and also supplies it with military weapons.

China has been heavily criticized from various quarters for sheltering a regime in Sudan that transgresses on human rights.  Besides SudanChina’s other African ventures are also throwing up other problems. In Niger, a Chinese uranium company executive, Zhang Guohua, a deputy general manager of the Societe Des Mines D'Agelik, a uranium prospecting company floated in Niger by the China Nuclear Engineering & Construction (Group) Corp, has been taken hostage by a local Tuareg tribe, who were upset at the company's policy of employing people from the capital city rather than locals.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry has reacted almost instantaneously, releasing a statement through its spokesperson: “The Chinese Embassy has been asked to make representations with the Niger side for the release of the kidnapped Chinese citizen and to ensure the safety of staff at Chinese-funded companies and organisations in Niger”. This adds on to a series of kidnappings, murders and hostage-taking that Chinese economic entities have experienced this year. Such incidents are likely to increase as Chinese economic power reaches into some of the most unstable parts of the world. For example, unidentified gunmen killed three Chinese workers and wounded the fourth in Peshawar Pakistan.

Other than trouble for Chinese interests on the African continent, China’s international exports are the roots of a looming political fight. The US Food and Drug Administration has blocked the import of many types of farm-raised fish from China as it finds significant defects and filth in imported catfish, eel, shrimp and other pond-produced creatures of the sea and cancer-triggering substances. This adds on to the list of Chinese tires (450,000 have had to be recalled), toothpaste, toy trains (containing dangerous levels of lead) and pet food (containing killer contaminants). Such recalls have snowballed to other industrialized nations as well such as Japan where there has been a dramatic recall of millions of tubes of toothpaste made in China which have been found to contain a chemical used in automobile antifreeze.

An indication of how serious China’s international reputation and image is harmed by this is seen through the efforts by a US health food company to label its products 'China-Free' to ease concerns about contamination.  China has seemingly woken up to the seriousness of the problems it faced with food and drug safety concerns.  At a recent seminar, the Director of Food Safety Coordination at the State Food and Drug Administration warned that China risks damaging its international credibility and image if it does not quickly tackle the food and drug quality problems.  However, this may be a bit too late and the backlash against Chinese food products in international trade has begun.

Underlying the hardline international reactions to the rise of China whether in strategic areas, resource economics or export-oriented trade, perhaps, China needs to add little bit of soft power touch to its international outreach to soften its impact to make it more palatable for other state players engaging it. This is where, perhaps, China has a lot to catch up with. Chinese soft power may not solve all of China’s problem but it can certainly soften its edges.

A potential area where it can be applied is in Africa where accusations of exploitative Chinese behaviour (e.g. mistreatment of employees) have mounted in recent months and cheap Chinese imports are perceived responsible for the decline of local industries and its accompanying unemployment problems. Chinese development of non-governmental contacts may help to engage African civil society and talk to the ordinary Africans instead of relying merely on state-to-state exchange. Chinese civil society can help sensitive and localize Chinese companies to local issues and problems. (10 July 2007)


China’s covert military build-up “sows distrust” (Straits Times, 10 July 2007)

Blind spots in China's soft power (Straits Times, 9 July 2007)

Chinese executive taken hostage in Niger (Straits Times, 8 July 2007)

Gunmen kill three Chinese workers in Pakistan (Reuters, 8 July 2007)

Defense Ministry warns about China's military (Asahi, 7 July 2007)

Taiwan seen losing military edge to China (Japan Times, 7 July 2007)

Health food maker promotes 'China-Free' products (Straits Times, 7 July 2007)

Troubles with 'China Inc.' (Japan Times, 5 July 2007)

China military rise risks instability: Howard (Straits Times, 5 July 2007)

China to search for oil in Sudan (BBC News, 2 July 2007)