Thursday, May 13, 2010

China sticks to its guns over new military aims

CHINA delivered a wake-up call to its neighbours last week, making it clear that Beijing has decided on a course of military assertiveness as its capabilities increase.

"We kept silent and tolerant over territorial disputes with our neighbours in the past because our navy was incapable of defending our economic zones, but now the navy is able to carry out its task," Xu Guangyu, a retired general, said in response to Japanese protests over Chinese ships chasing out a Japanese survey vessel in a disputed area.

Xu termed China's previous naval absence "an abnormal historical accident" that is being rectified.

This suggests that previous Chinese actions and declarations made while in a state of relative military weakness no longer reflect Beijing's current intentions now that it has achieved greater capabilities.

One example of a long-time policy that no longer appears to apply is China's stance on the militarisation of outer space.

Beginning in 1984, China insisted in the United Nations General Assembly that space is to be used strictly for peaceful purposes.
This was reiterated in 1998, when a white paper on defence said that China "opposes the development of anti-satellite weapons". The white paper proposed "a complete ban on weapons of any kind in outer space, including anti-missile and anti-satellite weapons, to keep outer space free of weapons".

It urged all countries to undertake not "to experiment with, produce or deploy outer space weapons".

So it came as a shock when, in 2007, China tested a weapon in space, destroying one of its old satellites.

Despite this, however, Beijing continued to insist that it was opposed to the militarisation of space.

China's frequently declared policy of no first use of nuclear weapons, first enunciated in 1964, may also be in doubt, even though it continues to be China's stated position.

A glimpse into what China's real position may be was provided in 2005 by Maj-Gen Zhu Chenghu, dean of the Defence Affairs Institute of China's National Defence University, when he thought he was speaking off the record.

Zhu blithely ignored all official statements regarding no first use and asserted that China would use nuclear weapons against the United States if war broke out over Taiwan.

Since then, China has again reiterated its position that it would never be the first to use nuclear weapons. Statements by Zhu were never explained.

The US nuclear posture review published last month by the Obama administration asserted that "the lack of transparency surrounding (China's) nuclear programmes -- their pace and scope, as well as the strategy and doctrine that guides them -- raises questions about China's future strategic intentions".

In response, the Chinese government insisted that its nuclear weapons policy was clear.

In view of these developments, it is not surprising if some countries view with scepticism lofty statements from Beijing insisting on its "principled positions".

Now that China is openly saying that its navy will operate in regions in which it had not been active before, past assumptions of Chinese policy will no doubt be re-examined.

These include beliefs that China is opposed to military alliances and overseas bases.

Having overseas bases, or at least places where vessels can dock to refuel and obtain supplies, is a necessity for most blue-water navies.

Now that the Chinese navy is moving from its coastal waters, it is likely that China will need access to such facilities in other countries in the region or even further afield.

Changing Chinese military capabilities is clearly worrying the country's neighbours.

Singaporean Senior Minister Lee Kuan Yew earlier this year noted China's military modernisation and asked the US to remain in the region since, he said, Japan and India combined were insufficient to balance China.

Recently, Australian Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, a scholar of China, also expressed misgivings, saying in a major speech that "it remains unclear how a re-emergent China will set its course as a major global power, and how its role will shape the future international order".

Now that China itself has cast doubt over its previous pronouncements, which were largely based on political considerations at a time when it was militarily weak, Beijing should make clear what the new rules of the game are, given its enhanced military capabilities.

Often, Beijing has given the impression that it needs to beef up its military to prevent Taiwan from proclaiming formal independence. Clearly, however, China's military goals go far beyond Taiwan. By Frank Ching for The New Straits Times, Kuala Lumpur

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