Sunday, 23 November 2008

Is China's military rise a real concern?

The lead editorial piece in Friday's FT concerned China's desire to have an aircraft carrier or two. At a time when the global economy is collapsing this is remarkable.

So what it the big deal? Inevitably Taiwan gets a mention but China has never had expansionist desires. Simply maintaining its current boarders is ambition enough.

The stakes are high but China has its own domestic worries to think about before other nations need worry to much.

China's rise rattles foreign nerves [FT]

In an intriguing FT interview, a senior member of China's defence ministry spoke openly about Beijing's "dream" of possessing an aircraft carrier - or two. Maj Gen Qian Lihua said: "The navy of any great power . . . has the dream to have one or more aircraft carriers. The question is not whether you have an aircraft carrier, but what you do with your aircraft carrier."

Quite. China's rise - it prefers the term "development" - promises to be perhaps the greatest event of our time. A prosperous China would immeasurably improve the lives of more than a billion people.

But the history of great nations rising is not a happy one. China's experience with Japan, another neighbour with global pretensions, showed that all too clearly. China's recent history suggests it is more interested in maintaining the borders established during the 1644-1911 Qing dynasty than in expanding further. But Beijing's neighbours are, not unreasonably, nervous about the military clout of an ambitious one-party state

China has, after all, threatened to go to war if Taiwan declares independence. In the second half of the 20th century its troops clashed with those of India, the Soviet Union and Vietnam. The secrecy surrounding Beijing's military spending provokes concern. The situation is made more delicate by several unresolved territorial disputes over islands and maritime boundaries. A fragile peace is kept by the US. But if Tokyo doubted for one second Washington's resolve to come to its defence, it would go nuclear, triggering a regional arms race.

The stakes are, therefore, extremely high. In principle, there is nothing wrong with China - a member of almost every important international organisation - developing a modern military. If that includes an aircraft carrier, so be it.

But it is incumbent on Beijing to build up its forces in a manner that does not make others jumpy. That means an honest account of how much it is spending and on what. It also means not pandering to nationalist rhetoric at home, and cementing better relations with neighbours through military exchanges and cool-headed diplomacy. In this respect, the recent thawing of relations with Tokyo is welcome.

The clearest safeguard of all is one Beijing cannot yet meet. Many Americans opposed the invasion of Iraq. Now, belatedly, voters have rejected the party that led them to war and elected a president promising an early withdrawal. China does not yet have that safety valve. Until it does, it is only natural that its military rise should prompt international jitters.


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