The myth around Chinaâ€™s growing military supremacy | abc.net.au Monday 6 May 2013 5:59PM Antony Funnell If global military expenditure is anything to go by, this will be a century of khaki and camouflage. But Antony Funnell discovers the hyped threat of China's growth should be put into perspective. While its military expenditure is second to the US, the gap between the two nationsâ€™ spending (and technology) is enormous. There is a familiar Western narrative accompanying Chinaâ€™s military growth, which fixates on its rivalry with the United States. Western media often falls prey to portraying every Chinese military development as further proof of an imminent Sino threat to Americaâ€™s global hegemony. This was in evidence last week with the release of an Australian Government White Paper on Defence. â€˜We welcome Chinaâ€™s rise... the government does not approach China as an adversary,â€™ said Prime Minister Julia Gillard, trying to play down the Chinaâ€“US rivalry angle. But much of the coverage given to the White Paperâ€™s launch still centred on the idea of an impending global super-power conflict and whether Australia would eventually have to choose which side to support. It isnâ€™t just the media that likes to talk up the idea of USâ€“China competition. In 2009 the head of the United States Pacific Command, Admiral Robert Willard, told reporters in South Korea: â€˜I would contend that in the past decade or so, China has exceeded most of our intelligence estimates of their military capability and capacity every year. They've grown at an unprecedented rate in those capabilities.â€™ Twin fears are at the heart of the Chinaâ€“US rivalry narrative: fear of future global affairs being dominated by a giant totalitarian police state; and fear that the United States, for so long the self-styled protector of democratic freedoms in the world, is fast losing its strength. There are also, of course, those who simply like to talk down the USA and its power, either because they object to it, or because theyâ€™re part of a long tradition which the BBCâ€™s former Washington correspondent Nick Bryant calls American â€˜declinismâ€™â€”a fashion for constantly predicting the end is nigh. So, when the great floating airbase that is the carrier Liaoning manoeuvred for the cameras off Chinaâ€™s northeast coast in November 2012, its launch was immediately interpreted once again as a sign of Beijingâ€™s fast growing military rivalry with the United States. According to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, China spent US$166 billion on its military in 2012, equivalent to about 9.5 per cent of global military spending. In that same year the US spent US$682 billion, accounting for just under 40 per cent of total global expenditure. But the Liaoning is a perfect example of just how wrong the commentariat can be when it comes to the worldâ€™s most populous nation and its development. You see, the Liaoning isnâ€™t Chinaâ€™s latest full-length aircraft carrier, itâ€™s the countryâ€™s only aircraft carrier. And it isnâ€™t even new. The Liaoning is a refurbished ex-Soviet vessel first launched in 1988 and known variously in the past as the Riga and the Varyag. Once you account for that fact, the new pride of the Chinese fleet looks far less like a threat to American naval supremacy than an admission of just how dominant the US military remains. â€˜Not in the same leagueâ€™ is the way Dr Sam Perlo Freeman from the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute (SIPRI) describes Chinaâ€™s military strength and sophistication in relation to its US counterpart. Thatâ€™s not to deny that Chinaâ€™s military strength has been increasing dramatically. The latest figures released by SIPRI indicate that Beijing increased its military spending in 2012 by 7.8 per cent. But everything associated with modern Chinaâ€”from its economy to its level of homelessnessâ€”has been on a rapid rise over the past few decades. And any attempt to suggest that China will soon be on the verge of rivalling American military might seems fanciful once you examine SIPRIâ€™s country by country breakdown of global military expenditure. According to the Institute, China spent US$166 billion on its military in 2012, equivalent to about 9.5 per cent of global military spending. In isolation that sounds impressive enough, until you look at the corresponding expenditure figure for the United States. In that same year, the US spent US$682 billion, accounting for just under 40 per cent of total global expenditure. And while the Obama administration is now engaged in a series of budget cuts that will affect the size of the US military budget in coming years, itâ€™s worth pointing out that the US military has grown enormously in the last decade. In 2013 its budget is 69 per cent greater than it was in 2001 in real terms. In other words, while itâ€™s true that China is now second only to the United States in military expenditure, the gap between the two nationsâ€™ spending levels is enormous. â€˜The ratio may continue to go down but the US's overwhelming lead is not going to change in a hurry,â€™ says Dr Perlo Freeman. The difference between the capabilities of the armed forces of both nations is also significant. â€˜The United States has 11 aircraft carriers, fully fledged with full battle groups around them,â€™ Dr Perlo Freeman says. â€˜The Chinese have one which is largely a training platform decades behind in technology and they've just started building another. So again, the technological capability gap is closing, but it is considerably larger even than the military spending gap,â€™ he says. â€˜From China's point of view, they are not trying to match the United States, they know they can't any time in the next couple of decades, what they are perhaps aiming for is a situation where in the event of a localised conflict, for example over Taiwan, the US couldn't have it all its own way,â€™ says Dr Perlo Freeman. â€˜Theyâ€™re spending on things like anti access area denial capabilities that the United States are quite worried about that would prevent the US's overwhelming naval forces from operating freely in the area around China, around China's coasts and areas like the South and East China Sea.â€™ Writing in the prestigious journal Foreign Policy in early 2010, Drew Thompson, the director of China Studies at the Nixon Center, made a similar point: â€˜The PLA's global range is much more limited. As of last June, the United States had 285,773 active-duty personnel deployed around the world. But China operates no overseas bases and has only a handful of PLA personnel stationed abroad in embassies, on fellowships, and in UN peacekeeping operations.â€™ China might not have the global reach of the United States, and it might not be gearing up for a gladiatorial battle with the Americans anytime soon, but according to SIPRI, itâ€™s clear that the growth in the size and complexion of the Chinese military is having a significant effect on the Asia Pacific region. A point not lost on Australiaâ€™s Prime Minister Julia Gillard, who said in releasing her governmentâ€™s new Defence blueprint last week: â€˜We also recognise that Chinaâ€™s rise and its subsequent military modernisation is changing the strategic order of our region.â€™ According to SIPRIâ€™s latest research, military expenditure in Asia rose by 3.3 per cent in 2012 with most countries in the region increasing their military spending substantially. â€˜Perhaps the most worrying trend there is the China/Vietnam situation,â€™ says Dr Perlo Freeman, who expects expenditure levels to continue to rise. â€˜Vietnam's increases in military spending are very clearly directed towards China. They are spending a lot on major naval equipment. It is, if you like, a sort of asymmetric arms race between the two in the South China Sea.â€™ Rory Medcalf, the director of the International Security Program at the Lowy Institute for International Policy in Sydney, agrees that the Asian Century might not be all about peace and prosperity. Chinese aircraft carrier Liaoning IMAGE: CHINA'S FIRST AIRCRAFT CARRIER, A FORMER SOVIET CARRIER CALLED THE VARYAG. IT WAS RECOMMISSIONED THE LIOANING BY THE PEOPLE'S LIBERATION ARMY NAVY (PLAN) IN 2012 (AFP/GETTY IMAGES) â€˜There is a potential downside to the increasing economic weight and development of Asian powers and that's because now these countries can afford much bigger militaries,â€™ he says. â€˜These countries already have continuing strategic tensions and rivalries, and some of these tensions are actually worsening as these countries become more wealthy.â€™ And China is increasingly the focal point of much of the growing tension, he says. â€˜It's an unfortunate reality that most of the serious strategic flashpoints in Asia do have something to do with the rise of China,â€™ he says. â€˜They are around China's maritime periphery in particular. Really if you look everywhere from Korea down through the East China Sea, South China Sea, and even around to the Chinaâ€“India border, there is almost a ring of tension around China. I think there is a great degree of strategic mistrust between China and other powerful states in Asia.â€™ Mr Medcalf says fear of Chinaâ€™s future intentions in the greater Asian region is now manifesting itself in a series of new treaties between Chinaâ€™s neighbours and also between Asian nations and the United States. â€˜I do see a tendency of other countries to balance against Chinese power, to join forces in one way or another. This does not amount to formal alliances. We're not seeing NATO in Asia, where all sorts of countries band together in a grand alliance, committing to defend one another against a potential challenge from China. But we are seeing a more complex and sophisticated form of balancing. We are seeing countries strengthen their alliances with the United States one by one. So we're seeing the United States and India, we're seeing the United States and Singapore, the United States and Vietnam, for example, developing these relationships that are one or two steps short of an alliance.â€™ Last year, Barack Obama signalled a new direction for American foreign policyâ€”the so-called pivot to Asia. And according to retired US Lieutenant Colonel David Barno, defence relationships are already shaping up as a significant component of that â€˜pivotâ€™. To that end, he says, the draw-down of American troops in the Middle East is being counter-balanced by a military refocus on Asia. â€˜We're seeing the front end of that already,â€™ Lieutenent Colonel Barno says. He once headed Combined Forces Command Afghanistan and is now a senior Fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington. â€˜We're seeing the deployment of some additional littoral combat ships, the LCS as they're calledâ€”in Singapore we have three new US Navy ships based out there. We've seen the commitment now for Australia to host up to 2,500 US marines in Darwin on a rotational basis and there's a couple of hundred marines up there now.â€™ â€˜At the same time we still have 60,000 Americans fighting in Afghanistan, so there is still a very large conflict under way that is consuming a lot of American military manpower. So you can expect to see this shift in the Pacific play out over the next several years, not to abruptly arrive on scene on 1 January next year or any time near that.â€™ Hand in hand with a significant growth in world military expenditure over the past decade has been a corresponding increase in the global arms trade and once again, China and the greater Asian region are a significant focus. In 2012, China displaced Great Britain to become the fifth biggest supplier of arms in the world. Dr Paul Holtom, the director of the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute's Arms Transfers Program, says that traditionally the US, Russia, Germany, France and the UK comprised roughly three-quarters to 80% of the global arms trade, but in recent years China has emerged as a major player. â€˜What we've seen in recent years, and this comes out in the five-year period for 2008 to 2012, is a dramatic increase by China in terms of the volume of arms exports,â€™ Dr Holtom says. â€˜The last time we saw China in the top five was back at the end of the Cold War thanks to the Iran-Iraq war. And actually when one looks at all the major exporters, a large share of their exports are to Asian states.â€™ In fact, according to SIPRIâ€™s research, between 2008 and 2012 the Asian region accounted for almost half of the global imports of major conventional weapons, while over the same period the volume of Chinese arms exports rose by 162 per cent. However, Dr Holtom says it would be a mistake to read the growth of the Chinese arms industry in purely military terms. â€˜They see it in terms of building political relationships,â€™ he says. â€˜Also we believe that it's connected with gaining access to resources and markets as well, in commercial goods, and not purely military either.â€™ Overall the volume of international trade in major conventional weapons has grown by 17 per cent over the past decade and that escalation has led to increasing calls for greater regulation. In April of this year, the UN General Assembly adopted a resolution supporting an international treaty to regulate the global arms trade. One hundred and fifty-four nations supported the UN Arms Trade Treaty, with only North Korea, Iran and Syria voting against it. But even before the treaty is formally enacted, there are already doubts being expressed about how effective it can be. Dr Binoy Kampmark is among the doubters. Heâ€™s a specialist in law and international relations at RMIT University in Melbourne. He points out that while 154 nations supported the treaty, there were 22 abstentions during the UN vote. And chief among those abstaining were two of the worldâ€™s five major exportersâ€”China and Russia. â€˜If the major exporters are not included in the arrangements, then the treaty has no teeth,â€™ Dr Kampmark says. â€˜I might also point out that along with China and Russia, major exporters, we've got the other side of the coin, we've got major importers. India, for example, abstained as well.â€™ But Dr Kampmark also predicts that the US may also have difficulties ratifying the Arms Trade Treaty, even though the Obama administration supports it and United States officials voted yes during the April vote. â€˜The issue there is an issue that the United States has had with international treaties in its history,â€™ Dr Kampmark says. â€˜There always has been a groundswell of domestic opposition to various international treaties, and the trade treaty that has been passed in the General Assembly is no exception. There has been very vocal opposition in the Senate to this, and of course the Senate is the body that will ratify the treaty. It's fine for President Obama to be appending his signature to an agreement, but to make it part of US law and to make US citizens bound by it, there will need to be a formal ratification process in the Senate, and of course let us not forget that a very vocal group against the treaty is the National Rifle Association which sees this as curtailing or possibly curtailing the entitlement to bear weapons.â€™ Whether or not Dr Kampmark is correct in his analysis wonâ€™t be clear for at least a month or more. Fifty countries need to formally sign the UN Arms Trade Treaty before it can officially take effect. That process of ratification is due to get underway from 3rd June.