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UPDATED: May 24, 2009 NO. 21 MAY 28, 2009
Playing Up the 'China Threat'
Australia's recent defense white paper paints China as a growing threat

The white paper discussed several principles relevant to China.

The first is respecting the one-China policy, but requiring China to maintain military transparency. Although the white paper reiterated support for the one-China policy, it said China's military enlargement has gone beyond what is needed to protect its sovereignty. The white paper even went so far as to say that China's actions may cause its neighbors to worry, if it fails to reveal the process of its military modernization clearly enough.

The second is considering China's military development as both a natural result and a security threat. The white paper predicts that China will eventually be the strongest military power in Asia. It also recognizes that it is natural for China to develop military force that matches its national power and global influence. In the meantime, the white paper says, China's strategic and political strength will grow along with its economic strength, challenging and then ending American dominance in the Asia-Pacific region.

Generally speaking, Australia has adopted its cautious approach toward China based on several considerations.

The first is the upcoming federal election. In spite of the global financial crisis, Rudd has won his people's hearts with active fiscal and currency policies, earning him the highest approval ratings of any first-year Australian prime minister. If he wants to hold onto power after the next parliamentary election, which could take place as early as next summer, his administration must be tough with China to demonstrate that it will put Australia's national interests first.

The second is the need to develop military force commensurate with Australia's status as a "middle power." In recent years, competition in the Asia-Pacific region has grown fierce. Australia has to strengthen its military power to protect its existing interests and maintain its middle-power status. Criticizing growing powers like China as a threat to regional security gives Australia a convenient excuse to increase its military force. Australia's defense goal is to develop the country into one whose military power is not equal to those of regional big powers with nuclear weapons, but exceeds all other middle powers.

The third is the need to show loyalty to the United States. Rudd faces a challenge in balancing his country's relationships with the United States and China. Nowadays, Sino-Australian economic ties have strengthened and China is crucial to Australia's regional and global influence. However, its relationship with the United States remains at the top of Australia's diplomatic agenda. Australia has pledged on public occasions and validated in its actions that it will not develop the Sino-Australian relationship at the expense of its relations with the United States. In its new defense white paper, Australia continues the American tradition of spreading the "China threat" theory.

Disputed white paper

Although the defense white paper considers China's growth a threat, it also acknowledges the need for China to maintain its sovereignty and develop its military strength. Australia's military expansion plan is designed to guarantee the country's strategic position in the region and help its U.S. ally patrol its backyard. But critics in Australia and China have derided the white paper as contradictory and impractical.

Rudd and Defense Minister Joel Fitzgibbon have both said that the white paper is not targeting China, but aims to address the changes in international power distribution. However, it has drawn criticism at home and stoked public worries about China. Australian scholars say that the white paper is a reaction to China's "blue navy" plan, and represents a victory for hawkish forces inside the Ministry of Defense. Australian intelligence regards China's military expansion as merely a defensive reaction to Washington's presence in the Asia-Pacific region. Even the Australian opposition says that conflicts between China and Australia are not necessarily inevitable. China also questioned the Rudd administration's "China threat" theory, saying that the ties between Beijing and Canberra are not strong enough to endure the tension caused by Australia's shifting defense policy.

Although it is intended to show loyalty to the United States, the white paper does not meet with the Obama administration's expectations for Australia. The United States has clearly expressed that it expects Australia to provide support to U.S.-led cross-border antiterror operations in Pakistan and Afghanistan, instead of offering help to the United States in a fantasy war with China and Russia. Besides, Washington has recognized that China is a leading power and expressed a desire to eliminate military tension and work together to address common threats, especially in this period of economic difficulty.

Australia's military expansion plan also faces crises of capital and public support. The plan will cost tens of billions of dollars, which is the largest investment in the country's history. If the economic environment does not improve, Australian voters will find it hard to accept increased military spending. Over the past 20 years, military spending has averaged only 1.8 percent of the country's gross domestic product, and never exceeded 2.6 percent.

The author is with the Institute of Asian and African Studies, China Institutes of Contemporary International Relations

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