Clive Williams, in The Australian, 9 July 2021, where the title reads “Chinese Military Threat is Overstated”
Comments in May by a Beijing newspaper editor suggesting strategic missile strikes on Australian targets under some circumstances should not alarm Australians. They were made in response to comments coming out of Australia about supporting the US in any conflict over Taiwan, and in the context of the Chinese Communist Party’s 100th anniversary celebrations.
Such strikes – even if with conventional warheads – would only be conceivable in a major US-led conflict with China that included Australian forces, in which the US was conducting strikes against strategic targets in mainland China.
The primary role of the Chinese strategic missile force is to deter a US, or Russian, first strike on China. On paper, China’s People’s Liberation Army certainly looks impressive in terms of total numbers of active military personnel (2.18 million). China has the world’s largest military force and second-largest defence budget, although it is still only one third of the US defence budget.
Some analysts warn China has one of the fastest modernising militaries in the world – that it’s a budding military superpower. It has an impressive range of advanced military equipment, often developed through cyber-theft of other nations’ military research. (According to the US National Security Agency, China stole “many terabytes” of sensitive military information on the Joint Strike Fighter.)
And it has “purchased” foreign military technology that can be reverse-engineered for local production, including Australian-designed wave-piercing catamaran hulls for the Houbei class missile boat.
Despite its technology-poaching history, China is now capable of autonomously designing and producing advanced military items, and much more cheaply than its Western competitors. China’s cost-competitive military production has provided other benefits. China is now the world’s second largest arms exporter, after the US.
So, should Australia be concerned? The reality is China’s growth in military power projection capability could be undermined by the PLA’s competing responsibilities. China’s former leader Hu Jintao stated that the missions of the PLA (in order of importance) were: safeguarding the Chinese Communist Party, protection of China’s sovereignty and territorial integrity, safeguarding China’s national interests and contributing to world peace.
The PLA also suffers from some serious disadvantages beyond having to fulfil its stated missions. These include tight political control at all levels (weakening the military command structure), problems of retention of trained personnel, a growing pool of veterans to support, a lack of combat experience, senior officer corruption, vulnerable long-range power projection capabilities and a lack of military alliances.
Moreover, China’s leaders would be conscious China does not have an impressive martial tradition when it comes to warfighting against major powers; it remains to be seen whether this traditional lack of military prowess is still a limiting factor.
Geography is also not China’s friend. China is surrounded by countries that don’t like China, are “bought” friends, or simply don’t trust China. The first category includes Russia, Mongolia, Japan, South Korea, and Vietnam. The second includes the Philippines, Myanmar, Pakistan and Afghanistan. The third category is all of the neighbouring countries not already mentioned, including India and North Korea. Most have most of their trade with China so try to maintain an amicable bilateral working relationship.
China’s economy is vulnerable to disruption because of its reliance on external natural resources, such as crude oil and iron ore, that it can’t secure militarily and is unlikely to be able to secure, even with a larger military force and improved power projection capabilities. This is a good reason for China to continue to exploit “the rules-based global order” and avoid war.
It’s likely that China will not rely on military power to secure the resources it needs – but rather on money and its Belt and Road Initiative. It might also seek support from the wealthy and influential Chinese diaspora. An intimidatory option for China would be to mount a cyber-offensive against nations that are vulnerable to that kind of attack.
The PLA’s external deployment options are likely to remain limited. China so far has only one overseas military base, in Djibouti. (The US has nearly 800 in more than 70 countries and territories – despite the closure of hundreds of bases in Iraq and Afghanistan.)
China lacks the deployment capability to take back Taiwan by force, and any military preparations to do so would be obvious to US intelligence agencies. This would provide sufficient warning time for the US and its powerful northeast Asian allies, Japan and South Korea, to warn China off. (China’s leaders are no doubt cognisant of Sun Tzu’s dictum to use force only when you know you can win.)
However, China does have the capability to drive foreign naval surface vessels away from its coastline. To do that, if necessary, it has a credible capability with its US carrier-busting DF-26 anti-ship ballistic missile – with a range of more than 4000km – and other high-performance anti-ship missiles. China would, though, be concerned about the repercussions if it attacked US naval vessels.
What many of the “war drummers” overlook is that China cannot risk losing access to the world’s oceans because of its dependence on international trade. It is one of the main maritime trading nations in the world with the second-largest merchant fleet by deadweight tonnage (after Panama).
China’s South China Sea outposts are only useful militarily in providing local security for container ships and tankers transiting on their way to and from Chinese ports and Chinese fishing fleets. Their main other purpose is to assert China’s dubious maritime territorial claims.
China would obviously like to safeguard its iron ore supply but use of military force against Australia to do that would not be a practical option. China would be more likely to secure supply by buying a larger stake in mining companies or paying more for what it needs.
The most likely prospect for military conflict involving China is border wars over China’s territorial claims (such as the ones fought with Vietnam and India), and proxy wars fought elsewhere over natural resources or access to profitable arms markets.
Whether Australia needs to be involved militarily against China will depend on the circumstances. Localised incidents close to China are always possible when US-led military forces conduct what the PLA regards as provocative activities, like asserting legitimate rights-of-maritime-passage or entering China’s air space.
The Pentagon will continue to worst-case China’s military capability to support its claims for government funding in a competitive US fiscal environment. Australia should therefore rely on our own intelligence assessments of China’s military capabilities and intentions and consider our commitment options on a case-by-case basis – and that should not include any Australian military involvement over Taiwan. Thinking heretically, there will even be times when Australian military co-operation with China might be in our interest, such as in international peacekeeping, securing some maritime routes and acquiring China’s low-priced military technology.
251 COMMENTS by 9 July …. in Facebook
EMAIL COMMENT from Myrna Setunga in Colombo, 10 July 2021:
“Thanks for this Michael. I assume Williams is an Australian. Nothing much has changed in Australia’s attitude to China in the past 50 years. When I landed in Australia in 1970 the joke was that before going to bed all Australians “looked under the bed for a Red”. After my exposure to all types of “communist” thinking at Peradeniya I was amazed at the degree of ignorance of the average Australian.Their unfounded fear of China got me into trouble. I visited China with the Australia China Friendship Association in 1976 and as a result got labeled a communist. There was much belief in the Domino Theory. I doubt that the attitude of the average Australian has changed very much since then.”
A CLARIFICATION from Michael Roberts:
Myrna’s comment carries great weight because of her background. I have known her since Galle days in the 1950s … and Peradeniya Uni days thereafter. She is a dual citizen of SL and Australia and after several years in Australia in the 1970s joined an internaiotnal organisation and served in that field as a senior director in the Pacific Islands and Sierra Leone before returning to Sri Lanka as that organisation’s cChief of Staff. She has lived in retirement in Battaramulla for quite a while. From that base she launched herself into tsunami aid activity from 27th December 2004 … and has thereafter particpated in relief work in (A) the Mannar and Jaffna Peninsula areas; and (B) the IDP camps in the 2009-12 period. Just cite her name and+ “IDPs” + Thuppahi and you will spot items clarifying some aspects of her enterprise.
One minor correction: Clive Williams is of British background but domiciled in Australia and and a specialist in his field. He participated in a weekend conference on “Sacrificial Devotion to Cause” which I organised in Adelaide in late 2008 or so — a discussion that focused on what people would see as “international terrorism” involving Islamic jihadists, Tamil Tigers and other offshoots.
FROM Fair Dinkum in Australia
A. You don’t have to be a Communist to be a good friend of China [and] being a good friend of China doesn’t make you a threat to Australia. Only ignorant fools perpetuate this rhetoric. In the West, but especially in Australia, politics has corrupted our view of China, and sucked the humanity out of us. We need less politics. Australian media sources are not useful when it comes to China.
B. Clive Williams is free to express his opinion, but it doesn’t mean it is all true or relevant. Better to keep an open mind to other possibilities. I am not aware of CW’s connections with Sri Lanka, or his contributions to terrorism there (his name is not familiar to me as a Sri Lankan scholar); but has he looked into terrorism in Xinjiang, the root causes, and the reasons why the West deny it has occurred there… geopolitical reasons I suspect.
C. It is deeply significant that when New Zealand’s Prime Minister Jacinta Arden recently held a global terrorism conference with world leaders, we saw Macron and many others — mainly from “like-minded” Western nations, a notable country not invited was China — reinforcing the myth that terrorism only happens in “likeminded’ Western countries, usually by mad “Islamic” extremists. This tells us a great deal about Western thinking on terrorism – a mindset which Jacinta Arden should have avoided. Her conference was not truly global, but international and selectively so. [Again] the fact that China joined the US war on terror after 2001 has been forgotten.
D. And…. a notable omission among the items discussed was India’s right wing Modi’s subjugation of millions of Muslims in Kashmir, the removing of autonomy status from Kashmir and the fact that under Modi, it is not easy being a Muslim in India today — a country driven by Hindu extremism. Australia’s Prime Minister includes India in the “gathering of likeminded nations” in his war against China, but he seems ignorant of the fact that Modi is a life member of RSS — a movement founded on racial theories of Hitler and Mussolini, responsible for the assassination of Mahatma Gandhi — and this is the nation Scott Morrison says Australia shares the same values with …. [A viewpoint] that tells us how far Australia is going down the wrong track entirely.
E. This is not surprising because India does not encourage open public debate on the assassination of Gandhi and the RSS….
ADDENDUM: Bio Data re Dr. Clive Williams …………… Extracts from https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Clive_Williams_(professor)
Clive Owen Gestern Williams, MG …… (born 1 March 1945)[ is a British-born former Australian Army Military Intelligence officer, and academic with research interests in terrorism and counterterrorism, politically motivated violence, insurgency and counterinsurgency.
After leaving the Army, Williams pursued a civilian career in Australian Defence Intelligence, working mainly on transnational issues. He had a Chevening Scholarship at the War Studies Department, King’s College London in 1987. His last Defence appointment was Director of Security Intelligence with responsibility for running high-level security investigations. He left Defence in 2002.
Clive Williams has worked and lectured internationally on terrorism-related issues since 1980, and started running terrorism courses at the Australian National University (ANU) in 1996. Since leaving Defence in 2002, Williams has run terrorism and national security-related Masters course electives at the ANU and a number of Australian and overseas universities. This included a Masters course unit on Terrorism Law at the University of Sydney. He regularly conducts field work in his areas of research interest, including Afghanistan. He has been a Visiting Professor at the ANU College of Law’s Centre for Military and Security Law since January 2012.