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The Beijing bogeyman

By Tim Pascoe - posted Monday, 14 October 2013

By forcing President Obama to withdraw from this year's APEC and East Asia Summits and cancel visits to Malaysia and the Philippines, House Republicans have supposedly undermined efforts to place Asia at the heart of US foreign policy. An outcome that Beijing is apparently exploiting, according to the New York Times: "China, with its expansionist impulses, is a clear beneficiary of a distracted United States."

It appears that China has emerged as the world's new bogeyman. The 'Middle Kingdom' has been accused of everything from belligerent militarism to persistent trade manipulation. Australia's 2009 Defence White Paper unashamedly identified China as the nation's largest strategic threat, while during the 2012 US election campaign both candidates promised to be "tough on China", backhandedly accusing the country of currency manipulation while ignoring the Federal Reserve's policy of quantitative easing.

Since the 2008 US commitment to opaque negotiations, the ambitious Trans-Pacific Partnership is increasingly looking like an agreement to challenge Beijing's economic ascendency in East Asia. Moreover, there have been whispers that the US Government has encouraged Microsoft to sue businesses that employ Chinese manufacturers reliant upon pirated software for operations. If the rumours are true, when combined with the suspicion of even Chinese private businesses, the Huawei lockout of US and Australian telecommunications programs due to "security concerns", and the largely over-stated cyber espionage and intellectual property threat associated with operating in China, it is understandable why many in China fear an economic iron curtain.


Commentators have largely bought into the myth of the Beijing bogeyman, with the expectation of malign intent underscoring far too many articles assessing Beijing's ascension or foreign policy goals. Generally the bogeyman is couched in value-laden language with a wink and a nudge, reliant on the reader's prejudice to fill in the gaps, as Roney demonstrates; "Xi called for closer ties with the ASEAN; ties are one thing but being able to keep island disputes off the docket could affect the entire region."

US military officials have also exaggerated the Chinese threat, claiming that the country has become a bully with ambitions to sink American naval ships. Indeed, Rear Admiral Michael McDevitt recently assertedthat China assumes the right to pre-emptively attack if its sovereignty is diplomatically challenged. Meanwhile, the US military has held joint exercises with regional powers simulating incursions on Chinese territories and operations within the first-island chain. Indeed, the strategic pivot is characterised by the accumulation of alliances and military forces clearly directed against China. With allies in the chain-gang emboldened by the US to confront China and publicly vilify its presumed strategic posture.

However, the strategic pivot and attendant methodical vilification of China is responsible for producing greater regional instability and a more confrontational China. Beijing's veneer of assertiveness belies an insecure ruling party that has sustained popular legitimacy by appeasing an increasingly nationalist public. In 2010, following the Japanese arrest of a Chinese fishing crew in the waters off the disputed Senkaku/Diaoyu islands, unauthorised demonstrations occurred in front of the Japanese embassy and the Chinese Foreign Ministry buildings in Beijing. Popular with the protestors were placards venerating Chairman Mao, reflecting the belief that the regime was not responding strongly enough to the crisis. As such sentiment arose, Chinese leaders, concerned for the party's public standing and fearful of popular unrest, accommodated nationalists with increasingly assertive rhetoric.

Recently Beijing has toned down the rhetoric, stressing a preference for a peaceful resolution for territorial disputes. Xi Jingping speakingto the Indonesian House of Representatives signalled China's willingness to "strengthen maritime coordination and fully utilise the China-ASEAN Maritime Cooperation Fund." In response to these positive declarations, the US, Japan and Australia released a joint statementopposing "coercive unilateral actions" in territorial disputes, as part of a thinly veiled criticism directed squarely at Beijing, intended to inflame regional sentiment against the Middle Kingdom. The willingness of the US to utilise maritime issues to demonise China undermines the potential for cooperation and the achievement of a lasting resolution. As Chinese Foreign Ministry spokeswoman, Hua Chunying, reasonably retorted: "We urge the relevant countries to respect facts, distinguish right from wrong, be cautious, and stop all words and deeds that are not beneficial to the proper handling of the issue and undermine regional stability." The dance continues.

As Washington dismisses China's legitimate security interests, challenges China's sovereignty claims, and rallies other nations to confront China, the US unintentionally vindicates Chinese nationalist paranoia and forces Beijing to adopt belligerent reactionary foreign policies as security guarantors.

Of particular concern is the highly touted Air-Sea Battle concept, as it places the strategic rivalry between China and the US in the stark language of conflict planning. The concept was developed in response to China's anti-access area-denial strategy, which is a primarily defensive approach that seeks to employ standoff and asymmetrical assets to limit an adversary's ability to operate within a defined area. Indeed, area denial seems to align with the "Great Wall" mythology of a defensive Chinese strategic culture. While the Air-Sea Battle concept assumes the right of the US military to operate in China's backyard and seeks to maintain the integrity of US power projection capabilities. The Centre for Strategic and Budgetary Assessmentsprovides a detailed account of how an Air-Sea Battle campaign against China would unfold. In short it advocates for unrestricted warfare and the overwhelming application of force against the Chinese mainland to degrade Beijing's ability to target and attack US and allied forces seeking to operate within the first island chain.


It is expected that over the next few decades Chinese and US security organisations will line up against one another. This is a natural response eliciting tactical alterations to respond to a potential adversary. The US Air Force's recent mission statementmade obvious that it is taking into account Chinese military capabilities and adjusting operational tactics accordingly. However, the problem with Air-Sea Battle is that it demands a disproportionate offensive military response to an area-denial strategy and is therefore inherently escalatory and risks turning localised disputes into nuclear confrontations.

The China bogeyman is predicated on a belligerent rising giant, likely to dominate its smaller neighbours and assume control of the region unless kept in check by the region's democracies. This represents a fundamental strategic misinterpretation. Taiwan's 2013 National Defence Report asserts that China will have the capability to forcibly reunite the island with the mainland by 2020, claiming thatChina is building up its "combat capabilities to a level where it could launch an all-out attack on Taiwan." The report interprets China's anti-access area-denial as a means to deter third parties from intervening in a Chinese invasion of Taiwan, demonstrating that the concept of threat is based on perspective, and perspective is inherently subjective.

If Beijing did have such expansionist intent then perhaps Air-Sea Battle would be legitimate, however a simple audit of Chinese military capabilities and ambitions reveal that this is simply not the case.

The US and its allies in the Asia Pacific far outgun China and their strategic posturing and fear mongering belies reality. According to analyst Larry Wortzel, Japan maintains the strongest navy and air force in Asia except for the US, while South Korea has a formidable high-tech military and India a notable naval force. The balance of power in the region heavily favours the US and its allies. Far from being a global pariah, Beijing is participating in the global community more productively than ever before and has a vested interest in maintaining regional stability and prosperity.

By clearly identifying China as a potential adversary and devising a distinct conflict strategy that would strike the Chinese mainland with overwhelming force, the candid discussion of Air-Sea Battle contributes to regional instability and greater strategic distrust. Recognising its position of relative conventional weakness Air-Sea Battle may perversely encourage Beijing to consider pre-emptive strikes in the event of a localised crisis.

Since World War Two the stabilising influence of the US has been critical to underwriting Asian prosperity and security. A sustained US influence in the region is an inherently valuable thing, promoting democracy, human rights, liberal economic practices and transparency. However, the strategic pivot clouds pragmatic and fair assessments of regional disputes: instead of resuming the historical role of reasonable third party Washington has become a primary antagonist. If the US wants to continue its important role in ensuring stability and prosperity in the Asia-Pacific it must end the pervasive and acceptable practice of China-bashing and recognise that it is largely responsible for promoting strategic distrust.

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About the Author

Tim Pascoe is currently completing a Master of International Law and International Relations at UNSW.

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