February 16, 2013

China muscles US in Pacific

WITHIN two decades the United States will be forced out of the western Pacific, says a senior Chinese military officer, amid concerns that increasingly militarised great-power rivalry could lead to war.

Senior Colonel Liu Mingfu, at the People's Liberation Army's National Defence University, told Fairfax Media this week that American strategic influence would be confined ''east of the Pacific midline'' as it is displaced by Chinese power throughout east Asia, including Australia.

Colonel Liu's interpretation of one facet of what the new Chinese leader, Xi Jinping, calls ''a new type of great-power relationship'' adds to the uncertainty and anxiety surrounding China's strategic ambitions.

It clashes with comments days earlier by his university colleague, General Zhu Chenghu, who told a conference in the US: ''We have no intention of driving the US out of east Asia or the western Pacific.''

Concern about China's strategic ambitions has grown since last year's Chinese occupation of islands administered by the Philippines in the South China Sea and, particularly, China's continuing brinkmanship with Japan and its security guarantor, the US, in the East China Sea.

Japanese leaders have accused China of locking weapons-guiding radars on Japanese targets - which China denies - while Western military sources say Chinese planes, ships and submarines have challenged Japanese-controlled waters and airspace around the Senkaku Islands.

Some security analysts say Australian political leaders are in public denial about the stakes involved and invidious choices the nation may have to face.

''It's the most dangerous strategic crisis that the US has faced - that the world has faced - since the end of the Cold War,'' said Hugh White, former deputy secretary of the Department of Defence.

China and Japan, he said, were drifting closer to a war that could draw in the US. ''This makes rather a nonsense of the mantra we hear both from Gillard and Abbott that 'we don't have to choose between the US and China','' he said.

An assertive, rising China has also triggered the formation of a regional latticework of new security linkages, partly pioneered by Australia and now championed by the new Japanese Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, who proposes a ''democratic security diamond'' involving India, the US and Australia.

Ely Ratner, a fellow at the Centre for a New American Security, said Australia should speak louder in favour of international laws, norms and institutions given its dependence on rules and institutions that enable the free flow of goods in east Asia.

As much as 57 per cent of Australian exports pass through sea lanes in the South China Sea, according to Australian government estimates.

''The overriding question is whether China is interested in a region based on rules and institutions that seek co-operative, non-coercive ways to deal with disagreements,'' said Mr Ratner, who previously worked at the China desk of the US State Department.

''Or is it going to deal with disagreements by using military, non-military and economic coercion, as we saw against the Philippines and Japan, and diplomatic coercion as we saw at the East Asia Summit,'' he said, referring to China's intervention at the summit to block discussion of maritime security issues.

Last month, James Fanell, intelligence chief for the US Pacific Fleet - which commands six aircraft carrier groups - told a San Diego conference that China's ''expansion into blue waters is largely about countering the Pacific Fleet''.

Even China's civilian maritime surveillance agency ''has no other mission but to harass other nations into submitting to China's expansive

claims,'' he said. Colonel Liu, who previously warned Australia not to support the Japanese ''wolf'' or American ''tiger'' in any military showdown, does not hold the rank of general or act as an official spokesman.

But his views have been taken more seriously since his fiercely nationalistic book The China Dream was allowed back onto the shelves after Mr Xi's elevation in November, when Mr Xi began talking about his own nationalistic ''China Dream''.

And they reflect a common assertion in some quarters of Beijing, and particularly the People's Liberation Army, that the Obama administration's ''pivot'' to Asia is an aberration in a story that will see the US Pacific Fleet eventually give up on its allies in the region.

But, said Robert Rubel, Dean of the US Naval War College's Centre for Naval Warfare Studies, China's military ambitions will face natural internal and external constraints as aggressive behaviour will cause its neighbours to rally together.

''Some guys here say they're xenophobic, they're hostile, and they're probably right, but if they're halfway rational there are limits to how much trouble they can cause without bringing their own house down,'' said Professor Rubel, who helped design the US National Maritime Strategy.