What now for China’s ambitions? Watch this space

By Rosemary Righter (THE TIMES, 22/01/07):

China’s generals have not just blown to bits a satellite. They have made China’s diplomats look like fools or knaves. The Foreign Ministry, which put huge effort last year into promulgating President Hu Jintao’s “peaceful rise” slogan, is not amused.

That charm offensive was designed to convince the world that China would be a reliable international player, and to allay concerns about its massive and fast accelerating military build-up. After this unannounced and highly provocative test, “peaceful rise” will sound more like a euphemism for “get out of my way” — above all in the US, whose spy satellites the Chinese have none too subtly shown to be vulnerable.

Beijing’s official silence about China’s startling breach of space etiquette may be due to a furious row between the defence and foreign policy establishments. Not for the first time the People’s Liberation Army has publicly demonstrated that the generals do not give a damn for diplomatic niceties. The truth that China would prefer to pass unnoticed is that they do not need to.

Mao is dead and his ideology is irrelevant to most Chinese; but many aspects of his tyrannical legacy endure, not least the Communist Party’s insistence on the untrammelled monopoly of power. To maintain that grip, it relies heavily on the military; whatever the apparent sophistication and greater openness of modern China, Mao’s dictum that “power grows out of the barrel of the gun” still holds good.

The militarisation of China goes deep. The 1911 revolution that established the republic was ignited by the military, not politicians. You still cannot do anything in China without the PLA, and swelling domestic discontent over extreme social inequality and rampant official corruption has made the military more, not less, critical, to the survival of the party leadership.

Mr Hu’s pledge last month to build the Chinese Navy, hitherto its weak link, into a powerful force prepared for “military struggles . . . at any time” was at least in part a pitch to shore up his credentials. What the PLA wants, it tends to get. To ask whether last week’s test was a “political” gesture is to miss the point.

What, then, do China’s generals want, and could this vast nation’s pursuit of global power one day bring it into conflict with its neighbours and their ultimate protector, the United States? Optimists point to China’s strong interest, as one of the great gainers from a globalised economy, in the peaceable management of international relations. Since the 1990s Beijing has smoked peace pipes with some diligence, resolving or at least discussing most of its border disputes with its neighbours, including Russia, and treading carefully in its dealings with the US and, recently, Japan.

Yet, as Russia’s use of its energy weapon is reminding Europeans, supposedly responsible powers can behave pretty badly, and over Darfur, Iran and Burma, China has already demonstrated just how unscrupulous it can be when the international good conflicts with its narrower interests. For oil, and probably in the future for water, China would offer the Devil himself a banquet. China sweetly calls its military co-operation agreements, ranging from Burma and Pakistan to deep into Central Asia, a “string of pearls”, but their purpose is to project Chinese power right to the gates of the Gulf.

Just as hunger for raw materials accelerated military adventurism in Japan, so China could ultimately resort to force to secure its needs. China’s emergence as the world’s factory has generally been beneficial, but that does not mean that its decade-long drive to develop a world-class military should be viewed with complacency.

Strategists look not at intent, because intent can change, but at capabilities. China is notoriously secretive about these. Its published military budget excludes R&D, many weapons purchases, PLA industries and above all its space programme, the key to competing in high-tech warfare. Analysts reckon that spending is up to three times the official figure of $35 billion, and could reach $200 billion by 2020. But some things cannot be entirely hidden, notably China’s international purchases. Its contracts with Russia alone are worth more than $2 billion a year, including guided-missile destroyers and eight Kilo Class nuclear submarines equipped with 5000-mile range missiles — big steps towards its goal of building a blue-water navy. China’s own strength is missile technology. It not only has 830 missiles aimed at Taiwan, but has or is developing ground-launched cruise missiles and three strategic missile systems, including the 8,000-mile road-mobile Dongfeng-31A able to reach the US.

China’s ambitions avowedly go beyond the “recovery” of Taiwan, to “winning informationised wars by the mid-21st century”. It seeks, in other words, parity with the US. It has a long march ahead. China’s soldiery remains mostly ill-equipped, underpaid, and, with 2.3 million under arms, far too numerous for across-the-board modernisation.

These weaknesses give the clue to last week’s test. The Chinese, intent on a short cut, realise that they could blunt America’s technical edge by putting out its all-important satellite “eyes”. Beijing officials already describe the US alliance with Japan as “a long-term threat to China’s security”. As China’s power grows, so will its determination to make Asia’s seas its mare nostrum, where the Japanese are kept down and the US squeezed out. And yet: Chinese society is changing even faster than its military capabilities. Before it can dictate terms, China may just possibly be a democracy. That, and only that, would make “peaceful rise” a safer bet than it looks today.