Major figures are making provocative public statements which appear to be demonstrably wrong, increasing the possibility of conflict in Asia. But who is pointing this out and setting the record straight? Sadly, the media isn’t, laments Richard Cullen.
THE RECENT ASIAN Security Summit in Singapore convened by the International Institute for Strategic Affairs – also known as the Shangri La Dialogue – was notable on a number of levels.
POLITICIZING A PANDEMIC
Most significant from an Australian perspective, it was the first SINO-Australian Ministerial meeting since Canberra – Beijing relations moved into ultra-deep-freeze mode around April 2020. That was when, as the Guardian reported, Canberra called for the WHO to recruit independent sleuths akin to “weapons inspectors” to be sent to China to determine the source of the Covid-19 pandemic. This call meshed well with President Trump’s project to divert attention from his exceptionally dismal handling of the pandemic.
Who else, apart from Mr Trump, benefitted from this megaphone politicising of an extraordinary health emergency? It’s hard to tell. Australia certainly did not, unless making Beijing predictably hopping mad in the middle of a grave health crisis is counted as a win.
In Singapore, Australia’s new Defence Minister, Richard Marles had a one-on-one meeting with his Chinese counterpart, General Wei Fenghe. This meeting was widely seen as a positive step which could lead to a winding back of the geopolitical tension between Australia and China. Mr Marles himself aptly stressed the constructive nature of the meeting.
However, he then advanced a claim that, “China’s military build-up is now the largest and most ambitious we have seen by any country since the end of the second world war.” This alarming claim was very widely reported, not just in Australia but around the world.
LOOKING AT THE FACTS
Let’s think about this for a moment.
America has been spending massively on its military build-up ever since the end of the Second World War. And it is still massively outspending everyone else.
China’s current estimated annual military spending is approximately US$300 billion US estimated military spending is around US$900 billion – about three times higher. The US spends more on national defence than next nine countries combined – and has been doing so for decades.
The US has over 750 offshore bases in 80 different countries, including Australia, staffed by over 170,000 uniformed personnel. As of June 2022, there were 47 active aircraft carriers in the world operated by 14 navies.
The US Navy has 11 large nuclear-powered fleet vessels carrying around 80 fighters each. These are the largest carriers in the world with a total combined deck space that is over twice that of all other nations combined.
China currently has a single overseas military base and two conventionally powered aircraft carriers, with a third on the way.
The claim made by Mr Marles displays a startling absence of comparative fact-based credibility.
Next consider the US military personnel in East Asia, surrounding China: Japan – 120 Bases – 53,000 US uniformed personnel; South Korea – 73 Bases – 26,000 uniformed personnel; and Guam – 54 Bases – 6,000 Uniformed Personnel. The US Seventh Fleet is headquartered at Yokosuka, in Japan. It is currently the largest of the forward-deployed US. fleets, with 50 to 70 ships, 150 aircraft and 27,000 Sailors and Marines.
ABSENCE OF CREDIBILITY
One way to get a better grip on how all this firepower adds up is to imagine having say 70,000 Chinese PLA Personnel stationed – fully-armed and equipped – across Latin America within easy flying distance of the US West and East coasts and the Caribbean.
How on earth could China’s military build-up since 1945 possibly compete with this spectacular US performance? The claim made by Mr Marles displays a startling absence of comparative fact-based credibility.
Mr Marles also stressed the value of China displaying transparency about its military development. A fair point to make. But he might usefully consult the Australian citizen, Julian Assange (likely soon set for transfer from the UK to the US for trial under the Espionage Act) about the US attitude to transparency with respect to American military activities.
US POLICY CHANGES ON TAIWAN
Lloyd Austin the US Defence Secretary also made a try, in Singapore, at casting China as a primary military villain when he argued that, “[O]ur policy hasn’t changed [in relation to Taiwan]. But unfortunately, that doesn’t seem to be true for the PRC.”
So, US policy hasn’t changed on Taiwan?
About a month before Mr Austin advanced this claim in Singapore, the Japan Times reported that: “The United States State Department has made a major change in its “fact sheet” on Taiwan, removing reference to the island nation being a part of China and elevating its status.”
At about the same time, the Daily Mail in the UK reported that: “The State Department has given its Taiwan summary on its website a massive overhaul amid heightened threats of invasion from Beijing. Among other upgrades that depict a much stronger U.S.-Taiwan relationship, the State Department removed a portion of the summary declaring that Taiwan is a part of China.”
WATCHDOGS’ REMARKABLE FAILURE
Each of the disingenuous statements made by these defence supremos was consciously phrased to create tangible apprehension. We are left to wonder if the slapdash gist of these enthusiastic claims is primarily the product of hasty presentation or something more considered and menacing.
Ominously, the shaky veracity of what was argued by these senior political figures appears to have escaped any serious challenge from within the large media contingent present in Singapore. Some watchdog.
Richard Cullen is a professor of law at Hong Kong University and a popular writer on current affairs.
This report also appears in P&I, the Australian public policy journal which can be found at www.johnmenadue.com. Image at the top by Maxim Ilyahov/ Unsplash