China: Not about to attack Australia

Author: Paul Dibb, ANU

The debate in Australia about the rise of China’s military power continues to rage. It is as if China is already knocking on our door and about to pose a direct threat to us.

But the reality is quite different.

While it is true that China is beginning to develop some significant elements of military power it will be a long time before it is a peer competitor of the US.

It is quite premature to advise that Australia should encourage the US to accommodate to the realities of Chinese power, as my colleague Hugh White insists. It is downright dangerous to suggest that Australia must develop the military capability to tear an arm off China, and even provoke revolt inside China, as Ross Babbage argues. It is also incorrect, as Greg Sheridan would have us believe, that historically no country has ever developed a navy the size of China’s without going to war.

Let us look at how long it has taken China to develop what are, in fact, rather modest military capabilities. Since its first nuclear explosion in 1964, Beijing has struggled to develop a minimum nuclear deterrent force. Unlike the US and Russia, it has no credible nuclear war-fighting capability.

China’s land-based intercontinental ballistic missile (ICBM) force was, until quite recently, vulnerable to a disarming first strike. It has about 66 ICBMs, some of which are solid fuelled and road-mobile and therefore more difficult to target. Only about 24 of these ICBMs are truly intercontinental in range and China’s only ballistic missile-firing submarine has no experience in attacking long-range, covert patrols.

By comparison, the US has the world’s most advanced nuclear war-fighting capabilities. Compared with China’s 200 nuclear warheads, the US has 2,150 operational strategic nuclear warheads together with 2,850 warheads in reserve that are relatively quickly deployable.

It is true that China is modernising its force and we should expect it in the next few years to deploy more ICBMs capable of targeting the US. It has one new JIN-class nuclear submarine that has entered service. However, its associated JL-2 ballistic missile has encountered difficulty, failing several final test flights.

What about China’s much vaunted navy and its ability to project serious military power in our part of the world?

According to the Pentagon, the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) has only a limited capacity to communicate with submarines at sea, and the Chinese navy has no experience in managing a ballistic missile submarine fleet that performs long-range patrols with live nuclear warheads mated to missiles. China’s land-based mobile missiles may also face similar command and control challenges in wartime.

There is no doubt that Beijing is developing the capacity to make life very difficult for US naval forces operating in the approaches to China, including defending Taiwan. It is also developing a ballistic missile capable of targeting US aircraft carriers. But China’s real-time tracking radars and intelligence satellites are highly vulnerable and the US has the capability, with prompt global conventional strikes, to seriously damage China’s command and control.

As to China’s navy, it is weak in both anti-submarine warfare (ASW) and anti-air warfare. Chinese ASW capabilities, while slowly improving, are not able to provide a reasonable degree of security in open waters. Chinese attack submarines possess little ASW capability, which is the primary mission of the US attack submarine force.

The Chinese navy remains untested in modern combat and has no experience of operating in a joint battle environment. According to the Pentagon, China’s ability to sustain military power at a distance remains limited. And it is unlikely China will be able to project and sustain large forces in high-intensity combat operations far from China until well into the 2020s.

As to the claim that historically no country has developed a navy the size of China’s without using it in armed conflict, the Soviet Union had an infinitely larger and more capable navy than that of China and it never once fired a shot in anger.

China has 68 tactical submarines (28 of which are obsolete) whereas the USSR had 280 at the height of its military power. China has 78 principal surface combatants in its navy compared with 264 for the former Soviet Union. The Pentagon classifies only 25 per cent of China’s naval surface combatants (and fighter aircraft) as modern.

Many of China’s most advanced weapons are still based heavily on foreign designs (mostly Russian) copied through reverse engineering. This highlights a persistent weakness in China’s capability for innovation and a reliance on foreign suppliers for some propulsion units, fire control systems, cruise missiles, torpedoes, sensors and advanced electronics.

By all means we need to keep a close eye on the development of China’s military forces. China is undoubtedly an ambitious power seeking to claim its historical place in the sun.

But let’s not succumb to the fatal assumption that China’s rise will be a simple straight-line extrapolation.

China is a power with very substantial weaknesses. It has been described as a fragile superpower. Some experts argue the most potent threats to the communist leadership lie within China and that political survival is as important as national survival abroad.

As John Lee from the Centre for Independent Studies argues, relatively little attention in Australian foreign and security policy circles is given to the consequences of a Chinese economy with deep structural problems and a society suffering profound governance and social deficiencies.

Let us not frighten ourselves to death by drumming up the next military threat to Australia and basing our defence policy on the likelihood that we are going to be attacked by China.

Paul Dibb is Emeritus Professor of Strategic Studies at The Australian National University.

An earlier version of this piece was published here in The Australian.