• Sun. Mar 19th, 2023

China prepares great wall of steel after Australia’s AUKUS submarine deal

ByGurinderbir Singh

Mar 19, 2023

China is angry that Australia’s building eight submarines. Meanwhile it’s busily expanding its own fleet to 70.

It’s part of what Chairman Xi Jinping this week declared will be a “Great Wall of Steel”. And neighbouring countries are increasingly worried they’ll get trapped behind it.

In the first speech of his new presidential term, Xi on Monday vocalised a new mantra.

Be calm, keep determined, seek progress and stability, be proactive and achieve things, unite (under the banner of the party), and dare to fight.

He went on to insist it was necessary to “build the people’s army into a great wall of steel that effectively safeguards national sovereignty, security and development interests”.

“[China must] resolutely oppose interference by external forces and Taiwan independence separatist activities, and unswervingly promote the process of reunification of the motherland,” he told his hand-picked delegates at the Chinese Communist Party’s (CCP) National People’s Congress.

“The Chinese people have become the masters of their own destiny. The great rejuvenation of the Chinese nation has entered an irreversible historical process.”

Just days later, his propagandists were accusing Australia of “threatening” behaviour.

“The newly announced [submarine] program is threatening, as the Asia-Pacific region will see a sharp increase in nuclear-powered submarine presence with Australia being used as a US and UK forward deployment base and more boats being built,” one unnamed Communist Party expert reportedly said.

“To safeguard its sovereignty, security and development interests from these threats, China should build a multidimensional anti-submarine system,” another commentator added.

But Beijing has already been doing this for at least the past two decades.

And it’s part of a massive military expansion that has triggered an arms race throughout South-East Asia.

‘Do as I say, not as I do’

“Brace for a wave of Chinese official criticism of AUKUS, and Chinese efforts to stir up South-East Asia. Remember that China’s nuclear-powered – and in some cases nuclear-armed – submarine fleet is already active across South-East Asian waters,” Rory Medcalf tweeted the day of the AUKUS announcement.

China’s Foreign Ministry spokesman Wang Wenbin was the first to take up the baton.

On Tuesday, he proclaimed the US, Australia, and the UK were travelling “further down the wrong and dangerous path for their own geopolitical self-interest, completely ignoring the concerns of the international community”.

AUKUS was the revival of “a Cold War mentality which will only motivate an arms race, damage the international nuclear nonproliferation regime, and harm regional stability and peace,” Mr Wang told the daily briefing.

China’s Communist Party mouthpiece Global Times editorialised that the cost of the project would turn Australia into a “haunted house”. Its analysts warned: “It would be deeply disappointing if the logic of Cold War thinking and bloc politics hinders the hard-won atmosphere for expanding bilateral co-operation between China and Australia.”

Meanwhile, Beijing continues to expand its own nuclear and conventional submarine force.

The US Office of Naval Intelligence (ONI) reported China’s nuclear-powered attack submarine (SSN) fleet grew from six in 2010 to nine in 2022. In a recent report to Congress, it said that total is expected to grow by another four by 2030.

“China’s submarine force continues to grow at a low rate, though with substantially more-capable submarines replacing older units,” ONI states. “Current expansion at submarine production yards could allow higher future production numbers.”

China’s conventional diesel-electric submarine force, meanwhile, is expected to remain consistent at about 55 boats.

Fighting words

The Chinese President’s belligerence encapsulated the tone set during the legislature’s session. New premier Li Qiang rejected what he called attempts to isolate and contain China.

“China and the US can and must co-operate. Encirclement and suppression are in no one’s interest,” he said.

Foreign Minister Qin Gang warned of possible “conflict and confrontation” if the US didn’t change its attitudes towards Taiwan, Hong Kong, Xinjiang and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

“This mentality is dangerous, not only for international relations but also if China is to have any chance of solving its domestic issues,” says Foreign Policy analyst James Palmer. “Even hinting at disagreement with Xi has become a political disaster. That has worsened the already hyperbolic CCP official language. The only entity left to blame when things have gone too wrong to cover up – such as the economy – is the United States.”

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) delegates attending the congress went so far as to call for the drafting of war emergency legislation to give the military greater control over the civilian economy during a crisis.

“Taking our wartime needs into account, [we should] begin studying wartime legislation in a timely and systematic manner,” one PLA deputy told the Legislative Assembly.

According to the South China Morning Post, the commander of China’s Shandong Provincial Military District called for the “introduction of laws such as the mobilisation of reserve forces”.

Another former theatre commander said Beijing should improve “the rationality and legitimacy” of China’s international actions by studying international laws.

“The tasks of national defence and military construction in the new era, especially preparations for military struggles, have become more critical and urgent, so there are these calls to establish and improve the country’s wartime legal system,” military lawyer Xie Dan is quoted as saying.

“The most urgent need for wartime legislation at present is to adapt to the needs of hi-tech warfare, and further strengthen mobilisation of reserve forces, requisitioning of strategic resources, and integration of military and civilian development.”

Where the steel wall falls

When the former Soviet Union dropped its “Iron Curtain”, it did so over Poland, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Albania and half of Germany.

Now nations ranging from Japan and South Korea to the Philippines and Indonesia are becoming increasingly wary of Beijing’s designs over the “First Island Chain” of which they form a large part.

Japan has boosted its defence budget by some 23 per cent to a record post-war figure of about $A78 billion. South Korea President Yoon Suk-yeol has also announced an increase in spending but most significantly agreed to end hostility towards Japan over the conduct of its occupational troops during World War II. This paves the way towards improved military co-operation between the two East China Sea nations.

The Philippines has adopted a new tactic in dealing with hostile Chinese coast guard and fishing militia vessels. It’s going public and filing formal complaints over dozens of aggressive incidents to highlight the gulf between Beijing’s words and its actions. And Philippines President Ferdinand Marcos Jr has moved to strengthen the military alliance with Washington.

Meanwhile, China’s congress this week announced a 7.2 per cent increase in Beijing’s military budget. The official total of $A338 billion appears small when put alongside the $A1.2 trillion US spend. But few analysts believe it is an accurate number.

“Western countries led by the United States have implemented all-round containment, encirclement and suppression of China, which has brought unprecedented grave challenges to our nation’s development,” Xi warned late last week.

On Monday, he proclaimed his determination to fight back.

“Security is the bedrock of development, while stability is a prerequisite for prosperity,” he told the closing session of his legislature. “[I will] take the needs of the country as my mission, and the interests of the people as my yardstick.”

We can expect to hear more of the same, says Palmer.

“[Such] language is not merely a reaction to US actions; it is useful for China’s domestic politics,” he says. “Officials may have to accept that Chinese trash-talking is inevitable, even while they are carrying out backdoor diplomacy on areas of genuine shared interest.”

Jamie Seidel is a freelance writer | @JamieSeidel

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