HMS Marlborough South China Sea: Picture MoD/Crown Copyright

Lima Charlie: What Is The Future Relationship With China Likely To Look Like?

What possible ramifications could this have for the British Armed Forces?

HMS Marlborough South China Sea: Picture MoD/Crown Copyright

One of the most significant challenges to the long-established global security order in recent years has been the rise of China as an economic and military superpower. This change has been brought about through the increase of China's military capability, and an increasing willingness to use other levers, such as aid and economic assistance, to improve and enhance its relationship with other nations.

There is an increasing awareness in Western nations that this growth has led to a rise in Chinese influence, that is potentially coming at a cost to their own relationships with other nations. Australia, in particular, has grown concerned that Chinese inroads into the tiny Pacific Island nations may threaten its own long-standing strategic position, and, for the first time since the Second World War, there is the risk that a potentially hostile nation could establish military bases within striking distance of Australia.

To counter this the Australian Defence Force (ADF) is looking at a variety of options to try to tackle and address the challenge of Chinese influence. But what is the specific threat, why are Australia and others so concerned about it, and what possible ramifications could this have for the British Armed Forces?

The Asia Pacific region is home to some of the worlds tiniest island states. They are low lying and often home to only a few tens of thousands of people, they are often economically impoverished and have few natural resources of value. During the colonial era, they were ruled by the main Imperial powers, including the United Kingdom, and after WW2 were granted independence.

Small though they may be, they are considered independent states in their own right and their vote at the United Nations and on other global bodies is as equally valid and important as the vote from China, Russia or the USA.

This makes these nations an appealing target for others to try to influence and gain support as a source of votes that could make a real difference.

Due to their lack of significant economic power, and the strong historical ties between the West and the region, for decades the Pacific islands have been firmly in the Western sphere of influence. Australia and New Zealand have conducted regular peacekeeping deployments in the region, for example in East Timor and the Solomon Islands, and in some cases remain responsible for providing external defence and security.

This support has extended to the gifting of military equipment. For instance in the 1980s the Australian government funded the ‘Pacific’ class patrol boat programme to provide additional security capability to many nations, donating patrol boats to help improve their ability to protect their maritime borders. Given the strength of this security link, why is Australia so concerned about the rise in Chinese influence?

Exercise Bersama Lima, which took place in the South China Sea: Pic MoD/Crown Copyright
Exercise Bersama Lima, which took place in the South China Sea: Pic MoD/Crown Copyright

The challenge posed by China is complex and relies on the use of a range of levers, economic, financial, political and military in scope. The astounding growth of the Chinese economy (by some estimates it has grown by over 10% of GDP year on year since the 1970s), coupled with the rising demands of a population of more than a billion people has made China an increasingly assertive player in both regional, and increasingly international security.

The Chinese Government is arguably actively seeking to supplant the United States as the dominant power in the region, shifting the balance of security that since WW2 has seen the USA work in a series of alliances with regional powers including Japan, Korea and Australia to protect against security challenges. This has by and large helped the region remain stable and relatively conflict-free, as local nations were aware that they were no match for American military prowess.

The rise of China as a credible power has thrown this into question, with the enormous increase in the Chinese defence budget over recent years permitting a substantial change in military capability.

The two million strong Peoples Liberation Army (PLA), the name for the Chinese Armed Forces, has seen enormous investment in more modern equipment and capabilities, particularly the Navy (PLAN).

The Navy, some 240,000 strong has increased its numbers of warships in recent years and is now the second-largest navy in the world after the USA. While for decades it was primarily a ‘brown water navy’ with a force comprising of largely obsolete Soviet-designed vessels intended to operate close to Chinese territorial waters, today the force is completely different.

Current doctrine and planning seems to call for the PLAN to be able to operate out to what is referred to in China as the ‘second island chain’ (essentially as far as Australia, the Aleutian Islands and the Malacca Straits), which requires a very different ‘blue water’ capability navy. Since the early 2000s, the Chinese have invested in building a force of modern warships optimised for longer range operations, including aircraft carriers, nuclear submarines and large escort ships. By some estimates, there have been more than a dozen new classes of warship introduced into service in the last five years. The result is the PLAN has become an increasingly global presence, capable of operating in areas where it has not previously been, and furthering Chinese military reach and influence.

This military growth underpins an increasingly assertive and active Chinese foreign policy aimed at building strong links with nations. In recent years China has sought to become an economic superpower, using the ‘Belt & Road Initiative’ (BRI) which is aimed at investing over $1 trillion in countries to build links, improve infrastructure and harness trade opportunities.

While cynics would argue that these deals generate little in the way of practical results for the inhabitants of many of these countries, they have helped provide opportunities for Chinese companies to grow and secure excellent deals.

For example, in Africa the BRI has seen enormous expansion of infrastructure projects like railways, ports and upgrades to transportation hubs, helping make it easier to extract and export resources such as ‘rare earth minerals’.

The last five years have seen a significant rise of Chinese access and influence across the globe, as they find themselves increasingly welcomed in many nations as a source of investment and help. More cynically the financial support offered comes with arguably less scrutiny and oversight than Western aid, permitting less scrupulous individuals to enrich themselves easily.

 Exercise Bersama Lima in the South China Sea: Pic MoD Copyright
Exercise Bersama Lima in the South China Sea: Pic MoD Copyright

In the Asia Pacific region, this largesse has led to a growth in Chinese access and influence in many Oceanian nations, helping provide support to tiny economies. In practical terms, the relatively small investment of aid, infrastructure and, increasingly Chinese tourists, can have a significant impact on how these nations perceive China. This translates into a situation where they may be more inclined to vote with China in the UN or other international organisations, helping further Chinese interests.

More widely the Chinese efforts to build goodwill have seen many of the Oceanian states shift their diplomatic allegiance from Taiwan to the Peoples Republic of China. Both claim to represent the state of China, a legacy of the end of the 1940s Chinese civil war. But these days very few nations have diplomatic relations with Taiwan, which has traditionally maintained relations with countries in Oceania and Central America. In 2019 several countries have cut ties with Taiwan in favour of recognising the PRC, further isolating the Taiwanese government and increasing Chinese influence.

The rise of this diplomatic and economic strength has also opened the door to increased military opportunities for the Chinese armed forces and security services. There are persistent reports that the PLAN has built or operates naval facilities in Djibouti, Cambodia and other countries. These facilities would extend the reach of the navy well beyond home waters and make it possible to support military operations at distances far greater than previously thought possible.

It was reports that the Chinese were looking to invest in the tiny island nation of Vanuatu that were of concern.

This state of just 270,000 people has had hundreds of millions of dollars of investment by China, culminating in the construction of an international airport, and investment in better port facilities.

Concerns were raised by several Governments, including Australia, that such a move would potentially give the Chinese Government significant military facilities less than 2,000km from Australia – a significant change in the strategic situation.

Were China to acquire bases here, or in other nations such as Tonga, this would increase their armed forces ability to operate in the Pacific and in times of tension or war, disrupt US and allied military operations. The presence of a series of Chinese bases in the Oceania and Asia Pacific region would potentially pose a real threat to how the West would plan to fight.

When coupled with other reports in 2018 that Chinese companies were bidding to build undersea data cables that would link Vanuatu and the Solomon Islands, potentially posing a huge risk to intercepting secret communications data, the Australian Government stepped in to take action and fund the cable instead and try to reduce Chinese presence and influence on the island.

This increased interest forms part of a wider more assertive push by Australia to try and negate Chinese influence in the Oceania region. Other steps that have been taken include blocking Huawei (a major Chinese telecoms company) from competing for Australian domestic telecoms infrastructure and participating in multi-national ‘attributions’ of Chinese malign cyber activity. This included working with the US and UK, among others, to specifically claim that Chinese Government organisations conducted malicious cyber operations and hacking – a move calculated to do significant damage to China's international reputation.

From a diplomatic perspective, Australia has moved to increase engagement with local nations, holding more regular senior diplomatic visits and trying to encourage increased investment. This activity will help strengthen diplomatic and trade ties, while hopefully ensuring these countries remain aligned to Australian and wider Western interests over China's.

Finally from a defence perspective, the ADF is creating a specialist unit known as the ‘Pacific Support Force’ which will be an organisation intended to work with the smaller militaries of these nations, providing training, advice and assistance and (if required) humanitarian assistance after a natural disaster.

Many of the Oceanic nations armed forces are tiny, relying either on police forces or small groups to deliver security – for example the Vanuatu armed forces are less than 300 strong. In the event of a natural disaster there is unlikely to be the capability to carry out effective disaster relief, meaning that the support of the ADF may make a life changing difference.

The Pacific Support Force is likely to make a tangible difference to providing training and assistance for small island nations, and reduces the possibility of China gaining traction with a security relationship too.

In addition to providing training, the Australian government is also funding the construction of new patrol ships to replace the Pacific class craft. Known as the Guardian class, at least 19 of these vessels are being gifted across the region to provide enhanced maritime security capability. Australian support will help ensure they remain operational and seaworthy, and hopefully help build long term security relationships with these nations. This expansion of soft power is being supported by a shift in military deployment patterns too, with more Australian Navy vessels deploying into the South China Sea region to participate in joint exercises and operations.

When all these initiatives are brought together, this plethora of activity will hopefully go a long way to helping ensure Australia remains an influential partner of choice for many countries in the region and help keep them aligned to the Western sphere of influence. But, while soft power and diplomatic support may go so far, Australia is also having to think about the challenges of providing a more assertive conventional deterrent too.

The ADF is undergoing significant investment to modernise its capabilities and remain a significant military power in the region. Under current plans a new force of 12 conventionally powered attack submarines, known as the Attack class, is being built, while the surface navy is replacing its existing Anzac class frigates with the Royal Navy’s Type 26 design to carry out anti-submarine warfare. The result is that over the next 10 years or so the Royal Australian Navy is likely to see a significant amount of new equipment introduced to service capable of countering the naval threat posed by China.

The Australian Army is investing heavily in enhancing its special forces contingent’s capability, as well as modernising existing weapon systems and aviation assets to ensure they can operate regionally. This will be particularly key when coupled with the Navy’s potent amphibious forces built around the Canberra class assault ships, enabling the Army to be deployed across the region.

The Royal Australian Air Force already operates the US designed P8 maritime patrol aircraft (which is shortly to enter service with the RAF), which will enhance the ability to conduct long range maritime surveillance and ASW operations. When coupled with the procurement of the F35A strike fighter in significant numbers (72 are planned in total), and the Wedgetail AEW aircraft (which is also to be operated by the RAF soon). 

It is clear that Australia is well placed to operate some of the most advanced military equipment on the planet.

The challenge is to work out where, and how, to deploy it to best effect. For many years the main operational effort of the ADF has been in Afghanistan and the wider Middle East, focusing on tri-service deployments in support of international operations. This may contribute to regional stability, and support allies like the US and UK, but does it effectively defend Australian interests closer to home?

Already there is a debate in Australia about whether to reduce the focus on middle eastern operations, recalling the forces and instead look primarily to countering Chinese influence both in Oceania and the South China Sea. In 2019, warships, submarine and supply vessels along with Australian Army and Air Force aircraft, deployed on Exercise Indo-Pacific Endeavour, a major ‘soft power’ exercise to bolster Australian defence relationships in the region.

Although a major success, steaming over 16,000 miles, visiting 13 countries and carrying out hundreds of defence engagement activities, the deployment was also notable for the harsh reaction from Chinese vessels when it was in the South China Sea. Open source reports indicate that at least one helicopter crew was actively targeted by lasers, a potential blinding weapon that could have caused the aircraft to crash, by trawlers linked to the Chinese militia. This more aggressive action is a timely reminder that for all the good work defence engagement can do, it is important to remember that tensions can rise quickly, and the need to move from ‘soft’ to ‘hard’ military power can happen faster than expected.

Australia’s strong defence relationships and network of alliances mean that the requirement to act may come from a variety of sources. As a member of the ‘Five Power Defence Agreement’ (FPDA) along with the UK, New Zealand, Singapore and Malaysia, Australia has undertaken to consult in the event of aggression in the region. Given increasing tensions, particularly over maritime boundaries in the South China Sea, the potential for challenge is high, which may see Australia’s allies call for help.

Similarly, the exceptionally strong relationship that Australia enjoys with the USA means that there is likely to be an expectation that any conflict between the China and the USA would also see Australia dragged in as well. The nation plays host to several key US military facilities, including for the US Marine Corps in Darwin as well as highly sensitive intelligence facilities that play a critical role in supporting US operations.

China/UK Flag: Picture Crown Copyright
UK/China Flag: Picture MoD/Crown Copyright

For the UK the bilateral security relationship with Australia is particularly close. Not only have both nations decided to purchase the same ships and aircraft designs (albeit with some national differences), but they also share a very similar set of values and goals. The defence relationship has been forged over decades of close operations, particularly in the Middle East, Iraq and Afghanistan, and is, perhaps outside of the US, the closest relationship that the UK has with another nation.

Every year a major personnel exchange programme known as Exercise Long Look runs, providing the chance for UK troops to swap places with their Australian (and New Zealand) counterparts. Australia also serves as the home for many former British military personnel, who have taken on second careers in the Australian Defence Force as well.

With such a strong relationship, it is inevitable that the UK will have to take a view on the way that Australia tries to tackle Chinese influence in the Oceania region.

Much of this will be ‘soft’ in nature – for instance, the UK is reopening several long-closed Embassies and High Commissions in many smaller countries. It is also investing more time in attending international events, and participating in regional summits, helping gently rebuild UK influence which had been left to lapse for many years (if not decades).

From a military perspective the UK is also sending more military personnel more regularly into the Asia Pacific region to work with both the Australian and US armed forces, as well as more widely with nations like Japan and Korea. 2018 saw substantial deployments by multiple Type 23 frigates, and the assault ship HMS Albion across the Asia Pacific region.

In 2019 there has been a ramping up of British defence contributions including sending the RN survey vessel HMS Enterprise into the Asia Pacific area. For the annual FPDA exercises (known as Bersama Lima) as well as a contribution of 6 Typhoon fighter aircraft, along with supporting elements, and a British Army infantry company, supported by elements of the Royal Artillery. This contribution helps reinforce the links between the UK and other FPDA members and shows the ongoing willingness of the UK to support defence and security links in the region.

This relationship will be further enhanced in 2021 by the deployment of HMS Queen Elizabeth, embarking both UK and US F35 fighters and supported by a variety of escort ships.

The likely destinations will include the South China Sea, where the UK could potentially help send a strong signal towards China and its maritime activities in the area.

Brought together this increased diplomatic and military presence heralds a strong show of British support for the Australian efforts to counter Chinese influence across the region. UK efforts are likely to prove valuable in assisting Australian diplomatic approaches, while the deepening of the defence relationship, and the visible commitment of ships, aircraft and soldiers to the region sends a strong show of support and approval for Australia’s activities.

The challenge over the next few years is that Australia will need to consider how best to balance its defence posture. Does it forward deploy to work with the US and other allies in the South China Sea region to help counter unduly aggressive Chinese activity that could pose a direct threat to national interests? Or does it focus its efforts primarily on countering Chinese influence closer to home, seeking to invest more heavily on ‘soft power’ activities such as trade and diplomacy to win the support of states that would otherwise fall under the sway of Beijing?

Both options are viable but come with risks. To focus too heavily on the risk from China in South Asia runs the risk of embroiling Australia in potentially unnecessary conflict escalation, whilst focusing too much on soft power in the Oceania region may lead to questions over whether Australian defence expenditure needs to be as high, or if risks can be taken and cuts made to the budget.

The next few years are likely to prove a fascinating period in international relations. As Chinese influence grows, and its armed forces expand their capability and extend their presence globally, the West will need to take difficult decisions about how best to counter this. Does it try to bring China in as a friend, offering diplomatic co-operation and shared influence, or does it regard China as a clear threat to security and prepare, if necessary, to be ready to fight? There are no easy answers, and only time will tell which is the correct outcome, but already it is clear that Australia, and her allies are determined to take every step possible to reduce and constrain Chinese influence – but at what ultimate cost?

This article is the latest contribution in our Lima Charlie columnist section.

This is part of a series featuring unattributed contributions from experts and insiders providing opinion, insight and analysis on today’s Armed Forces, the wider politics of the military and observations on military life.

Under the pseudonym Lima Charlie, our contributors aim to explore the issues facing today’s military and their comment remains unattributed to allow our writers to present their analysis candidly and under one editorial voice.