|We should talk to China, not demonise it|
June 3 2011 12:01AM
Above the entrance of the RAF Parachute Training School is written an open secret that allows sane people to fall out of perfectly serviceable aircraft: "Knowledge dispels fear." I recently took that advice and went to Beijing with a former admiral, general and senior police officer in search of greater understanding.
China appears deeply secretive to the West and what little we do know only increases our anxiety - the scale of the army, the growth of the navy, the development of cyber warriors. Google's identification yesterday of eastern China as the source of hackers whose targets included senior US politicians adds to the overall anxiety.
Our discussions showed a very different China, one desperate to understand and be understood. Conversations with generals, politicians and entrepreneurs revealed one common theme: they find us as opaque as we find them. One recent misunderstanding concerned UN Resolution 1973 on Libya. While everyone signed up to the same wording, the Chinese interpretation was not the same as ours. We were both guilty of having too narrow a focus.
China is undoubtedly increasing its military strength and has the people, money and national will to develop as a significant power. The People's Liberation Army, unsurprisingly for a force predicated on territorial defence, is huge, but so is China itself. Much of that force is founded on ageing equipment backed by vast stores of almost obsolete replacement parts.
Army numbers have fallen by more than 50 per cent since 1981 but investment in other areas has grown. This year the navy expects to launch its first aircraft carrier and a submarine-based missile system that can target ships at a range of hundreds of miles.
But it takes decades to build, train and integrate man and machine into a credible force. It is one thing to build a destroyer, quite another to keep it at sea without US GPS satellite technology. We will not see a serious shift in the balance of military in the near future.
China's absolute priority remains economic growth and raising standards of living - not the reckless pursuit of military superiority. This point was forcibly made by the Deputy Foreign Secretary. Its defence budget, even allowing for undeclared expenditure, is less than half that of the US as a percentage of GDP - and much of that is spent on internal security.
China has about a fifth of the world's population but only 10 per cent of its arable land. The country will have to work hard just to feed itself and harder still to meet the rising expectations of its population. In these circumstances a significant diversion of resources to the Armed Forces would be a heavy gamble on future stability. The Chinese like a bet, but that doesn't feel like one they would choose to make right now.
I am a cautious man, so I believe that we should constantly scrutinise China in its internal affairs and broader international responsibilities. But I do not think we benefit from approaching it as an enemy. It is too easy and too dangerous to demonise the Chinese and talk ourselves into trouble.
We should remember that China's most recent move on the international stage was a positive one. When Nato undertook its mission in Libya, China not only stood aside at the UN, but also acted in its own interest by sending a ship into the Mediterranean to ensure the safety of Chinese workers stranded in Libya: an action it is likely to repeat in other parts of the world.
When it comes to relations with the Chinese, we should follow the old BT doctrine: it's good to talk. That applies to both sides. The latest Chinese national defence white paper does little to reveal its intentions. China must be clearer about its aims in the South and East China seas where it risks looking aggressive.
The current uncertainty fuels tensions on both sides, increasing the likelihood of miscalculation and, in the worst case, could provoke unnecessary conflict in areas where flashpoints are already evident. As my flight sergeant reminded me three decades ago - knowledge dispels fear. It is time for the West and China to listen a little more and condemn a little less.