Will the AUKUS security pact pull China into the arms race?

Chinese and US flags flutter in Shanghai, China on 30 July. Photo: ReutersFile Photo

The declaration of the AUKUS security pact on 15 September 2021 seems to be revival of the Nixon Doctrine. The doctrine was put forth on 25 July 1969 to Vietnamize the Vietnam War. It states that the United States would assist in the defense and developments of allies and friends, but would not undertake all the defense of the free nations of the world. This doctrine meant that each ally nation was in charge of its own security in general, but the United States would act as a nuclear umbrella when requested. The doctrine argued for the pursuit of peace through a partnership with American allies. At the height of the Cold War, the Nixon administration supplied weapons to allies and other countries to counter former Soviet Union which pulled it into arms race pushing its economy to the extreme.

Ten years of military occupation in Afghanistan (1979-1989) put the Soviet economy on the edge. It withdrew from Afghanistan in 1989. Barely one year later, the Soviet Union collapsed.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, China reportedly conducted in-depth analyses into its causes. One of USSR’s biggest mistakes, according to Chinese researchers, was to engage in a costly arms race with the U.S. that ultimately bankrupted the Soviet economy. That reminds one of Sun Tzu’s philosophy - “before going to war, count on costs”. The USA and the Soviet Union were at war for 45 years, which the world called The Cold War. Chinese politicians and generals are pupils of Sun Tzu. I am sure they have taken lessons from his philosophy.

China faces a similar strategic dilemma as the United States is gradually increasing its military presence in the Indo-Pacific to counter China. Attempting to match America’s military might would require China to increase defense spending radically — the same trap that ensnared the Soviets. Failing to counter a US military buildup, however, could leave China even more insecure and vulnerable. Anyway, China with the second largest economy in the world, is different from the Soviet Union.

In 2020 China’s GDP was $14.72 trillion compared to US’ GDP at $20.93 trillion. The United States’ military expenditure reached approximately $778 billion in 2020. As the world's largest military spender, the USA accounted for 39 per cent of total military expenditure in 2020. China’s defence spending was $183 billion in 2020. Its military expenditure was following incremental trend at 4 to 6% nominal growth. In 2021, China’s defence had a real growth at USD 209 billion with 14.20% increase from 2020. The United States is the largest arms exporters in the world. China takes the fifth position.

Source: Internet

China’s budgetary trend does not indicate that it embarked on any arms race to match the United States’ military might. The third Taiwan Strait crisis in 1996 exposed PLA Navy’s weaknesses and China prioritised the navy’s development. In 24 years since the Taiwan Strait crisis, China has built the largest navy in the world but lags behind the United States navy in terms of tonnage and technology. Again the teaching from Sun Tzu -- ‘numbers alone confer no advantage’. Total tonnage of US Naval fleet is 3,415,893 and PLAN’s 708,886. The US Navy has 14 nuclear powered ballistic missile submarines and 54 nuclear powered attack submarines, PLA Navy has six nuclear powered ballistic missile submarine and six nuclear powered attack submarines and over fifty conventional submarines. The US navy “owns 11 of the world's 43 active aircraft carriers - and that doesn't count its nearly two dozen flat-decked amphibious ships that might well be considered carriers in their own right”. China has only two. The third carrier Type 003 is under construction. It reportedly has the plan to build ten air craft carrier by 2050.

Political competition over the spheres of interests has already portrayed the South China Sea and Taiwan ‘global flash points’. Regional political, economic and military power houses like Japan, South Korea and Taiwan on the East and Australia on the South and India on the west are in alliance with the United States to contain China.

China is very unlikely to go global militarily any time soon. It has a lot of work to do on the home front. But it has already gone global with soft power. Soft power is yielding results without producing lights and sounds and blowing dust of a conventional war

Encirclement and containment of China have a couple of perspectives - preventing China’s invasion of Taiwan, preventing it from establishing more military outposts in the South China Sea, reverting China’s influence in the South Pacific, pulling China into the arms race to push its military spending up and keeping it busy in the confines of the South China Sea. Who is keeping whom actually busy or occupied in the South China Sea and the East China Sea?

Former United States Undersecretary of Defence Michèle Flournoy floated a hard line containment strategy in 2020, “the best way to deter China from invading Taiwan is to have the ability to sink China’s navy in 72 hours.” This sounds similar to former Soviet strategy to neutralize Turkish and Greek navies in forty minutes to pass the Black Sea Fleet through the Bosphorus and the Aegean Sea into the Atlantic.

China has a couple of strong competitors around. With the AUKUS Pact, the stage seems to be set for a conventional and nuclear arms race in the Indo-Pacific. The first nuclear-powered submarine under the AUKUS pact could join Royal Australian Navy in two decades from now. We do not know where China will be in 2040 economically and militarily. But the way the situation is unfolding, contest over the denial and control of the Indo-Pacific maritime domain will continue.

China currently has military programmes, and will undertake new programmes in the future, to fill its capability gap where it will think necessary. China is very unlikely to go global militarily any time soon. It has a lot of work to do on the home front. But it has already gone global with soft power. Soft power is yielding results without producing lights and sounds and blowing dust of a conventional war. It is fighting the Trade War – the non-military dimension of new Cold War which former Soviet Union and the United States did not fight.

Whether China’s future military undertakings will be a race to match the United States military might, time will give the best answer as two decades into the future in a highly contested geopolitical sphere will confront unknowns and unpredictables.

* Mohammad Abdur Razzak is a retired Commodore of Bangladesh Navy and a security analyst. He can be reached at [email protected]