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On Target: A Message from Beijing?

Brian Weston 'On Target: A Message from Beijing?' in Australian Defence Business Review , November-December 2019 p 74

The On Target column of the September/October Australian Aviation concluded with some observations from the concept of operations for the defence of Australia drafted by Sir Richard Williams in 1925 ‒ a document of sixty-eight pages titled a “Memorandum Regarding the Air Defence of Australia” ‒ and the similarity of some of Williams’ observations with the strategic scenario that is emerging in the Indo-Pacific today.

In particular, the September/October On Target column noted there were some parallels between the emerging notion of “air power” in 1925 and the term “asymmetric warfare” today. The column also noted that today, new ways of prosecuting aggressive campaigns against nation states are emerging, and that some of these developments might increase the likelihood of smaller-scale aggressive and coercive campaigns aimed at advancing a nation’s national interests. The column concluded with the observation that Australia would be wise to understand the world’s post-1945 system of “rules-based international order” is being superseded.

By co-incidence, as that article appeared in print, China, on 1 October, chose to live-stream to the world an impressive array of emerging military capabilities. But curiously, while 1 October is China’s National Day, the activities of 1st October 2019 had little to do with some four millennia of China’s history instead focussing solely on a celebration of the 70 years of rule by the Communist Party of China ‒ the period following the establishment of the People's Republic of China on 1 October, 1949 during the closing years of the Chinese Civil War.

While such a celebration by a totalitarian state under one-party, autocratic rule might be seen as somewhat self-indulgent, when combined with the demonstration of an array of new, emerging and impressive military capabilities, it takes on a more sombre and intimidating messaging.

Prominent among the military hardware displayed were 16 road-mobile, launchers for the DF-41 inter-continental ballistic missile, suggesting that China ‒ a nuclear power ‒ was continuing to mature and expand its recently developed inter-continental strike capability.

But perhaps even more significant was the display of the DF-17 surface-to-surface hypersonic glide missile. The hypersonic glide missile provides greater range and accuracy, with the manoeuvring terminal capability posing significant challenges for anti-missile defence systems. Although considered not yet operational, the DF-17 suggests sizeable leaps have been made in China’s military technology and that China is advancing towards developing an accurate, conventionally armed, long-range, surface-to-surface missile capability.

Also, on display were an unmanned supersonic rocket-powered reconnaissance vehicle, an unmanned attack aircraft prototype (the Loong 2 medium altitude unmanned system), and the YJ-18 anti-ship missile with its supersonic terminal dash capability. All told, these advances in military capability in a relatively short timeframe, have not just increased China’s military combat power but have dramatically increased the strategic reach of China’s military power. The pace of these developments also suggests that China’s military capabilities will continue to advance in capability and reach.

Apart from the range of military capabilities on display, perhaps even more concerning was the sustained media focus on China’s leader, Xi Jinping, who now concurrently occupies the following powerful appointments: General Secretary of the Communist Party of China; Chairman of the Central Military Commission (Commander-in-chief of the People’s Liberation Army); President of the People's Republic of China; and Chairman of the National Security Commission of the Communist Party of China.

Additionally Xi Jinping was designated as China’s Paramount Leader in 2012; and in 2018, Xi Jinping removed the presidential term limits which previously limited the duration of occupancy of previous appointees to the office of President of the People's Republic of China.

Xi Jinping is without doubt, the most powerful ruler of the People's Republic of China since Mao Zedong ‒ and the National Day parade of 1 October, certainly reinforced that observation.

When combined with other observations, such as: the People’s Republic of China is a one party totalitarian state under the governance of the Communist Party of China; China has already demonstrated its aspirations towards enhancing its regional power and global reach, as evidenced by its occupation and militarisation of the South China Sea in defiance of a ruling by the Permanent Court of Arbitration; China has not been backward in using its growing wealth and soft power to advance its national interests; and China has long indulged in the illegal gathering and pirating of new technologies, intellectual property, source code, etc from anywhere on the globe; then regional neighbours and international interlocutors need to comprehend that in dealing with China, they cannot expect China to conform with the established “rules-based” international protocols that have existed since the end of World War II ‒ China has consigned those protocols to the history books.

Brian Weston is a Board Member of the Williams Foundation and On Target is published as a regular column in the Australian Defence Business Review.

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