BEHIND THE HEADLINESTweet
By BUNN NAGARA
US Defence Secretary Robert Gates arrives in Beijing later today at a crucial time.
Backed by Japan and South Korea, the United States is prodding China to restrain a wayward North Korea that is unnerving its pro-US neighbours again. Following joint military exercises in the South deemed provocative, Pyongyang’s artillery claimed several lives south of the border.
The near-autarkic North Korea has few friends, so China as an accommodating neighbour and its least likely foe is often seen as its closest ally. At a time of potential instability on the Korean peninsula, any help Beijing can provide would be useful.
Like everyone else, China would like to see continued stability on the peninsula. However, its actual leverage on North Korea can be limited.
US envoy Stephen Bosworth has described his visits to Beijing and Tokyo in recent days as “useful”. China may recommend that Japan, South Korea and the US resume six-party talks with Pyongyang, Beijing and Moscow, as North Korea is now proposing, as a way forward.
However, the larger prize of Gates’ visit to Beijing today is renewed relations between the US and China.
At a time of China’s pivotal “rise” and continuing uncertainty in the US economy, the implications of the world’s most important bilateral relationship between the planet’s two largest economies have never been greater.
Preparations for President Hu Jintao’s visit to Washington from Jan 18 make Gates’ presence in Beijing even more significant. Issues of mutual concern like trade, currency, energy, subsidies, the environment and military postures are likely to impact on much of the world.
The latter subject will be the core of Gates’ talks from tomorrow. The next few days will see China and the US signalling a new phase in bilateral military cooperation, building on a fresh start seen last month.
Both the range and the depth of US-China relations these days are vast, and thus of corresponding importance for other countries as well. Unfortunately, certain vested interests are spoiling the moment by playing party pooper.
A warming of ties between Beijing and Washington would be seen as improving relations, placing pressures on defence budgets. The US military-industrial complex and rightwing Obama-bashers are thus concerned, particularly after costly adventures in Iraq and Afghanistan have constrained US expenditures.
Another interested party is the Western international media, with some adopting a China-bashing slant in recent weeks. A China bogey over a range of issues helps to sell press space and air time, besides armaments.
A non-issue that has been massaged into a double predicament concerns “China’s military build-up” and “US defence cuts”. Both are supposed to be happening simultaneously, increasing the sense of urgency, even panic, among sections of the US public.
Repeatedly increased defence budgets in China may seem disturbing to a potential foe. However, greater wealth that facilitates larger expenditures all-round applies to all countries.
China has clearly had rapid military expenditures in recent years, but government spending in other sectors has grown even faster. Unless seen in perspective, scaremongers are likely to claim more victims.
China currently spends around 2% of its GDP on the military, compared to the US spending nearly 5% of a much larger GDP.
The US consistently spends on defence about the same as the rest of the world, including China, put together.
Independent figures for 2009 place US military expenditure at more than US$660bil (RM2tril), and for China at almost US$100bil (RM307bil), after adjusting for official underestimates.
The allotment that Gates has applied to Congress for 2012 is some US$100bil less. But far from being cuts, the reduction comes from eliminating wastage such as unused, redundant or obsolete items and services.
As an indication of how these savings can easily be made, the different branches of the US military have already identified a total of more than US$100bil they do not need, a sum more than China spends or has ever spent on its armed forces.
Gates’ “budgeting” is in fact reorganisation, involving updated priorities and more focused needs. The US$553bil (RM1.7tril) he now hopes to get for 2012 will still have allotments for additional items such as advanced technology, new warships and more drones.
China’s military forces are characterised by two major features that are negative in international perceptions: a large standing army, and low-grade technology.
A universal principle in defence budgets is that most of the allocation goes to the salaries and benefits of personnel. To have a large army not only looks threatening, it also increases the allocations to personnel, with less funds available for armaments and even less for offensive weapons systems.
Low-grade technology is not only unimpressive, it also means more effort and funds are needed to upgrade it.
Then when technological advances are made, critics assume there is so much of a military build-up, forgetting the low technological base to begin with.
China today is the world’s second largest economy with the greatest potential for growth, trade and investments. It also has the world’s largest population, one of the largest land areas, considerable coastlines and some challenging border regions.
It is continuing to demobilise in reducing the number of troops, with the problem of having to find new jobs for retired soldiers. Its navy, reputedly stronger than its air force or its army, still has no aircraft carrier while the armed services are still dependent on second-hand Russian technology.
These realities seldom make world headlines. However, when China finally gets its first aircraft carrier later this year, more sensationalist reports about a “China threat” can be expected.