x Abu Dhabi, UAETuesday 23 January 2018

China's security benefits with transparency

China's response to increased US military presence in the Asia Pacific region was expectedly stern and predictably unhelpful.

The announcement by President Barack Obama that the US will reorient its military focus towards the Asia Pacific region was as expected as China's response was predictable.

On Friday, Chinese media reacted to the news by insisting that their country could not be bullied. "The US cannot stop the rise of China," declared a bullish editorial in the government-owned Global Times. "Dealing with the US containment attempts should be one of China's diplomatic strategic goals."

The only problem is, it's hard to ascertain what China's long-term strategic goals actually are.

The Communist Party press may claim that the US's sole aim is to limit China's economic and military expansion. But it would be wrong to cast China as an innocent victim of American provocation. Long gone are the days of "peaceful coexistence" with its neighbours, Beijing's guiding foreign policy first championed by Premier Zhou Enlai in the early 1950s. Today, China displays an increasingly aggressive stance in its near-abroad, especially in the South China Sea.

For one, US military intentions, rightly or wrongly, are mostly an open book. Budget cuts, like the latest ones announced by Mr Obama, are available for publics and foes alike to ponder, as are troop deployments and sizes, base locations and aircraft numbers. Secretive elements of US military policy are never discussed publicly, and special operations, drone attacks and "black sites" are some of Washington's dirty secrets. But for the most part, civilian control and taxpayer oversight offer a window into official thinking.

In contrast China's political and strategic ambitions are shrouded. China's military has held three joint military training exercises with Pakistan in recent months, worrying India and the US. Naval patrols in Japan's waters have been equally distressing. A clear statement of intent on its foreign and military policies might help dispel fears among its regional neighbours.

Washington's realignment underscores budgetary tightening at home, and a shift of focus abroad. The US is not abandoning the Middle East as much as it bringing Asia into its orbit.

If China feels threatened by this, the better response would be greater military transparency. US foreign policy and military deployments, often unpopular at home and abroad, are at least easy to decipher. If a new Cold War is to be avoided, China must ultimately be as forthcoming.