Australians have been reminded about China’s military might this week after a Chinese Type 815G Dongdiao-class surveillance ship entered Australia’s exclusive economic zone, just weeks after three warships docked at Sydney Harbour.
China has been pumping money into its defence program and appears to have increased military spending by almost 44 per cent in the last two years.
Figures on Global Firepower estimate China’s defence budget in 2019 is about $224 billion, compared to $155.6 billion in 2017.
But while Chinese spending has surged, it is still dwarfed by the US military budget which is $716 billion annually, up 23 per cent in the last year.
Professor John Blaxland of the ANU’s Strategic and Defence Studies Centre told news.com.au many people don’t appreciate how much the US is keeping up with China.
“There is an implicit assumption around how quickly China is increasing its military capability, that the US has been standing still,” he said.
“From what I’ve seen, from a distance but from reasonably informed sources, is that the US has regained a focus on the need for heightened investment in advanced technologies that will help it retain a capability edge.
“My understanding is the US is not seeking to brag about it that much, in part because it knows China is very good at finding out about it via covert means.”
Prof Blaxland said the US was “keeping its powder dry” on a few technical developments in a range of fields including cyber capability, anti-satellite technology and steerable hypersonics.
“There’s an assumption that China’s development of ballistic capability, anti-satellite technology and cyber warfare is monolithic and unstoppable but does not take into account just how much the US is developing to counter those capabilities,” he said.
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He described the situation as a “game of cat and mouse” with one country developing new technology while the other focuses on countermeasures.
“It’s fast changing and a lot of companies are in the research and development arms of major corporations, including in Australia, doing some innovative and cutting-edge stuff so it’s not all one-sided.”
In the US, the defence department’s investment is being piggy-backed by major corporations investing in their own research, including refining current technology to help the country withstand cyber and laser attacks as well as disruption from electromagnetic pulses.
It’s not uncommon for navies to monitor military activities like the Exercise Talisman Sabre war-games kicking off in Queensland this week and it happened a lot during the Cold War. Prof Blaxland says China seems to have learnt from Russia how to deploy ships and vacuum up information relating to foreign powers using the electromagnetic spectrum. Data is scoured by analysts and artificial intelligence for insights on tactics, vulnerabilities and potential pressure points.
He said China’s capabilities had become more sophisticated and they were doing this type of monitoring more often, which was having a “very sobering effect” on Australian military planners as well as other participants like Japan and the US.
“Neighbouring countries like Indonesia, are all closely monitoring what is happening and what its implications are.”
But China’s previous activities, including in 2017 when a Chinese vessel was reportedly spotted off the coast of Australia, were not highlighted in the media.
“Normally this type of activity would go largely unreported,” Prof Blaxland said.
“Someone, somewhere has decided to let it be known that this ship is operating there, to contribute to a little bit of embarrassment and also raising awareness in Australian society and beyond about the gravity of the challenge that’s being faced.
“I think they’ve been called out here.”
An article published in the Global Times, a daily Chinese newspaper that focuses on issues from the Chinese government’s perspective, described Australian news reports as exaggerated.
“The Australian military’s accusation that China sent a ‘spy ship’ to gather intelligence on US-Australian naval exercises is nothing but an exaggeration,” the July 8 article states.
Prof Blaxland believes the reports are trying to alert Australians to “dark clouds looming” the country is not prepared for.
“The scale of the challenges we are facing as a nation is growing,” he said.
THE STAKES ARE GETTING HIGHER
The military spend-off between the world’s biggest countries is just one of the challenges for global superpowers, alongside things like the dark web, international criminal gangs and human smuggling cartels, Prof Blaxland said.
“What we’re finding is, we in Australia have for a really long time felt that ‘she’ll be right mate’, that we’re safe and a long way from everybody; but technology is changing that and weather and global trends are changing that,” he said.
Among the security and strategy space there is growing acknowledgment of these challenges and the fact Australia hasn’t thought about these types of issues for a long time
“I think we’re probably a bit behind the curve in how we’ve responded so far and how much we need to respond in future,” he said.
“I think the release of the information about the ship is part of that, it’s trying to get people to have a greater sense of awareness of the stakes, which are getting higher.”
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