Gordon Campbell on why China isn’t a real military threat

chinese militarythumbNot that anyone would know it, but there has been quite a massive spendup on Defence since 2017 by the Labour government. The big ticket items have included roughly $3 billion to buy, equip, house and operate the four new Posiedon anti-submarine planes, the $1.5 billion spent on the five new Hercules cargo planes, the $1 billion set aside to replace the Sea Sprite helicopters and this year’s $419 million pay increases to recruit and retain Defence personnel. Unlike nurses and teachers, Defence personnel didn’t have to fight publicly for their pay increases which were handed to them in this year’s Budget.

Along the way, the recent upgrades of the two ANZAC frigates provide a good example of how our military alliances are driving us to spend huge amounts on projects that (a) have little to do the defence of this country while (b) incurring rather large cost over-runs:

The upgrade has been designed to maintain the frigates’ surveillance, self-defence, and combat systems to a standard comparable to the frigates used by Australia, Canada and the United Kingdom, allowing them to continue to operate in a full range of roles…. Initially, $446 million NZD was budgeted to upgrade both ships, though the actual cost has blown out to $700 million.

Despite the multiple billion dollar outlays on Defence, the armed forces keep on being depicted by their friends in academia as an organisation struggling to get by on a pittance. One such article headlined “The ‘number 8 wire’ days for NZ’s defence force are over, new priorities will demand bigger budgets” rather gave the game away, though. Evidently, bigger Defence budgets lie in wait, off the forward bow.

In particular…. As Werewolf pointed out a few days ago, the public is being softened up to pay the multi-billion dollar price tag to provide the Navy with new frigates. As the Australian Financial Review reported only a week ago, our Navy has told its counterparts in Canberra that New Zealand is “keen” to support a joint purchase of the British firm Babcock’s Arrowhead “light” frigates, which are almost twice the size of our current ANZAC frigates.

Such a purchase would enable these ships to carry more missiles, while being capable of ranging further afield into the South China Sea and Indian Ocean, in line with Australia’s aggressive forward force projection strategies. No wonder that Helen Clark is worried that the current Labour government may be eroding our independent foreign policy options. So is this guy. 


Not that the Hipkins administration and Defence Minister Andrew Little seem at all fazed. In fact, Labour appears to be quite chuffed about its role in all of this, judging by this May 2023 Beehive press release :

Today’s capital announcements brings the total amount invested in Defence to $4.7 billion since 2017, or double what the previous government spent.

Making Old Friends

Think about it. Labour has actually doubled the spending on Defence compared to those peaceniks in the National Party! As a result, everyone is inviting New Zealand these days to all of the best armaments industry cocktail parties, and to the major war training exercises, such as Talisman Sabre. In order to show our allies that we’re pulling our weight, New Zealand seems happy to be invited:

(a) to join the “second pillar” of the AUKUS nuclear pact between the UK, the US and Australia

(b) to pursue closer defence links with NATO, via Japan

(c) to play our designated roles within the Five Eyes security alliance and

(d) to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework created by the Biden administration and

(e) to embrace the “2050 Strategy For The Blue Pacific” development process being promoted by the Pacific Forum

With the sole exception of (e) this spaghetti bowl of defence pacts and economic alliances is aimed at China, as a counter to the military and diplomatic threats that Beijing allegedly poses to the Asia-Pacific region. In effect China is playing the role formerly assigned to the USSR during the Cold War. Beijing is now the bogey being used to scare the public into supporting the purchase of lots and lots of very expensive weaponry and delivery platforms.

Much of this expense is the entry price of us ensuring that we remain inter-operable with our military allies. By doing so, we’re also buying into their aggressive strategic worldviews, as willing accomplices. Here at home there is a huge opportunity cost involved by us joining in the arms race against China. Those billions could be being spent on alleviating poverty, building infrastructure, and financing the R&D investments to help us mitigate climate change and compete in global markets. Instead, we’re sinking billions on combatting a phantom threat from China.

The China Phantom

Yes, we’re a trading nation. The recent (and future) military spend-up has been premised[ on the alleged need to deter China from shutting down the vital trade routes that run through the South China Sea. But… Wait a second. Those trade routes may be vital to us, but they’re even more vital to China as a route for their exports and imports (e.g. oil) on which the troubled Chinese economy depends. Why on earth would China shut down its own economic lifeline? Answer: It wouldn’t.

The same goes for the threat China poses to Taiwan. Much as China may huff and puff, it has little capacity to follow on through. For starters, China has only a handful of the transit and landing craft that would be required to transport the hundreds of thousands of troops necessary for a successful invasion, and – fatally – that invasion force would be sailing for days and days across the open sea, where it would be a sitting duck for attacks by air, and by submarines.

Could China’s own air power have already pounded Taiwan’s defences into submission, pre-invasion? No. Taiwan’s defences are set well back within heavily armoured mountain redoubts. Basically, the Taiwan invasion scenario is a fantasy. Yet it is being peddled as a scary justification for those lucrative AUKUS (and NZDF) military contracts.

Paper dragons

No doubt, China has the troops and the national pride to fight a very solid defence of its homeland. Even on that score though, it is vulnerable. China has 14 countries on its borders, and many of those neighbours are not its friends. China is also ringed by huge US military bases, including those in South Korea, Guam and Okinawa. It is not at all self-sufficient in oil, so would have limited capacity to sustain a defence of even its own territory. As explained below, its ability to project military force beyond its shores is not impressive.

So here’s the thing. We have no need to spend money on building up our military capabilities, because China is already at a massive military disadvantage, when compared to the US and its allies on every conceivable measure: nuclear and conventional arms, air, sea, and land power, command and control communication cyber systems, and the extent of recent war-fighting experience.

Tedious though this exercise may be, I’m going to spell out some of those major imbalances, if only because the myths about the military threat posed by China are so prevalent, and so routinely taken as gospel. For this purpose, I’ve drawn heavily on the military assessments made by the U.S. Air Force’s Journal of Indo-Pacific Affairs. Only 18 months ago, the assessment by these USAF academics began with this telling observation:

The United States enjoys overwhelming advantages over China. The United States outweighs China in terms of gross domestic product (GDP), technology, and military spending. China’s GDP is 15 percent of global GDP, compared to 24 percent of the United States. The United States retains a technological edge in key areas like command, control, communications, computers, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (C4ISR) and air, surface, and undersea weapon systems. The United States has spent $19 trillion on its military since the end of the Cold War. This spending is $16 trillion more than China spent, and is nearly as much as the rest of the world’s combined [military]expenditure during the same period.

Moreover, the US has been fighting conventional and unconventional wars on every continent for decades… In places like Korea, Vietnam, Panama, Grenada, the First Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan. China’s untried military has no external battlefield experience whatsoever. The US has military bases and alliances in Europe, the Middle East, and Asia, from which it can speedily deploy its forces into any location on the planet. China’s military outreach is minimal, and its defence alliances are just as threadbare. In recent years, the mode of warfare has shifted, but even then ( see below) the US is overwhelmingly dominant.

In the post–Cold War world, the United States achieved dominance through AirLand Battle. Now the United States is shifting its military assets to the Indo-Pacific as it prepares for a SeaAir Battle…..

Right. But China would be vastly out of its depth in any Sea/Air battle waged in the Indo- Pacific. The US operates 11 carrier groups and enjoys clear maritime supremacy.

The United States is in a familiar terrain in the Indo-Pacific, having fought during World War II, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War. INDOPACOM accounts for 60 percent of USN, 55 percent of the US Army, and 40 percent of US Marine Corps

If push did ever come to shove, it would be a brutal mismatch:

In a full-scale war China would be decimated by the nuclear and conventionally superior US military. China has not dealt with any external crisis, nor has fought full-scale wars in modern history. A technological gap exists between the United States and China. They definitely are not in the same league.

Breaking it Down

Let’s do the maths for a Sea/Air conflict in the Indo-Pacific:

The USN’s merging of weapon systems and C4ISR systems with multi-domain network and integrated ship defenses is more lethal than the numbers of People’s Liberation Army Navy (PLAN) submarines and warships. The PLAN consists of 63 warships over 3,000 tons with a total tonnage of 447,000 tons, while the USN has 120 warships with a total of 2 million tons. PLAN warships are armed with 1,900 missiles, whereas the USN has 9,500 missiles deployed on its warships.

The cyber warfare balance of force is also heavily in favour of the Americans.

The course and outcome of modern wars is determined by C4ISR capabilities and not the quantity of weapon systems. The United States is far ahead in tracking and prioritizing PLAN targets. The USN is equipped with 426 C4ISR aircraft, while the PLAN has only 22 such aircraft. The PLAN has 441 fixed-wing aircraft and 118 helicopters, while the USN and the Marines collectively have 2,448 fixed-wing aircraft and 1,249 helicopters. The PLAN’s two aircraft carriers (ACs) can carry 70 aircraft, while the USN’s 11 ACs collectively have more than 800 aircraft.

While the US and China have equal numbers of submarines, the bigger and more technologically advanced US subs weigh three times those operated by China. That gap is widening with the development for the US and Australian navies of the Block V Virginia class ballistic missile submarines. The list goes on: The USN has 31 fast combat supply ships with a total tonnage of 1.29 million tons, while the PLAN has only 12 supply ships totaling 330,000 tons.

A comparison of the two countries’ nuclear arsenals yields the same pattern… China has an estimated 200 warheads, and this capability is expected to grow over the next decade. By comparison, the United States has close to 4,000 superior nuclear warheads with 1,600 strategic weapons, and continues to modernise this arsenal.

Finally… Even China itself recognizes it would be no match for the military power of the Western allies. As the USAF academics say, keep in mind how comprehensively the US and its allies routed the forces of Iraq – by some counts the world’s fourth largest military force at the time – during the First Gulf War:

People’s Liberation Army (PLA) Major General Zhang Shaozhong ranked Chinese military power in 2020 in the fifth place behind the United States, Russia, Britain, and France, while PLAN surface power was ranked in the eighth place behind Japan and India. The Peoples Liberation Army Air Force (PLAAF) was ranked seventh in the world, due to its lack of fourth-generation fighter planes and high-end drones. In General Shaozhong’s view, China will become the second-largest military power in the world only in 2049, when it celebrates its centennial anniversary.

Oh, and then here’s the economic deterrent. Again, China would fare badly in any direct conflict:

A war will lead to a loss of China’s exports to the United States worth USD 310 billion. The war will result in a decline in industrial production, unemployment, and inflation, causing an economic crash and a people’s revolution. As seen from World War II, the United States will experience reverse economic gains and benefit from the war, resulting in high employment and industrial growth.

To be generous and based on the history of the Chinese Communist Party, China would be able to mount an effective asymmetrical response against any force seeking to invade and occupy its territory. But a war of neo-colonial aggression against China is not what New Zealand is shaping up to join. Or is it?

The New Zealand Option

Once the threat from China collapses, the public rationale for New Zealand spending billions on Defence collapses along with it. Therefore, there is no good reason why we cannot conduct an independent foreign policy, and engage with our main trading partner as we see fit – and not have this subject to the nebulous expectations that our “allies” may have of us.

The effects of climate change in the Pacific and here at home, have been regularly cited by the government as a justification for us spending up large on the military, even though the really expensive anti-submarine technical capabilities we’re buying are a poor fit for those humanitarian relief missions. In fact, the old Orion P3s that could fly slower and lower, were actually better suited for maritime search and rescue tasks than the costly new Poseidons. Ironically, our Australian friends are not keen at all about using their troops for climate change rescues and recoveries.

For example: The Australian Defence Strategic Review (see page 41) is very grudging about using the armed forces to respond to climate change disasters, either regionally in the Pacific or at home. Using the military to do humanitarian work, the review says, should be considered “only as a last resort” because it could so easily “overwhelm” the main purpose of the Australian armed forces which – apparently – is not about getting themselves mixed up in doing humanitarian good deeds.

That is quite a contrast. As mentioned, successive New Zealand governments have regularly used climate change and recovery and rebuild efforts as a p.r. figleaf for our spending on Defence.. Yet with typical Aussie candour, Canberra plainly regards humanitarian work as an unsustainable distraction, and something that is best avoided by its military, where-ever possible.

During the Covid lockdowns, our military felt similar resentment at being forced to operate MIQ facilities. Quite understandable. The military has been trained to shoot people, not to care for them.

Duelling singles

After three years, the relationship between Latin superstars Rosalia and Rauw Alejandro has collapsed, reportedly due to his infidelity. If so, it seems super sleazy that within three weeks of the split, Alejandro has released a damage limitation track (called “Hayani Hami”) that conveys his enduring devotion, and confirms his sensitive lover man credentials. The lyrics offer a masterclass in gaslighting. For example:

We’ve argued, I find it hard to express myself/ All my shortcomings you already know/ I have to put up with your things too/ But the option of removing myself never crossed my mind….

Right. So he’s been unfaithful, but she broke this beautiful thing they had by not forgiving him, even though hey, he put up with her shit. Wait, there’s more:

What will come next? I don’t know/ But I know that for you it will be all the Grammys, hey/ They will study your art over time/ When they plan, I know that they always take you as an example…I’ll finish our little house in case you feel like coming back/ Today I stop writing you, not loving you.

Quite a lot to unpack there. All those Grammys for her, while he pines away completing their little love cabin, thus putting the onus back on her to forgive and return. As for Rosalia, there has been online speculation that her recent single “Tuya” expresses her affection for Hunter Schafer, the female star of the Euphoria Tv series and an occasional Rosalia songwriting collaborator. I suspect Rauw on that issue, as well.

But enough of that. It does make one appreciate all the more what, to my mind, has been the single of the year to date. Here, again, Jamila Woods with a song about love as a tiny garden that has to be tended carefully, and fed every day: