Thursday, February 17, 2011


I like Australians. They’re a fun-loving race; staunch allies as ready for a fight as for a bash at the pub. A friend who flew in North Africa said the best of the British Commonwealth forces were Aussies and South Africans. Not much on spit and polish, but then how much polish do you need in Tunisia?

Recently I realized that Aussies (who call themselves Ozzies, from “Ozstralia”) afford a rare perspective on China. With continued growth of China’s population, economy, and global influence, the view from the Land of Oz is worth a peek at the ancient Middle Kingdom.

My interest in the China-Australia connection was piqued by a reference to the RAAF’s interest in acquiring America’s latest stealth aircraft, the Lockheed-Martin F-35 Lightning II. It’s a separate issue, but that bird is far-far over budget and behind schedule, and the program may not deserve to survive on its merits. Its political-financial considerations seem likely to overwhelm the practical concerns.


I wondered why Australia would want a stealth fighter, even assuming it’s affordable. After all, considering the immense disparity in their militaries (there are only 80,000 Ozzies in uniform, including reserves) if it comes to a fight, China wins in a walk. The question is: why would China want Australia, and what would Beijing do with The Land of Oz?

(A brief aside, but the cinematic opportunity looms large: “Hey, babe, imagine Crocodile Dundee Meets Red Dawn.”)

Let’s consider some statistics.

Though Australia covers 2.9 million square miles, barely 6 percent is arable. The interior is largely uninhabitable which is why almost half the population lives in five metro areas with one-third of the total in Sydney, Melbourne, and Brisbane. A near identical portion of the 22.5 million Ozzies lives in the southeastern state of New South Wales. Perth is the only large city on the west coast, 1,700 miles from Melbourne.

China is one-quarter larger than Australia but possesses nearly three times as much arable land. There just isn’t much to be gained by conquering Australia, apart from the disastrous consequences to Beijing’s relations with its major trading partners.

However, if Canberra truly worries about deterring Beijing, there are one or two options. The first is to invite American military bases, especially on the west and north coasts. (There’s precedent: the Japanese threatened landings near Darwin in 1942.) While Uncle Sugar’s thinly-stretched forces probably couldn’t manage more than a trip-wire presence, that might be enough. Another prospect is nuke subs for the Oz Nivey, but that involves various related problems: Australia (with 23 percent of the world’s known uranium) has no nuclear industry, and the U.S. does not export that kind of naval technology.

One of my Oz mates offers an illuminating perspective on Chinese-Australia politics: the labour movement's socialists and communists loathe each other. Many of the latter resemble Communists more than some Chinese officials. Says Peter, “They absolutely will not criticize Beijing. If you ask them about human rights violations, the Dalai Lama or Tibet, they immediately change the subject.” However, they’re a decided minority. The broader Labour base includes working-class blokes who are approximately patriotic and don’t mind paying high taxes for entitlements, especially when they get their ration of beer. (OTOH, the Liberal Party is mostly conservative go figger.)

So where does Oz politics leave us regarding China?

If you look beyond Beijing, the actual concern is China's support of nations and alliances on the periphery, as close as the Solomons, which ultimately could affect Aussie security or trade routes.

To quote an Australian military correspondent, “We are spending heaps to keep the neighbors friendly, and the Chinese are spending more to acquire footholds all around the ocean area. They are building a big navy and recently challenged the U.S. Navy to keep out of ‘their coastal seas’, which the USN declined to do and sent a carrier group through.” Therefore, any direct military threat to Oz—extremely unlikely-- will come from the littorals, not by hordes of Chinese amphibious troops.

As with the much overhyped Chinese military “threat” to the U.S., Beijing is not going to invade a major trading partner. Australia ranks seventh among China’s foreign purchasers, just ahead of Russia forepetesake. War with Oz would be self-defeating. ('s_Republic_of_China)

Meanwhile, Beijing has considerable internal problems to address before embarking on the road to conquest. China’s unemployment rate has remained steady at around 4 percent for over a decade. That’s the good news. The bad news: The Middle Kingdom now must find some 30 million new jobs per year to maintain that figure. That’s essential for the goal of growing the middle class, which is necessary to bolster the internal economy without relying so heavily on foreign markets. (And if that sounds decidedly non-communist, you’re right. Nobody said that politics has to make sense.)

China's internal situation is a complex subject owing to economic and demographic concerns. I already cited the need to generate some 30 million new jobs each year. That figure keeps popping up. It’s also the number of young single men who are unlikely to marry, owing to the single-child policy. (

As my mate Peter put it, "That’s a lot of spare infantry." If Beijing wants to deplete that surplus, a war with Oz is decidedly not the way to accomplish it. Strapping on Russia makes far more Draconian sense.

So what should we be worried about from The Middle Kingdom? It’s not military adventurism nor even an invasion of Taiwan. (Apart from disastrous political/economic repercussions, people who have been there note that the ChiNats have had 60 years to prepare, and they train hard. Odds are it would fail.)

Consider China’s history. Immune from foreign invasion since 1945, the source of conflict is internal, as per the Cultural Revolution. An Ozzie friend who studies the subject says, “If I had to bet next month’s beer money on a war involving China, it would be civil war.”

A growing population hungry for a better life, coupled with the societal tensions of millions of frustrated young males, could prove a toxic binary. Civil war in China
has to be one of the great bone-chillers of the XXI Century.