China is re-arming. That much is known. It has just unveiled its own J-20 stealth fighter. It has deployed new missile technology. It is building its own submarines, nuclear and diesel. It is scheduled to build its own aircraft carrier next year.
What was once a military force built on sheer numbers is transforming into a high-tech military seeking to deploy cutting edge technologies. China's regional rival, India, is doing much the same thing with a leg up from the U.S. and Russia. India too has developed its own missile technology. It too is building its own submarines, including missile boats. India is preparing to acquire, build and deploy the Russian Sukhoi T-50 stealth fighter. Like China, India is building up a proper, "blue water" navy.
Australia, however, views China's military buildup as presenting a serious threat to regional stability. An Australian military assessment provided to the Americans and leaked by WikiLeaks claims the Chinese are concealing the extent of their military spending - by fully half. The Chinese claim a $45-billion budget. The Australians have pegged it at $90-billion.
Now to put that number into perspective, the U.S. spends somewhere between $700-billion and a trillion dollars a year on its military. A good deal of that, however, is squandered on unnecessary development projects, sloppy accounting and cost overruns by Pentagon contractors. It's safe to assume the Chinese are as frugal with their money as the Americans are wasteful with theirs.
The real danger in China's military expansion may not come from how it actually uses its capability but how it is perceived by its neighbours:
''China's longer-term agenda is to develop 'comprehensive national power', including a strong military, that is in keeping with its view of itself as a great power,'' says a copy of the secret assessment provided by Foreign Affairs officials to the US embassy in Canberra.
''We agree that the trend of China's military modernisation is beyond the scope of what would be required for a conflict over Taiwan. Arguably China already poses a credible threat to modern militaries operating in the region and will present an even more formidable challenge as its modernisation continues.''
The Australian document goes on to warn that the pace of China's military build-up and ''the opacity of Beijing's intentions and programs'' was ''already altering the balance of power in Asia and could be a destabilising influence''.
The trouble with the arms race underway between India and China has always been multi-faceted. For example, the Chinese, fearful of containment by India, are expanding their influence in Pakistan and even advancing claims in Kashmir. This presents India with the prospect of facing China on two fronts. With the ascendancy of two rival, economic superpowers in the South Asia/Asia region, smaller countries are naturally left wondering how this will affect them and whether they should consider themselves threatened. Australia's concerns are legitimate but they have to be kept in check.