Last month, Hu Xijin, editor-in-chief of China’s state-owned Global Times newspaper, reported scary threat on his Twitter account: “I believe that once Australian troops travel to the Taiwan Strait to fight the PLA, there is a high probability that Chinese missiles will fly to military bases and key installations on the Australian soil in retaliation. ” This followed an earlier editorial he wrote in his own newspaper, titled “China must develop plan to deter extreme forces from Australia.”
This appears to be the first public (and rather high-profile) threat of Chinese military action against Australia. Hu’s threats received some coverage in Australia (and around the world), but were generally dismissed as the now unsurprising delusions of a provocateur tolerated by the Chinese government. Still, threats from Hu suggest that, as Australia’s relationship with China enters a new, more divisive era, Canberra is likely to be an increasingly frequent target of Chinese deterrence signals.
In a new report from RAND Corporation on Chinese Military Deterrence Signaling, we provide an analytical framework to help Australian, US and regional analysts and policymakers accurately interpret these types of statements, in order to distinguish the signal from the noise and respond to what matters. The impetus for this new report is the mark of Chinese Secretary General Xi Jinping’s new era: Beijing’s growing ambitions, increased military capabilities, and growing communication channels to send these signals, especially social media. Overall, we find that although China’s capabilities and communication channels have changed, its fundamental approach to signaling military deterrence as a form of political coercion has not changed.
We present a new framework to assess China’s willingness to use force across five factors: (1) the strategic context as a background, (2) the content of the signal, (3) the target audience, (4) ) authority and (5) scope. We also offer a simplified list of six questions as a quick guide for decision makers:
- Has China issued a statement at or above the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) or Ministry of National Defense (MDN) criticizing foreign action and warning of further provocations?
- Has China relayed consistent messages through trusted intermediaries, especially former officials?
- Has China engaged in several rounds of non-military signals through economic coercion, among other means?
- Has China carried out military redeployments or mobilized to bring its forces closer to the zone of tension?
- Has China carried out military exercises, especially joint exercises, near the zone of tension to demonstrate its capacity to continue the necessary operations?
- Has China carried out military capability tests in relation to its likely war plan for this scenario?
By applying our new RAND framework to understand Hu’s threats, it is clear that the Chinese government is not actually threatening to use force against Australia.
For factor 1, the strategic context, Beijing has not demonstrated its willingness to use military force to punish countries for simply discussing Taiwan’s defense, as Australian Defense Minister Peter Dutton did. and Prime Minister Scott Morrison. Indeed, Hu’s threats are formulated in a hypothetical future scenario, and not in military actions today.
For Factor 2, the content of the signal, Hu’s threats were not accompanied by other Chinese government statements or military actions that would actually reinforce this message. The Chinese Defense Ministry spokesman commented on May 27: âRecently the Australian side has taken a series of provocative actions, and some people have even instigated confrontation and exaggerated the threat of war on related issues. in Taiwan. Such actions are incredibly irresponsible. We express deep dissatisfaction and resolute opposition to this. Yet there is no real threat here, just criticism.
For Factor 3, the target audience, Hu’s editorial and tweet were obviously aimed at Australia, as they were written in English and were not widely repeated in the Chinese national media.
For Factor 4, the authority, while Hu Xijin is well known to foreign audiences for his character on Twitter, he and the Global Times do not actually represent the official views of the Chinese government. Instead, the Global Times is better understood to reflect, as Jessica Chen Weiss puts it, “the limits of acceptable political debate in China” (and even Hu can occasionally run into CCP censors).
For factor 5, the scope, Hu’s explicit threats were not amplified by other Chinese media and governments, reinforcing the assessment that his statements were more of an entrepreneurial message than a real deterrent signal from the Chinese government. .
Regarding our six-question quick guide, the only partial ‘yes’ answer is that China has engaged in several rounds of non-military signals, especially through economic coercion, against Australia since 2020. However, this has overtaken the growing number of Australian diplomats. disputes with China, including support for a more comprehensive international investigation into the origins of COVID-19, to which the CCP is extremely sensitive due to its potential to undermine the CCP’s legitimacy at home and abroad.
In sum, Hu Xijin’s threats are extremely unlikely to represent an authoritative Chinese deterrent signal for Australia today. This fits well with today’s basic reality: Despite Beijing’s scathing rhetoric on Taiwan issues, as the US Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Mark Milley, China recently testified, China is not really interested or able to successfully invade Taiwan in 2021. Overall, the most important point to take away from Hu’s threats is that they suggest that Beijing’s “Overton window” of the speech Acceptable Chinese policy towards Australia has changed to include the potential for military conflict, although such military planning has likely already taken place in private.
Going forward, however, Australia should consider how it will react to a more credible Chinese military deterrent signal. Canberra’s more active military role in the region, deteriorating relations with China, and closer cooperation with the United States – including public conversations about military cooperation in a possible eventuality of Taiwan – mean that the Potential hot spots with China will only increase in the years to come.