Three years ago, China's state media celebrated the fact that the Gillard Government's 2013 Defence White Paper did not consider China a military threat. Xinhua News Agency heralded it as a success of China's peaceful development strategy and evidence that the region was warming to China's growing influence.

It should come as little surprise, then, that the 2016 Defence White paper released last Thursday was less well-received. Nevertheless, the Chinese response was measured and rather low-key. Official channels have stopped short of directly denouncing the expansion of the Australian Defence Force (ADF) outlined in the White Paper.

During a press conference last Thursday, China's Ministry of Foreign Affairs expressed 'serious concern and strong dissatisfaction' with the White Paper's negative statements concerning the South China Sea and the development of China's military strength. Canberra was instructed to 'take a correct and positive view of China's strategic intentions'.

The Ministry of National Defence responded in a similar manner by firmly opposing any accusations concerning China's construction islands and reefs in the South China Sea. The Ministry maintained that 'the South China Sea matter is not an issue between China and Australia' and urged the military alliance between Canberra and Washington to 'abandon its Cold-War era mentality'.

Indeed, Australia's potential involvement in the South China Sea continues to be the most sensitive issue surrounding the 2016 White Paper. Foreign Minister Julie Bishop was reprimanded by the state-aligned tabloid Global Times for her remarks in Tokyo last month, and her comments that China should respect international law concerning the South China Sea were dismissed as 'irresponsible' and 'hypocritical'.

Along with the US and Japan, Beijing considers Australia a 'country outside the region' which should not interfere in issues pertaining to the South China Sea. Beijing is insistent that the disputes must be resolved between claimant states alone. Freedom of navigation operations by the US Navy and attempts by Tokyo to insert itself into the matter are branded as provocative and detrimental to regional stability.

Recently, there has been a ramp up in rhetoric concerning how Beijing should respond to this foreign 'provocation'. The establishment of a Chinese Air Defence Identification Zone over the disputed islands and reefs has even been suggested. Though Beijing's rhetoric is primarily aimed at the US and Japan, Australia has not been entirely exempt. An editorial published in Global Times last December warned in a less-than-subtle way that 'it would be terrible shame if an aircraft crashed while on patrol over the South China Sea, and it happened to be Australian'. 

Concerning the expansion of the ADF, state media tended to focus on the decision to increase the Royal Australian Navy's submarine force from 6 to 12 submarines.

State-owned news outlets have previously weighed in on the Australian submarine debate. An article published by Xinhua last November argued that Australia should choose France or Germany as a design partner over Japan and condemned Tokyo's move to push into the international weapons market. In resisting Japanese pressure, Canberra was even praised for its professional 'politics is politics, and business is business' attitude.

It would appear that China does not take issue with Australia's acquisition of submarines per se. Instead, Beijing is primarily concerned with what it perceives as Tokyo's growing military ambitions in the region. The selling of military technology and defence equipment is reported as evidence of Japanese remilitarisation and an ultimate attempt to contain China.

The delay in announcing a submarine design partner has thus tempered the Chinese response to the 2106 White Paper. In the event that Japan wins the bid for design partner, however, Beijing's rhetoric would likely remain centred on denouncing Tokyo's ambitions rather than opposing the submarines themselves.

All other aspects of the ADF's expansion and increased funding over the next decade received little attention. This suggests that Beijing is less interested in the specific capabilities that Australia is developing, and more concerned with the direction of Australia's strategic posture.

One researcher from the Chinese Academy of Social Sciences, quoted in People's Daily, argued that 'the Australian government has stepped up its efforts to follow through with the Asia-Pacific rebalancing strategy of the United States'. Other reports were similarly alarmed that Australian defence policy was aligning itself closely with the rebalancing strategy, which is interpreted as an attempt to contain China's rise.

But an article in The People's Liberation Army Daily also noted the success of Canberra's hedging strategy thus far. Both the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Ministry of Defence supported the White Paper's statement that 'Australia welcomes China's rapid development and its important role in upholding regional and global stability'. 

For Beijing' narrative of a peaceful rise, it will be important to demonstrate that states in the region can successfully balance security partnership with the US and economic cooperation with China. Australia is an important example of this, but it is a narrative that will be further challenged as many of China's neighbours continue to enhance military coordination with the US.

Photo courtesy of Australian Defence Image Library.