The dispute in the South China Sea should not, legitimately, involve Australia. We are only involved because we have such close military ties with the United States. War between the US and China is not inevitable, but dangerous, military escalation is taking place. If hostilities break out, the war will be on our doorstep.
Over recent months, the Australian public has heard a lot about the South China Sea (SCS). We have learned of the activities of the Chinese in reclaiming land, the construction of airstrips and the possibility that weapons systems are being established. Reports in the mainstream media describe China’s action as ‘aggressive’. China is routinely portrayed as operating beyond the norms of acceptable behaviour.
In response, the USA proposes conducting freedom of navigation operations (FONOPs). Australia has been urged to join in these operations, by senior US and domestic military figures and by Senator Stephen Conroy (ALP). The reason given for considering this tactic is that China might threaten the free flow of shipping in the SCS, making it necessary for that freedom be exercised, overtly, by military vessels.
FONOPs would involve sailing warships close to territory that China is claiming as her own. They would actually be highly provocative, military actions. If Australia were to join them, it would be tantamount to declaring enmity towards China. Thankfully, Australia has not yet taken that step.
Why is Australia involved?
China is Australia’s major trading partner. But a quick look at the shipping routes between Australia and China shows that our trade does not pass through the SCS, passing instead to the East of the Philippines – far from the contentious area. The dispute over the islands in the SCS is between China and the Philippines. Australia has no legitimate part in it.
Shipping lanes through the SCS are China’s lifeline. All sea-born trade between China, the Far East, the Middle East, Africa and Europe passes through it. There is no way that China would ever want access restricted in any way. The idea that China might do something to damage freedom of maritime movement there is nonsense. A blockade of the SCS only makes sense as a stratagem of war, if some (unnamed) power sought to harm China by cutting off her trade-routes.
The idea that China might restrict the movement of shipping does not stand scrutiny. An alternative explanation is needed.
In 1996, there were tensions between China and Taiwan. In a high-handed action, the United States sailed an aircraft carrier through the Taiwan Straits. No doubt the incident gave the Chinese pause for thought. It may well have caused them to make sure that they would be safe from any future aggression from the sea.
For, in the years since, as became clear to the Pentagon, China’s ‘anti-access/area denial’ (A2/AD) capability advanced considerably. Through the early 2000’s the Pentagon discovered that China’s A2/AD had progressed so far that the US might not have total freedom of military movement in China’s coastal zone. Sailing through the Taiwan Straits might no longer be done with impunity.
The Pentagon, unable to countenance any rivalry to its superior might, had to devise an appropriate response. Plans started to be drawn up, internally. In 2009, Secretary of Defense Robert Gates instructed the Chiefs of Staff to begin work on the ‘Air Sea Battle’ (ASB) project. At first this was just an idea, a concept for overcoming the challenges posed by China’s A2/AD.
ASB calls for “interoperable air and naval forces that can execute networked, integrated attacks-in-depth to disrupt, destroy and defeat enemy A2/AD”. The hypothetical battle begins with launching a “blinding attack” against A2/AD facilities – including command and control nodes on the Chinese mainland.
ASB took on a life of its own, to the extent that the Pentagon, realising that it lacked sufficient hardware to put the concept into operation, began placing orders. Through a gradual, creeping process, ASB has moved from concept to strategy. It has now become so established in the minds of Pentagon staff that the situation has been reached in which a 2013 article in the Yale Journal of International Affairs opens with the words “The Pentagon has concluded that the time has come to prepare for war with China.”
Meanwhile the Chinese, aware of the existence of the ASB project, would have considered how best they might respond. The military escalation has been going on now for years.
In November 2011, President Obama and Prime Minister Gillard announced the ‘Pivot to the Asia-Pacific’. It is clearly aimed at ‘containing’ China militarily and is part of the US’s ‘grand strategy’. China’s construction work on islands in the SCS accelerated after the announcement of the pivot.
So China’s actions in the SCS can be easily understood. Faced with ASB and the ‘pivot’, China’s important trade links are vulnerable to a blockade. China was constrained to do its utmost to protect and defend them. Her construction of military installations can best be understood as purely defensive actions and not the aggressive actions portrayed in the mainstream media.
This is not to apologise for China’s actions. She is playing the same dangerous, bully-boy game as the US, in a manner that could very easily escalate into open hostility. In the process, neighbouring countries (e.g. the Philippines) have become ‘collateral damage’.
Where does Australia stand?
We have no trade connection with the SCS. We do, however, have a very deep, almost complete, military integration with the US. Despite the outcomes of wars fought alongside the US, Australia’s military establishment is incapable of questioning the value of the US alliance, or of asking whether Australia couldn’t look after its own defence. Successive White Papers confirm this.
Since 2012 we have had US marines routinely stationed in Darwin; the most important control and communications facility outside the North American continent, in Pine Gap; ‘protection’ under the US’s ‘nuclear umbrella’. All of this under the ANZUS Treaty, which does not guarantee the US protecting Australia, in any case.
Should there be hostilities between the US and China over the disputed islands in the SCS, China must view Australia as a military foe. And, in such a scenario, we would be ‘in for it’. Unlike other wars, fought far from home territory, this war would be on our doorstep. For the first time since WW2, Australian civilians might not be safe.
The situation is made all the more dire by a recent RAND Corporation report, which dwells on the relative strengths of the US and China. The report considers four, possible war scenarios, concluding that the US would emerge the ‘victor’ in each of them, with varying costs suffered. However, the costs to the US would be much greater in 2025 than they might have been in 2015, meaning that going to war sooner rather than later might be advantageous.
War between the US and China is not inevitable but it is an extremely serious possibility. Australian involvement pertains because of our alliance with the US. As Malcolm Fraser made clear, our alliance automatically makes every enemy of the US an enemy of Australia.
A truly independent Australia would not find itself in the position we currently occupy.
Nick Deane is a retired public servant and a concerned citizen. He is currently active with the Independent Peaceful Australia Network (IPAN). He is a member of the Co-ordinating Committee of IPAN, which is currently planning its third annual conference in Alice Springs – to mark the 50th anniversary of the establishment of Pine Gap.