Battles, campaigns, and wars

Aug 26, 2019

The United States Studies Centre’s latest publication, Averting Crisis: American strategy, military spending and collective defence in the Indo-Pacific, contrary to its title, offers up a path to crisis. While the report draws attention to the fading of the previously unchallengeable military dominance of the US, the recommendations for Australia are flawed.

Averting Crisis reiterates the US’s National Security Strategy and the National Defense Strategy views of China and Russia as rising strategic competitors. It highlights the shift in the mission of the US military’s from being prepared to fight two middle level regional wars to being able to ‘comprehensively defeat one great power adversary’. The report’s premise is that the Pentagon is unlikely to meet its new mission.

The report references the National Defense Strategy Commission and RAND to support its own conclusion that China’s military modernisation has ‘irrevocably undermined America’s military primacy in the Indo-Pacific’. National Defense Strategy Commission’s has argued that ‘America’s military superiority—the hard-power backbone of its global influence and national security—has eroded to a dangerous degree’. While a RAND has warned ‘that U.S. forces could, under plausible assumptions, lose the next war they are called upon to fight’.

Decades of war in the Middle East are said to have led to overstretch of the US military resulting in underinvestment in the capabilities required for great power conflict. Looming fiscal constraints will exacerbate the problem. Another obstacle to rebuilding is ‘America’s superpower mindset’ causing policymakers in Washington cling to the view the United States is ‘sufficiently endowed in economic and military strength to not have to make strategic trade-offs’.

To depict the change in relative military strength as being irrevocable is a big call. The US massively outspends China in defence investment. While there is little that is factually new in the analysis, the conclusion that ‘Australia should be deeply concerned about the state of America’s armed forces and strategic predicament in the Indo-Pacific’ is justified. Hugh White has ably argued in How to Defend Australia that Australian policymakers face difficult options as a result.

The report focusses on forestalling China’s employment of ‘limited force to achieve a fait accompli victory before America can respond; and challenging US security guarantees in the process’. This would take the form of a pre-emptive military action by China ‘particularly around Taiwan, the Japanese archipelago or maritime Southeast Asia’.

However, it’s hard to imagine China would act recklessly for short term gain simply because it has ‘the coercive leverage it would need to quickly seize coveted territory or overturn other aspects of the status quo’. There is no basis for this call. Far more significant national interests would need to be at stake before China risked a war in East Asia. Moreover, it is a serious mistake to believe that if threatened China would not initially act with maximum force.

The national interest of Australia and the US are conflated and the report assumes simplistically that Indo-Pacific region nations, many of which are contiguous with China, will align with Australia’s with regard to China. This delusion underpins first and most significant recommendation that Australia ‘Pursue capability aggregation and collective deterrence in the Indo-Pacific with regional allies and partners’.

The report therefore places emphasis on ‘a strategy of collective defence’, especially incorporating Australia, Japan and the US. The recent eruption of tensions between South Korea and Japan undermine this notion of a collective view. With alarming equanimity, the report says this would transform Australia’s ‘strategic identity from that of a security contributor to frontline ally’ of the US and ‘would place Australia into a more adversarial relationship with China’. This would be a momentous step. China would not sit passively bye and at a minimum there would be economic repercussions for Australia.

The report fails to consider the consequences for Australia of openly planning for war with China. If China has malign intentions and the US strength is irreversibly waning, as the report argues persuasively, there are serious risks inherent in a situation where Australia provides some sort of guarantee of Japan’s security. Japan also might have some reservations about the reliability in a crisis of an ally far removed from any theatre located on East Asia.

The real problem with the report, though, is that it falls for the trap of not thinking beyond some preparatory moves. Protagonists in a conflict often find it difficult to extricate themselves once it commences. The first phase of such a conflict would not be the so-call fait accompli move. China would seek to impose enormous attrition on Australian and Japanese forces. Much of Japan’s industrial and defence sustainability infrastructure, and the US’s forward forces hit very hard. However, this would just be the first battle.

The US would not be out of the war, still retaining massive military and economic resources out of theatre. Politically and psychologically the US could not accept a status quo that excludes them from the Western Pacific. A war would be highly destructive and prolonged, it might involve other powers on both sides of the conflict. It might spread beyond East Asia. That is, it easily could become a global war.

Averting Crisis misunderstands the problem therefore it labours under the illusion that the answer to China is revamped military strategies to deal with the changing military relativities in East Asia. Yet there can be no rational solution to future regional security architectures and strategic relationships, the real challenge, that involves conflict. The search for security through confrontation and containment has a poor record.

There would be no winning for Australia. No victory for the tens of millions of dead, displaced, and impoverished in Asia and Australia. At its conclusion China would still be there. The problem is how to avoid war not prepare for it. Chasing the elusive gaol of peace through war is just foolish.

Mike Scrafton was a Deputy Secretary in the Victorian Department of Sustainability and Environment, senior Defence executive, CEO of a state statutory body, and chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.

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