Australia is faces an increasingly novel external environment. For strategic policymakers this means discarding as much old thinking as possible in order to understand the contours of that future. Crucially, the policymaker also must remain cognisant that the sine qua non of strategic policy is the use of lethal armed force in international relations. At one end of that spectrum of violence lurks catastrophic war.
China’s expanding economy allows it to invest heavily in military capability. The further out we look the more profound will become the gap relative to Australia. This trend will continue to change the power relativities across Asia. According to the results of the Lowy Asia Power Index, Australia is expected to fall from sixth to thirteenth of the 25 largest regional nations on overall power by 2030. If the Index is an accurate projection, in just over a decade Australia will go from being a middle to a minor power.
A number of important considerations for Australia’s strategic policy settings flow from this. We must accept that it is an arithmetical truth that Australia will never have sufficient military strength to prevail in a conflict with China, whose military strength is growing at a factor many times that of Australia.
In relation to China, Australia needs to discard the strategic concepts that have outlived their contingent circumstances. Warning time is one. China’s military advantage over Australia will grow quantitatively and qualitatively as it invests heavily in the military application of robotics , artificial intelligence, space programs, naval shipbuilding, unmanned underwater vehicles and aircraft carrier production and in modernising its military-industrial complex.
The orthodox assumption that China would require a forward operating base ‘to launch a naval and airborne assault on Australia’ comes from an earlier time. China will soon be more than capable of blockading Australia ports, or launching stand-off missile and carrier-based air assaults on east coast targets, or bombing Australian cities.
The strategic concept ‘to defeat in detail an airborne and naval attack in the air sea gap and the maritime approaches to Australia’ also originates in past circumstances. At the time the Sea-Air Gap concept reflected Australia’s overwhelmingly military superior military in the immediate region, the response to Nixon’s Guam doctrine, and confidence the US would keep the USSR away.
Equally antiquated is US National Security Strategy’s attempt to elevate the strategic competition with China to the ideological equivalent of the Cold War. There is no sign of China wishing to impose socialism with Chinese characteristics on neighbouring states and since the end of the Chinese civil war the PLA has only engaged in a small number of border conflicts, apart from the Korean War, which was also on its border.
Clearly China is seeking hegemonic status in East Asia consistent with its economic and strategic weight. Yet its continued economic growth will depend on a global rules-based international financial and trading system, but without the liberal internationalist trimmings. In this China, like other states, will leverage all of its national assets in pursuit of its objectives. It is difficult to see Australia as a long term threat to those objectives.
Assumptions about national motivation and intent are normally relegated in strategic calculations to the consideration of comparative force structures, readiness, sustainability, and force posture. But where overwhelming discrepancies in military and economic power exists the largest states shape the system and the small states must rely on statecraft, diplomacy and alliances to survive and prosper. In any conflict between Australia and China, where the US could not or would not become involved, China would control the tempo, intensity, location and scale of hostilities.
This brings us to the submarines and the recent piece by Michael Keating and Jon Stanford. Michael and Jon judge that, ‘To move away from self-reliance, however, would constitute a major change in our defence policy and one that is dangerously at odds with the possibility that Australia would not be able to rely on American military support in the event of a future attack by a “major adversary”’.
They argue, ‘submarines are the classic assets by which a weaker power can level the playing field and prosecute asymmetric warfare in its defence’. The value of submarines comes from their capacity to ‘loiter outside enemy naval bases in order to attack warships and submarines, and also to patrol the archipelagic choke points to our north to prevent hostile forces from penetrating Australian waters’. Like much of the current discussion about defending Australia from China, their analysis is strangely silent on Chinese capabilities, the regional geography and the tactical difficulties.
According to the Pentagon, by 2020, the Chinese submarine force will be ‘between 69 and 78 submarines’ and include nuclear-powered attack submarines and 20 air-independent power attack submarines. If during a conflict China had no other demands on their forces, and Australia had all of its new submarines, it is still inconceivable Australian submarines could remain on station safely outside Qingdao, Ningbo, or Zhanjiang for any length of time.
Moreover, China’s submarine force, not to mention its surface fleet or bomber fleet, would pose a far greater threat to Australian shipping than vice versa. How would China react to the sinking of one of its vessels?
If an issue of contention arose that presented so grave a threat to Chinese national interests that it warranted a military assault on Australian territory or assets, then it is highly unlikely they would prosecute the attack by playing to Australia’s strengths. The depth and breadth of their growing military capabilities would provide them with a range of tactical options. Whatever counter Australia submarines might offer could be easily neutralised or avoided.
The real problem with the analysis provided by Michael and Jon is the proposition that it would make sense to plan on fighting China. Self-reliance has never meant being able to defeat all comers. There is strong justification for the ADF acquiring the capabilities suited to exercising sovereignty, securing borders, and projecting infrastructure and resources. Defending the maritime approaches against lesser capable regional powers should be a priority. But it must be obvious that successfully prosecuting a conflict with China is a delusion. And one that in the worst case could see large numbers of Australians die.
Australia’s national priority should be avoidance of war with China. That’s not to say the ADF should not be as capable and well equipped as Australia can afford. There are many roles for the ADF. But fighting China is not one.
Mike Scrafton is a former senior Defence executive, former CEO of a state statutory body, and former chief of staff and ministerial adviser to the minister for defence.